ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - A genocidal campaign under Saddam Hussein against Iraq’s Kurds must never be forgotten, officials said on Monday at a ceremony for 371 victims, whose grieving relatives demanded those responsible be put to death.
Up to 180,000 people may have been killed as chemical gas was used, villages were razed and thousands of Kurds were forced into camps during the 1988 Anfal, or “Spoils of War”, campaign.
Kurdish and Iraqi political leaders gathered for the solemn ceremony as 371 flag-draped coffins were laid out in neat rows in a large commercial warehouse in Arbil in semi-autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq’s north.
The wooden coffins contained the remains of Kurds found in four mass graves near the northern cities of Mosul, Dahuk and Sulaimaniya and the southern city of Samawa since 2004.
All have since been identified and will be reburied in a cemetery in Sulaimaniya on Wednesday.
“This ceremony makes us feel pain and happiness at the same time,” Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani told the ceremony.
“We feel pain because we find ourselves in front of the bodies of innocent victims and happy because they are back to the homes of their fathers and grandfathers,” he said.
Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, former Defence Minister Sultan Hashem and former army commander Hussein Rashid Muhammad have been convicted of genocide over the Anfal campaign and remain in U.S. military custody awaiting execution.
Majeed, widely known as “Chemical Ali”, has also gone on trial for his role in crushing a Shi‘ite rebellion in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.
Majeed, Hashem and Muhammad are being held while officials squabble over who has authority to transfer them for execution despite an appeals court upholding the death sentence last September and ordering that it be carried out within 30 days.
The U.S. military has said it will not hand them over until the Iraqi government resolves the dispute.
“We want to execute ‘Chemical Ali’ and everyone involved and we want to say to the people who object to the executions that you are wrong,” Kamal Mahmoud, whose two nephews were killed during Anfal, told Reuters.
Sewah Hassan, a 26-year-old woman who said she lost her mother and two sisters, including an infant, agreed.
“We remember the suffering and injustice ... we feel neglected by the Iraqi and the Kurdish governments,” she said.
Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, a Kurd, said the ceremony was another step in Iraq’s liberation.
“There are some voices who doubt that, but the bodies of these victims remind us that (Iraq‘s) liberation was done legally and pushed us to investigate the ex-regime’s crimes.”
Masoud Barzani, who along with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani laid a floral wreath at the foot of one coffin draped in the red, white, green and yellow flag of Kurdistan, described the 371 victims remembered on Monday as martyrs.
“The next generation must know what happened in the Anfal crimes and know what gains we have made today,” he said.
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Richard Balmforth