It was 25 years ago on March 16, 1988 that Kurds in Halabja, northern Iraq, glanced above their heads to find chemical bombs being dropped by Iraqi aircraft. The scene was characterized by witnesses as rising stacks of colored smoke that initially had the vague scent of apples. The misleading fragrance was in fact the product of nerve gas, mustard gas, and other chemical agents. It was the first instance of a government using these specific chemical weapons on the population it governed. Chemical weapons had never been used on such a huge scale directly against civilians in recent history. Halabja continues to hold that horrifying distinction.
Saddam’s chemical attack ultimately left an estimated 5,000 people dead. The number of casualties rises drastically when those injured, or later afflicted with complications, is taken into account. Inhabitants of Halabja still exhibit a wide range of abnormalities, diseases, and defects from the attack.
The attack on the Kurdish population in Iraq did not begin with the Halabja massacre. The Kurds, who form slightly less than a fifth of Iraq’s population, have always had rightful aspirations for autonomy. The Al-Anfal campaign, which also targeted Kurds, had been part of a larger agenda in Iraq to squash Kurdish separatist ambitions and effectively "Arabize" northern Iraq. Between 1987-1989, Saddam forces had wiped out an estimated 4,000 Kurdish villages, murdering tens of thousands of Kurds in the process.
The Halabja massacre occurred in the last days of the Iran-Iraq war. As such, the myth that Halabja was occupied by Iran served as a pretext for Saddam’s attack. In fact, Iran did not have a significant presence in the town. Kurdish Peshmargas, meaning armed Kurdish fighters, had liberated the Kurdish town, taking advantage of the government’s preoccupation with other battles. The Kurds, with their long history of oppression by Iraqi forces, hailed the arrival of the Kurdish fighters as a crucial achievement in their struggle for freedom. They of course had no way of foreseeing the terror that was to come.
The U.S. would later emphasize the chemical attacks as a fundamental reason to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam, but there was no such concern with Kurdish strife at the time of the bombings. At the time allied with Saddam, the U.S. was generally silent on the subject except to suggest Iranian complicity. The uncontroversial record, combining released U.S. documents and other sources, now proves what was already suspected at the time: the U.S. knew Saddam was responsible but actively ordered its government officials to point the finger at Iran.
Of course, it was not the first time the Kurds had been betrayed by the U.S. In 1971, the Shah of Iran asked President Nixon and Henry Kissinger to assist him in giving weapons and support to the Kurdish population in Iraq as a means to divert Iraq's attention and military from Iran. Iran was engaged in a border dispute with Iraq. The U.S agreed enthusiastically and began encouraging Kurdish rebellion, with both verbal assurances and military aid. When Iraq and Iran finally reached an agreement of sorts, the Kurds were immediately abandoned by both Iran and the U.S.
The predictable result? Iraq then went on an immediate and brutal rampage against the Kurds, destroying their forces and murdering hundreds of Kurdish leaders.
It is a strange thing to commemorate massacre. "Those tears, that anger, cast into the past," Howard Zinn remarks, "deplete our moral energy for the present." Still, there is something that seems essential about the act of remembrance. We know now that slogans like "never again" are far too quixotic to expect in the world that we live in now. But it is imperative that with every death, whether ongoing or recalled, we insist to ourselves that no suffering be peripheral.