I’m still trudging through old history, but I think it is worth commemorating that today is the anniversary of the Halabja chemical bombing that occurred on March 16, 1988. It was this particular chemical bombing that would remain one of the most chilling examples of the Anfal Campaign, one that most of the world ignored at the time.
The Halbja Bombing occurred in the later stages of Anfal, which was concurrent with the slow end of the Iran-Iraq War. Citing the cooperation of Kurdish pershmerga with Iranian forces, the Anfal Campaign was initiated as a means to halt an Iranian breakthrough from the north of Iraq. Of course the reality was that the regime took the opportunity to decisively solve the ‘Kurdish problem’ which had been a thorn in many Iraqi governments since the days of the puppet Kingdom. Anfal took many shapes of ethnic cleansing, from out-straight murder to forcible relocation of Kurdish civilians, with many zones under the direct control of the Iraqi military which gave orders to kill in designated areas which they considered to be peshmerga hotspots.
I will get into the Anfal Genocide in detail later, but today I concern myself with Halabja. Halabja was not the only Kurdish village that got gassed (indeed, hundreds more got gassed in all the major areas of Kurdistan, including as far west as the Badhinan villages), but for various reasons it became the most visible and prominent one used for years. Discussion of whether the event has been exploited for personal gain can be set aside for later and I’d rather not get into it just now. I was born after Halabja, though both my parents recall when they got news of what happened, which was already bad news on top of more bad news with Anfal. My father recalls that on CNN, there was no mention of the event beyond a quick blurb running across the news ticker on the bottom, merely saying that there had been an attack on that village, with no blame given. The CIA would later take the position that Iran had in fact caused the bombing, reasoning that based off the reported physical features of the deceased, it was not in line with the kind of chemical weapons Iraq was capable of making. It should be recalled that during this time the United States saw Iraq as an ‘ally’ in its regional fight with Iran, and to that end supplied it with all manner of aid, from surplus Soviet arms through Egypt and Israel (bear spares) to help with financial credit, the United States was actively involved in helping Iraq. Chemical agents marked as ‘necessary’ medical research ultimately enabled the regime to carry out its gassing of many Kurdish villages.
Halabja’s pain did not end there unfortunately, with the village and its surroundings occupied by Islamist elements until the late 90s, and until 2003 in smaller surrounding communities in the mountains. This made it difficult to adequately address the problems of the village as were being done in other gassed areas, and as such Halabja had many birth defects and other problems in its populace that could not be treated for some time. Even now some villagers still feel slighted by the government’s focus on highlight the tragedy with out much attention to their more immediate and important needs.
Many years later in the run up to the second gulf war, the White House would justify their operation in Iraq by stating that Saddam had gassed his own people, taking up the mantle of Halabja where previously they had disavowed and attempted to suppress any news of it. As I said earlier, where there had been a quick blurb on CNN’s news ticker it was now coming straight out of the administration’s mouths. Indeed, considering what may have been American complicity in this event, it is not surprising they would be careful in when they chose to highlight and use it for their own purposes and act as good friends of the Kurds. On the flip side, some of those who had positioned themselves against the war decided to insist the US had actually pinned it on Iraq later as part of their smear campaign, most notably one Stephen Pelletiere, a former CIA analyst who stands by the original CIA report on the attack. To me this is sheer lunacy and revisionism of the highest degree (others had pinned the blame on Iraq after the attack, though these often came from Europe) but unfortunately they were given air time to legitimize their views.
At least 5000 people perished, many thousands more were injured due to exposure. These scars run deep in the region, and unfortunately there are still those who are affected by it. It will be a mental scar in all Kurds for some time to come, as will the entire experience of Anfal.