Intervention Necessary

Following the defeat inflicted on the Iraqi Army by Coalition forces in the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish population in the north (at the same time as the Shi'ite population in the south) seized the opportunity to rise in revolt against the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein. Unsuprisingly, the dictator was not popular with the Kurds (who have an entirely different culture, language and so on to Arabic Iraqis), due to Husseins intense personal dislike of them. This is most clearly illustrated in the gassing of Kurdish towns and villages in 1988, in response to Kurdish support for Iran (during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War). Kurds have been fighting for their independence for decades, although constantly opposed by both Iraq and Turkey, which both fear the creation of a new state. It is therefore not suprising that the 1991 uprising took place when the Kurds saw how weakened Iraq had become during the war.

The Kurds were also actively encouraged to revolt by the American president at the time, George Bush Snr. However, Bush also gave permission for Iraqi forces in the north to use attack helicopters if so desired. Of course, the helicopters were promptly used against the Kurds. The rebels stood no chance, and the uprising was quickly put down.

Although unsuccessful in forming an independent state in 1991, thousands of refugees, not only Kurdish, had been displaced by the Iraqi army. Many towns were deserted, only occupied by secret police and soldiers. Nothern Iraq was ruled with an iron fist, the residents living in constant fear of arrest, interrogation, torture and execution. There was also the constant fear of another chemical or biological attack on the towns, as the injuries suffered then and the resulting deformities and illnesses served as reminders of the lengths Saddam was prepared to go to to suppress the troublesome north.

The international community recognised the extreme need for humanitarian aid in Iraq at this time. Refugees had to be brought down from the mountains, returned to their homes and provided for, as well as being protected from the large police and military presence in the area. There was concern at an international level that Saddam would once again turn against the Kurds and the other tribes in Northern Iraq as a last, desperate act of revenge. Military intervention was deemed necessary.

A Helping Hand

It was decided on April 17, 1991, that around 6' 000 troops would take part in "Operation Safe Haven", with the task of safeguarding the people of Northern Iraq from possible persecution and providing humanitarian aid. The troops involved would be primarily British, but would also include 1' 000 troops from the Netherlands. It would involve substantial numbers from the RAF and the British Army, but the bulk of the force was to be provided by 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines (3 Cdo RM), minus 42 Cdo RM (one of the three Commando formations which make up the brigade). An arrangement with the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps (RNMC) meant that 400 Dutch marines were also included in the brigade for the purpose of this deployment (1st battalion RNMC is attached to 3 Cdo brigade for NATO assigned tasks). The British Marines were ideally specialised for this task, being assigned to protect NATO's northern flank (i.e. Norway) and therefore being highly trained mountain troops. The Mountain and Artic Warfare Cadre (M & AW Cadre) is also part of 3 Cdo, the members of which are all Marines who have volunteered for and successfully passed an extremely strenuous course in mountain and arctic operations.

The advance party for the operation left from RAF Brize Norton (the largest RAF base in the UK, about 22 miles west of Oxford) on the 20th of April. The troops initially landed at Diyarbakir in Turkey, and then moved to an American tented camp at Silopi, near the Iraq/Syria border. The advance party, consisting of men from 40 Cdo RM, was attached to Task Force Alpha, which mainly consisted of the US 10th Special Forces Group.

Whilst originally little could be done except drop vital supplies (food, water, shelter etc) into the various refugee camps by C-130 aircraft, when the troops initially earmarked for military protection of the refugees became involved in the running of relief operations, more progress could be made.

Reconnaissance of the area was carried out before the bulk of the troops arrived, and it was found that there was only one major concentration of refugees in the immediate vicinity, at a place called Yasilova. Whilst the M & AW cadre began to help these refugees, part of 45 Cdo had crossed the border into Iraq and set up headquarters in the town of Zakho. Civilians had deserted this town, Iraqi police and soldiers the only occupants. The rest of the Commando joined the HQ over the next four days and began patrolling north into the hills around the town to help return refugees to their homes. The task then switched to within Zakho, the Marines patrolling the streets "Northern Ireland style" to reassure the population, and to identify police, secret police or army barracks to eject the occupants in order to make the ordinary people feel safe in their own streets. Thousands of refugees returned to their homes in Zakho over the following days, and 45 Cdo established control over an area of 1' 000 square kilometres of Iraq.

Meanwhile 40 Cdo pushed east of Zakho, into the first large valley south of the Turkish border, to set up a reception area for refugees coming down out of the mountains. Refugees were directed from camps on the Turkish border into the valley, where new camps emerged, and many refugees elected to move towards Kakho as it was a safe area, or to the south of the town as 45 Cdo enlarged their area of control. Marines of 40 Cdo positioned on the refugees' route south helped to improve the road surfaces as best they could, as many thousands were to pass the same way in the following weeks.

The setting up of camps and headquarters, escorting of refugees etc all took place under observation from remaining Iraqi army positions. However, it was made clear that threats from the Iraqi military on the Kurdish people would not be tolerated, and mostly the operation was carried out without interference. Occasionally, British forces were fired upon, but the response would be so sudden and devastating that mostly they were left well alone.

Once the Iraqi military began a withdrawal from the area on a large scale, refugees began leaving their camps en masse, for example from one camp at the rate of 7' 000 per day. The Kurdish people were not the only ones displaced by Saddam's regime, and troops involved in Operation Safe Haven also found themselves helping other tribes (such as the Barwali) to resettle their villages. B Company (B Coy) 40 Cdo RM was also involved in the search for three missing BBC journalists, who had disappeard in March. B Coy recovered two bodies and some belongings of the journalists in a remote area of northern Iraq. Although some belongings of the third journalist were found nearby, the last body was never found.

The Least We Could Do

It took just 58 days for the task of returning the thousands of refugees from the mountains of northern Iraq and neighbouring Turkey to their rightful homes to be completed. It became clear during the course of this operation just how frightened the Kurdish people were of the Iraqi regime, needing reassurance every step of the way that the secret police had been removed from the area. However, although best efforts were made, it was impossible to guarantee the capture and removal of every single secret policeman in northern Iraq. The soldiers involved in escorting the refugees were struck by how overtly grateful the people were to them for their help, another indicator of how the brutality of the regime had affected them.

Operation Safe Haven succeeded in ending the suffering of the refugees in northern Iraq, as they were returned to their homes and provided with food, water, shelter and sanitation. The spread of disease in the cramped conditions of the mountain camps was halted, and it can be realistically said that this undertaking saved many Kurdish lives. As a limited objective humanitarian operation, Safe Haven was a complete success, and remains a model for the future.

It is, however, a pity that the Kurdish people had to endure 12 more years of the same regime as existed before this operation, before their greatest threat was removed from power once and for all.


Major General (retd.) Thompson, Julian: "The Royal Marines: From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force" (2000)
Ladd, James D.: "By Sea By Land: The Authorised History of the Royal Marine Commandos" (1997)

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