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"There Should Be No Life”: Environmental Perspectives on Genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan

Dr. Ariel Ahram is Co-Director of Crisis Response Council and a Professor at Virginia Tech School of Public & International Affairs

This article, published in the Journal of Genocide Research, examines the natural environment during the Kurdish genocide in northern Iraq. The genocide killed between 50,000 and 180,000 people and destroyed some 4,500 Kurdish villages from the 1960s to 1980s, reach peak violence during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). The paper uses American, British, and Iraqi archival documents to analyse how the violence affected the natural landscape and how ecological conditions constrained the violence. Iraqi leaders regarded dams and other modes of environmental engineering as levers to facilitate agricultural modernization and social integration. Protecting and projecting hydraulic power justified greater military exertion. Iraqi leaders, frustrated by the lack of progress in development and hostile to the claims of Kurdish nationalism, resorted to more coercive options to combat guerrillas. But the inadequacies of military exertion prompted the government to redouble efforts to tame unruly nature and those who dwelled in it. This escalation contributed significantly to the lethal violence against rural Kurdish society. At a theoretical level, these findings highlight the troubling ways in which policies aimed to improve environmental conditions fold into campaigns of mass violence.

The article also adds to understanding of violence in Iraq, showing how Iraq’s attempts to use environmental engineering for development intersected with security concerns and ethnic marginalization to create more intensive repression.

Click here to read the article in the Journal of Genocide Research.

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