Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Halabja - Lest We Forget

The 18th anniversary passed recently of one of the most terrible atrocities against civilians since the end of the Second World War. On March 16, 1988 the news came that thousands of people had been killed and many more injured in a poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, in northern Iraq. Up to 20 aircraft, including Iraqi Migs and Mirages, were seen overhead at around 1100 local time in Halabja. The chemicals dropped may have included mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX and possibly cyanide.

Halabja has been cited several times by supporters of the US and British government's war on Iraq, and it should quite rightly form part of any trial of Saddam Hussein. Yet at the time of the attack, Western governments had largely been backing Iraq. US intelligence and military disinformation efforts sought to cast the blame on Iran, while some British Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials claimed not to have any proof the atrocity had taken place!

This year sees the 60 th anniversary of the first short-lived attempt at a Kurdish state, the "Mahabad republic" formed by Kurds in northern Iran reinforced by Mulla Mustafa Barzani's followers from northern Iraq. With the withdrawal of Soviet forces that had entered Iran during the war, the Shah's army regained control and crushed the rebellion. Barzani retreated at first into Iraq, then took his followers on a long march into exile in the Soviet Union. With Turkey a member of NATO, and the Baghdad Pact's extension of this strategic alliance along the Soviet Union's southern flank, the Kurds and their aspirations were supressed from Western governments' memory except when useful for playing against Iraq. Now the Kurdish Cinderella has apparently been found a place at the nation's ball, though we wonder for how long. Freedom does not extend to Turkish Kurds, and as we see below, all is not yet well in Iraq Kurdistan, though the British government thinks it fine to deport Kurdish asylum seekers there.

During Iraq's war with Iran, Jamal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) entered an alliance with Khomeini's Iran fight Saddam Hussein. At the end of February, 1988, Iraqi forces were ruing their initial confidence in the war on Iran, and decided to step up the "war on the cities" with missile attacks on Teheran, hoping to force Iran to negotiate, if not immediately, by provoking its armies to become extended and luring them into a trap. This account is based on one published by Human Rights Watch on genocide in Kurdistan.

Halabja was a busy Kurdish town with business and government offices, its peacetime population swollen by villagers forced from their homes. The Kurdish peshmerga had been strong in the area for almost thirty years, and besides Talabani's PUK there were clandestine political parties active--including Socialists, Communists and the pro-Iranian Islamic Movement Party (Bizutnaway Islami Eraqi). As a reprisal against support for the peshmerga, Iraqi troops had bulldozed two entire quarters of the town, Kani Ashqan and Mordana, in May 1987. Since 1983, Iranian troops had made night reconnaissance sorties into Halabja. It lies just seven miles east of Darbandikhan Lake, whose dam controls a significant part of the water supply to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Iraqi intelligence, assisted by CIA aerial reconnaissance photographs, had noted a build up of Iranian pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and PUK peshmerga. On March 13, Teheran radio announced that a new offensive named Zafar 7 had been launched in the Halabja area, in retaliation for the Iraqi regime's recent chemical attacks on the Kurds. A second attack, apparently coordinated, followed the next day. This was called Bait al-Maqdis 4, and the Iranians claimed that it had taken their forces within twelve miles of Suleimaniyeh.

Halabja had been subjected to three days of Iranian shelling from the surrounding hills, beginning on March 13. One by one, the small Iraqi military posts between Halabja and the border were routed, and their occupants pulled back to the safety of the town. The Baghdad regime did not reinforce Halabja with large numbers of ground troops. It had other plans.

Some Iranian pasdaran had reportedly entered Halabja as early as March 13. By the night of March 15 they were openly parading through the streets, accompanied by Iraqi Kurds, greeting the townspeople and chanting "God is Great! Khomeini is our leader!" They billeted themselves on local Kurdish families and ordered them to prepare dinner. Some rode around Halabja on motorcycles; others were very young, barely teenagers, and carried only sticks and knives. Many also carried gas masks. They asked bewildered people in the streets how far it was to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Militants of the Iraqi Islamic Movement did a victory dance outside the headquarters of Amn and the Istikhbarat building, which they took over for themselves. But among the townspeople as a whole there was grave apprehension, especially when public employees were ordered on March 15 to evacuate their posts.

The Iraqi counterattack began in the mid-morning of March 16, with conventional airstrikes and artillery shelling. Most families in Halabja had built primitive air-raid shelters near their homes. Some crowded into these, others into the government shelters, following the standard air-raid drills they had been taught since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus.

"It was different from the other bombs. There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire."

The raids continued unabated for several hours.
"It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come."

The planes came in low enough for their markings to be seen, so people on the street could see they were Iraqi planes. About 3pm people in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was.

The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases--although these, by now, had been abandoned. In the shelters, there was immediate panic and claustrophobia. Some tried to plug the cracks around the entrance with damp towels, or pressed wet cloths to their faces, or set fires. But in the end they had no alternative but to emerge into the streets. It was growing dark and there were no streetlights; the power had been knocked out the day before by artillery fire. In the dim light, the people of Halabja could see nightmarish scenes. Dead bodies--human and animal--littered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of their cars.

Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically, before collapsing. Iranian soldiers flitted through the darkened streets, dressed in protective clothing, their faces concealed by gas masks. Those who fled could barely see, and felt a sensation "like needles in the eyes." Their urine was streaked with blood.
Those who had the strength fled toward the Iranian border. A freezing rain had turned the ground to mud, and many of the refugees went barefoot. Those who had been directly exposed to the gas found that their symptoms worsened as the night wore on. Many children died along the way and were abandoned where they fell. At first light the next morning Iraqi warplanes appeared in the sky, apparently monitoring the flight of the survivors. Many kept away from the main roads and scattered into the mountains, despite the ever-present menace of landmines.

Iranian helicopters arrived at Lima and Pega in the late afternoon and military doctors administered atropine injections (an antedote to nerve gas) to the survivors before they were ferried across the border. In Iran, all agree that they were well-cared for, although some had injuries that were untreatable, and they died on Iranian soil. The sickest were transferred to hospitals in the Iranian cities of Teheran and Kermanshah, and the smaller town of Paveh. The remainder spent two weeks in a converted schoolhouse in the town of Hersin, where they received medical attention. From there, they were taken to two refugee camps.

For those who decided it might be safe to return there were no homes to return to, for virtually every structure in Halabja was leveled with dynamite and bulldozers after Iraqi forces finally retook the city. So, too, was nearby Sayed Sadeq, a town of some 20,000. In both Halabja and Sayed Sadeq, the electrical substations were also dynamited. Even after the razing of Halabja, many bodies remained in the streets to rot where they had fallen four months earlier.

Not until July did the Iraqi regime move to recover Halabja, which was left under de facto Iranian control. In the days following the mass gassing, the Iranian government, well aware of the implications, ferried in journalists from Teheran, including a number of foreigners. Their photographs, mainly of women, children and elderly people huddled inertly in the streets, or lying on their backs with mouths agape, circulated widely, demonstrating eloquently that the great mass of the dead had been Kurdish civilian non-combatants. Yet the numbers have remained elusive, with most reports continuing to cite Kurdish or Iranian estimates of at least 4,000 and as many as 7,000. The true figure was certainly in excess of 3,200, which was the total number of individual names collected in the course of systematic interviews with survivors.

Halabja Protest Turns Violent

(from Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

One person is killed as thousands voice their anger at authorities who they believe exploit their misery and do nothing to help them recover from Saddam’s gas attack.
By IWPR contributors in Halabja (ICR No. 168, 16-Mar-06)

The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan faced a major challenge today, March 16, as residents of Halabja – scene of a chemical attack 18 years ago - took to the streets in anger at what they said was cynical exploitation of their plight by local politicians.A 17-year-old boy was killed and dozens more injured in clashes with Kurdish security forces after around 2,000 locals – mostly young men – staged street protests to prevent officials getting into Halabja and taking part in ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the 1988 gas attack by Saddam Hussein’s military, in which 5,000 people died.

Officials from Halabja, in Sulaimaniyah province, had rolled out red carpets for the day of mourning. Earlier in the week, protest organisers had promised a peaceful sit-down action designed to embarrass the visiting dignitaries and block their access to the town. But a build-up of security forces in the town suggested the authorities were determined to ensure everything went according to plan.

International delegates from Hiroshima and Italy visited the memorial on March 15, the day before the official anniversary. On March 16, the ceremonies were called off after three hours of unrest during which demonstrators burnt tires, rolled rocks into the road or lay down there themselves to prevent officials driving into the town. One group of stone-throwing demonstrators stormed the monument to the victims of the chemical attack, torching it and sending black smoke billowing over the town. Some said the memorial was no more than a "bank" which helped officials raise cash to line their own pockets.

Protesters also set fire to a museum honouring victims of the gas attack after smashing furniture and windows and ripping down photos there."Is this a place of martyrs or a bar?" asked Kameron Aziz, emptying out a refrigerator stocked with drinks including beer for the visiting officials. "Why shouldn't we set it on fire? This is a day of mourning, and our officials want to drink."

IWPR reporters witnessed Kurdish security forces opening fire on those who had stormed the memorial. Kurda Ahmed, 17, was hit in the abdomen by a police rifle bullet, said eyewitnesses, who also alleged that a member of the security forces shot him again in the side, firing a pistol at close range. Ahmed died in Halabja hospital. A doctor who treated him but asked not to be named confirmed that he was hit by two different bullets. Ten others were treated for injuries, the doctor reported, including four who were still in critical condition with gunshot wounds. Demonstration organisers said at least 100 people were beaten by security forces.

"This is a repeat of the Halabja tragedy," said Mariwan Halabjaee, one of the organisers. "What police and security have done is the same as the Baathists."A security official who asked to remain anonymous said police responded with gunfire after demonstrators fired at them first. He said several protesters were detained briefly but all had been released. The northern Kurdish territories have largely been immune from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Police in Baghdad found 25 bodies of men shot execution-style on March 15 and 16, while to the north of the capital, United States and Iraqi forces launched major air assaults on Samarra. Kurdistan may be the safest part of Iraq, but young people here have grown increasingly angry at the regional authorities who should be looking after them but whom they accuse of inaction, complacency and corruption. As the placards carried by protesters made plain, there is a strong sense in Halabja that officials quietly ignore the real needs of survivors at the same time as playing up the town’s terrible history, which is emblematic of Saddam’s oppression of the Kurds and thus serves justification for a strongly decentralised Kurdish entity.

Year after year, politicians from the two leading Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, come to pay tribute to the victims and pledge help to regenerate the town. But local people say nothing gets done – infrastructure is in a state of collapse, the roads are unpaved, houses still bear the damage they suffered in Saddam’s war with Iran, and healthcare provision is poor even though the attack left thousands of survivors with a legacy of respiratory disease, cancer and other problems."I want compensation," said Ali Hassan Saleh, who lost two children in the chemical attack and accuses the PUK of failing to provide the house it promised him. "The government hasn't paid attention to this town. We need proper services." The authorities in Sulaimaniyah, the seat of one of Kurdistan’s two administrations, appeared unrepentant, with the PUK branding the protestors as "terrorists" and deputy prime minister Emad Ahmed saying, "This is an act of sabotage, and we are investigating."

Mahdi Mahmood, who represents the Islamic Union of Kurdistan in Halabja, said all the main political parties had agreed to investigate the violence and also to form a committee to address residents' demands. It may take more than that to rebuild public confidence. "We were just asking for our rights," said Habi Taoufiq Abdullah, who was treated in hospital after being shot in the hip. "We didn't deserve this response."

Reporting by IWPR Kurdish editor Mariwan Hama-Saeed and IWPR trainee journalists Amanj Khalil, Ayub Karim and Ismail Osman in Halabja.

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At 6:26 AM, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

Very powerful post.

I think your post shows the limits of nationalism. Even if some national rights are available to the Kurdish, the struggle needs to go farther.


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