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Each of these attacks were war crimes, involving the use of a banned weapon; the fact that noncombatants were often the victims added to the offence.

By our estimate, in Anfal at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 persons, many of them women and children, were killed out of hand between February and September 1988.

As Iraqi government troops fell back in the face of advancing allied troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, returning along with civilian refugees from the Turkish and Iranian borders, it became evident that Baghdad's long-standing ban on access to the Kurdish region by independent investigators had been broken -- by force majeure.

How long the window of opportunity would stay open no one could predict. For the Iraqi Kurds, their future as an often-threatened minority as well as their lives are at risk.

Rather, these Kurds were systematically put to death in large numbers on the orders of the central government in Baghdad -- days, sometimes weeks, after being rounded-up in villages marked for destruction or else while fleeing from army assaults in "prohibited areas".

While a minority had been combatants, or else served as a "backing force" for the rebel parties, the vast majority of the dead were noncombatants whose death resulted from the fact that they inhabited districts declared off-limits by the Iraqi government.

Two government instruments -- the October 1987 national census and the declaration of "prohibited areas", covering more and more of the Kurdish countryside like a crazy-patterned quilt -- were institutional foundations of this policy.

These instruments were implemented against the background of nearly two decades of government-directed "Arabization", in which mixed-race districts, or else lands that Baghdad regarded as desirable or strategically important, saw their Kurdish population diluted by Arab migrant farmers provided with ample incentives to relocate, and guarded by government troops.

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The logic of the Anfal, however, cannot be divorced either from the Iran-Iraq War.

Although there is persuasive evidence that virtually all are dead, whether the fate of the many tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians "disappeared" by government forces during 1988 can be definitively settled anytime soon remains to be seen.

Much depends on the future course of internal Iraqi politics.

While many readers will be familiar with the attack on Halabja, in March 1988, in which up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians died -- the incident caused a brief international furor -- they may be surprised to learn that the first use of poison gas against the Kurds by the central government occurred eleven months earlier.

All told, Middle East Watch has recorded forty separate attacks on Kurdish targets, some of them involving multiple sorties over several days, between April 1987 and August 1988.

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