Questioning Halabja

Questioning Halabja

Genocide and the Expedient Political Lie

On a late March morning fifteen years ago, as the war between Iran and Iraq was winding down, the Iraqi army began an artillery barrage on Halabja, a Kurdish city situated about fifteen miles from the border with Iran. The people of Halabja first took that attack, and the subsequent bombing by the Iraqi air force, as a routine matter, the everyday consequence of living in a stronghold of a Kurdish Peshmerga militia then allied with Iran. But as they gathered in their shelters, it quickly became apparent that there was something dreadfully different about this bombardment. Heavy, dark yellow clouds formed close to the ground, and overwhelming smells, a mixture of sweet apples and garlic, followed by an odor of rotten eggs, pervaded the air. Birds and animals began to expire, and as the clouds gradually permeated the shelters, people became ill, some vomiting, some finding it hard to breathe, others experiencing skin burns and sharp, stabbing pains as their eyes and noses began to bleed. In panic, with many already dying and others blinded or paralyzed, the people of Halabja fled their city. Behind them lay thousands of dead (estimates range from 3,200 to 5,000). Many who escaped bear grim physical injuries from that day: blindness and major respiratory and skin diseases, cancers, and, in the next generation, congenitally malformed infants.

The bombing of Halabja with chemical gas was the opening salvo in what the Baathist Iraqi regime called its Anfal campaign, a term taken from the title of the eighth sura of the Quran, which calls upon Muslims to “strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah.” Human rights organizations have another name for that campaign: genocide. Although it is impossible to determine the exact number of Kurds who were annihilated in the two-year period during which the Anfal was waged, estimates range from a conservative low of 50,000 to Kurdish figures of 182,000. Kurds were forcibly removed from traditional villages, imprisoned in concentration camps, tortured, raped, and forced into exile. There was a total of forty known incidents involving the Iraqi use of chemical gas on the Kurds, including Halabja.

This essay is not an account of Halabja and the Anfal. Those events have been fully documented in the Human Rights Watch book Genocide In Iraq and told in painful detail in many other places. Rather, the story told here is about the efforts to deny the Baathist regime’s use of poison gas on the Kurds, efforts that began as soon as the world first learned of Halabja and that have continued to this day. It is a tale of the politically expedient lie, in service of a denial of genocide.

The Evidence

I will begin with a brief summary of the volumes of evidence regarding what took place that day fifteen years ago in Halabja, as well as in other poison gas attacks on Kurdish civilians, and who was responsible for what happened. As soon as word of the gassing ...