Why the U.S. is Safeguarding Iraq’s War Criminals


“A man of honor and dignity.”

— General David Petraeus’ characterization of former Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashem al-Tai, convicted of crimes against humanity for his participation in the genocide of Iraq’s Kurds, resulting in 180,000 deaths.

It comes as no surprise that to this day, the war criminals “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majid, Sultan Hashem al-Tai and Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti remain in the safekeeping of the United States. In June, all three were sentenced to death for their role in Saddam Hussein’s notorious 1988 extermination campaign against the Kurds, dubbed the Anfal or “Spoils of War” Operation. Their final appeals were rejected by the Iraqi courts and the deadline requiring them to be executed no more than 30 days afterward has long since passed.

But the United States refuses to hand them over.

Meanwhile the three, along with 12 other co-conspirators, are currently on trial for their involvement in the wholesale slaughter of Iraq’s Shia population during the 1991 Uprising or Intifada.

Whether it was images of women and children frozen in time by Saddam’s use of chemical weapons in Halabja during Anfal or the silent testimony of dozens of unearthed mass graves in southern Iraq, even the war’s most ardent critics never denied the brutality of the Ba’ath regime.

Yet, it was the United States who betrayed the Kurds in 1988 when billows of gases from chemical weapons flooded their streets, and it was the United States who betrayed the Shia in 1991 when civilians were butchered en masse, and it is the United States who continues to betray Iraq today by sheltering the perpetrators of these very same war crimes, carried out under their watch.

It was President Reagan after all who happily provided Saddam with the chemical weapons he used against Iranian soldiers during the bloody Iran-Iraq war and turned a blind-eye when he used them against the Kurds. The Anfal campaign ultimately led to the razing of 4,000 villages in northern Iraq and an estimated 180,000 deaths. This genocidal undertaking is well-known to most Western audiences.

Less appreciated however, were the crimes committed in southern Iraq during the 1991 Uprising and the United States complicity in them. A popular revolt was launched there after the defeat and expulsion of the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. Occurring during the Islamic lunar month of Shaban, it is also known as al-Shabaniyya Intifada and was called for by President George Bush Sr. himself on February 15, 1991:

“There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: and that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside”

From March 1 to April 5, 1991, the Iraqi people heeded the call, mistakenly thinking the United States was genuinely interested in removing Saddam from power.

The March 3, 1991 ceasefire signed by one General Sultan Hashem al-Tai at the end of the Gulf War prohibited the use of fixed-wing aircraft but did not explicitly bar the use of helicopter gunships. And it was these gunships which were instrumental in allowing Saddam to decisively put down the rebellion. Prior to this, 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces had already fallen and were outside his control.

The Republican Guard used these helicopters along with tanks and other heavy artillery in the indiscriminate killing and massacre of anywhere between 60,000 ­ 180,000 Iraqis, rebel and civilian alike, primarily in the Shia-majority south. Men were rounded up and summarily executed, Shia religious sites were desecrated and napalm and white phosphorus bombs rained over cities and villages. The result was the forced displacement of 2 million people, many of whom were gunned down as they fled into the southern marches or neighboring countries.

All this while the United States stood by and watched.

According to US Army Officer Thomas Isom:

“We were watching them shell the train station and other small houses. This was simply designed to kill civilians or terrorize them, which it did. It did not have a military purpose, just artillery impacts on large concentrations of civilians.”

(Human Rights Watch Report, Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq and Its Aftermath, 1992).

As much as the United States claimed to loathe Saddam, their real fear was actually Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and the perceived threat his Iranian Revolution posed to neighboring Gulf Arab countries, whose oil and subservient leaders were treasured assets. This is why both the Arabs and the United States backed Saddam in his war, and Iraq’s Kurds and Shia (the latter erroneously regarded as a fifth column loyal to Iran) paid the price.

Nearly two decades later, those who masterminded the brutal crackdowns and subsequently convicted of crimes against humanity for them, remain safe in the protective custody of the Americans. Although the infamous Chemical Ali is unlikely to escape the hangman’s noose, the United States and many Sunni Arab Iraqis are objecting to the execution of General Sultan al-Tai, who proclaimed his innocence by stating he was only “following orders.”

Some allege that in his capacity as defense minister during the March 2003 invasion he ordered the Iraqi Army to lay low, paving the way for a quick victory. In addition, it is feared his execution might alienate Iraq’s Sunni Arab community where he is still held in high regard. Indeed it is this very community that is now being armed in inverse proportion to the strength of al-Qaeda in Iraq. As the war drums beat louder against Iran, does the United States also want to spare someone of al-Tai’s stature so that he might reprise his military role, possibly leading the Sunnis in a future fight against Iraq’s Shia-dominated–and Iran-friendly–government?

Many regard the trials of Ba’ath party officials illegitimate for being held under an imposed occupation. This perception is misplaced. The real illegitimacy of these trials is how war criminals can be so easily protected from punishment by the same people who armed and watched them carry out their abhorrent acts, not even flinching while they did so.

Yet one more betrayal of the Iraqi people to pile atop the bodies of so many others.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri@yahoo.com.


Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.