Saddam's secret weapon (Channel 4, 1988)
The 'chemical martyrs' of Halabja
On an open, grassy hillside, looking out across a plain towards the mountains on the Iran-Iraq border, a rusting, pock-marked sign announces "The Graveyard for Halabja Chemical Martyrs -- Built by the Kurdistan Reconstruction Organisation". Ten years ago, on 16 March 1988, the first of several waves of Iraqi bombers flew across this plain to drop a deadly cargo of mustard gas, cyanide and nerve agents on the Kurdish town of Halabja. By the time the bombing raids finished a few days later, at least 5,000 people were dead. Many thousands more were burnt, poisoned or left with their lungs irreparably damaged in the aftermath of the indiscriminate chemical onslaught.
Photogaphs of the Halabja "chemical martyrs" and film of the town's corpse-littered streets, taken soon after the bombing, provide unsettling images of the atrocities of modern warfare. A man lies dead at the door of his house, his arm curled around a child he could do nothing to save. A mother's face is frozen in the death agony of asphyxiation. Everywhere lie the civilian casualties of an attack that left their bodies unblemished even as the chemicals seared their lungs.
Ten years on
Ten years on, the town that was turned into a virtual necropolis by the bombing in 1988 has still not returned to normal life. Fresh horrors inflicted as a consequence of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's use of his chemical arsenal still come to haunt Halabja; the long-term effects of the gassing cannot be blown away by the winds that dispersed the gas itself.
When a Channel 4 Dispatches team visited Halabja just before the tenth anniversary of the bombing, what they found was a town struggling to cope with the terrible consequences of that atrocity. A local radio appeal for townsfolk to come forward to talk to the team resulted in 700 people suffering severe after effects of the chemical attack turning up at Halabja's desperately badly-resourced hospital. Five hundred of them were judged by doctors to be critically ill.
They included people with grotesque skin eruptions, crippling bone deformities, enormous malignant tumours and severe psychoses. Some were unable to walk unaided; one man was suffering from an appalling double curvature of the spine, brought on by chemical poisoning. Yet as Professor Christine Gosden, the leading British medical geneticist who accompanied the team and examined many of these victims of the bombing, pointed out: "We have to recognise that this may only be the tip of the iceberg. The most severe cases may already have died."
A genetic timebomb
For some people, moreover, the worst may still be to come; the suffering of Halabja's parents, it seems, is to be visited upon the children too. The incidence of birth defects and congenital abnormalities has increased dramatically since the bombing. Cleft palates and hare lips, once rare in the region, are now commonplace -- an occurrence made worse by the fact there are no facilities to treat or correct them. Miscarriages outnumber live births. The number of Downs Syndrome babies has doubled. Leukemia cases have more than trebled. The incidence of heart failure or congenital heart disease has quadrupled -- from 39 cases in 1990 to 173 in 1996.
While the Dispatches team was in Halabja there were no normal live births to local women at all. "At a personal level, it is absolutely devastating to see a situation in which you have no women in labour delivering normal babies," says Christine Gosden. "But we saw three women having miscarriages, losing much wanted pregnancies. So ten years after these weapons were used, it isn't just the women themselves who are being affected -- because some of them have got skin disease or they've got lung problems -- but they aren't able to have children, or the children they have have got severe abnormalities. It is a genetic time bomb. This is something that continues to explode in these people's lives long after the shells have gone off."
The chemical weapons used on Halabja are well known for their effects on nucleic acids in the human body -- specifically DNA, which carries the genetic blueprint not only for the current generation but for future ones as well. A chemical warfare manual found by the Dispatches team on open sale in Iraqi bookshops leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime knew precisely what it was inflicting on Halabja. The manual contains details of nerve gases such as sarin and tabun (see box), together with the formula for mustard gas and information on how it affects nucleic acids, its toxicity to embryos and its link with abnormalities and cancers. Significantly, much of the material in the book appears to have originated in Britain. One of the key references is to Chemical Warfare, authored by a British researcher, TF Watkins; and many of the manual's illustrations -- such as maps of the British Isles used to demonstrate how poison chemicals might spread -- have a clear British provenance.
The full story of the role of Britain and other western countries in enabling Iraq to develop its chemical and other weaponry has yet to emerge. The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), set up to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction after the 1991 Gulf War, operates under an agreement whereby it promised not to disclose details of the part played by individual countries or companies in developing the Iraqi weapons programmes.
The purpose of this agreement was supposed to be to encourage the fullest possible disclosure of information to UN inspectors. Rolf Ekeus, the former head of UNSCOM and now the Swedish ambassador to the US, told Dispatches: "[We decided] we would protect the names for the purpose of getting more information because, like a journalist, you interview someone, the source, and then you don't give out the name of that person because, if you do that, you will be blackballed and there will never be any other source for you. That was our way to protect our future access." Ekeus maintains that this approach has been effective in closing down the trade with Iraq; critics argue that it has merely allowed those responsible to escape public investigation and censure.
What is certain is that a very wide range of countries and companies supplied Iraq with the necessary equipment, materials and expertise for its chemical, nuclear and advanced weapons programmes. One well-sourced report suggests that more than 200 different companies in at least 26 countries were implicated in arming Saddam Hussein's regime. These include 86 German companies, 21 French, 19 British, 18 American, 17 Austrian, 12 Italian and 11 Swiss. Other countries known to have supplied the Iraqi dictator include Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Greece, India, Romania, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Spain, China, Yugoslavia, South Korea, North Korea, Cuba, Denmark, Finland and Norway. The Soviet Union and conservative Arab states also supplied substantial military and financial aid.
A bulwark against Iran
Part of the reason for such a wide spread of willing suppliers to Iraq, particularly among western governments, was that from 1979 onwards, following the overthrow of the US-backed Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein was seen as the principal bulwark in the region against the spread of Islamic revolution from Iran. During the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980-88, therefore, it suited western strategic interests (including the protection of their vital Gulf state oil supplies) to back Iraq as a means of tying down and exhausting Iran. Although there was no strong desire to see Iraq emerge as outright victors in the conflict, and so become the predominant regional power, it did serve western interests to maintain a balance of power between the two states. So, although weapons and equipment were supplied to both sides at various stages of the war, the principal beneficiary was Iraq.
The Soviet Union and the conservative Arab states (including the future target of Iraqi aggression, Kuwait) did not stand in the way of this support. Indeed, fearing the export of Iranian-style Islamic revolution to their Muslim subjects, they either played their own direct part in supplying financial or material aid to Saddam, or they turned a blind eye to others doing so. And virtually the whole world turned a blind eye towards Iraq's development and use of chemical and biological weapons.
Tolerance of chemical warfare
This tolerance of Iraqi weapons programmes became evident from around 1984 onwards, when Iraq was first seen to be using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Finding himself unhindered by western governments and aided and abetted by willing suppliers in western companies, Saddam Hussein is thought to have started his regime's biological weapons programme around the same time. Emboldened by the absence of international protests against his use of chemical weapons against Iran, he began also to make increasing use of them against his Kurdish opponents in northern Iraq.
Throughout the war with Iran, Kurdish peshmerga guerrilla forces had proved themselves a thorn in the Iraqi side as they continued their decades-long struggle to oust Iraqi forces and free themselves from rule by Baghdad. The difficulty of the mountainous terrain and the fact that so many of Saddam's troops were tied down in fighting the Iranians saw him turn increasingly towards the deployment of chemical terror against his enemies in the north. In the year before the Halabja bombing, there were at least 21 documented chemical attacks against Kurdish villages, civilians and peshmerga units, none of which prompted any serious protest, let alone punitive action, from the international community.
Unfortunately for the Kurds, it suited the west and Arab countries alike to ignore Iraq's flagrant breach of international agreements on the use of such weapons. Indeed, when a Kurdish delegation around this time tried to get Kuwait to condemn the spraying of innocent civilians with poison gas, a Kuwaiti official responded with the retort: "What did you expect to be sprayed with, rose-water?"
Denial and disinterest
All of this encouraged the Iraqis in their attack on Halabja. The bombing took place towards the end of the war with Iran. The town had been seized by Iranian-backed Kurdish peshmerga just 48 hours earlier, and the indiscriminate gassing of its civilian population was intended both as retaliation and to send a more general message of terror to Kurdish rebels against Iraqi rule. When a ceasefire was agreed with Iran in July 1988, and Iraqi forces were freed to launch further attacks on the Kurdish population, including through the renewed use of chemical weapons, hundreds of thousands of people fled from their homes into the mountains and across the border into Turkey and Iran. Saddam's message of chemical terror had had the desired effect.
The Iraqi government's response to any criticisms of its conduct alternated between outright denial that chemical weapons had been used at all and attempts to blame any such use on the Iranians. In September 1988, the Iraqi foreign minister, Tareq Aziz, blamed the Kurds' own leaders for encouraging their people to flee Iraq. He stated categorically: "There is no use of chemical weapons and no necessity of using them." The fact that probably no foreign government believed him made no difference to the international response. A British Foreign Office briefing paper at that time stated: "We believe it better to maintain a dialogue with others if we want to influence their actions. Punitive measures such as unilateral sanctions would not be effective in changing Iraq's behaviour over chemical weapons, and would damage British interests to no avail."
The same pattern of denial and disinterest dogged any attempts to raise the Halabja massacre on a wider world stage. What international concern was aroused was the product primarily of work by committed journalists. The documentary film-maker, Gwynne Roberts (who also made the tenth-anniversary report on Halabja for Dispatches) made a secret visit to Iraqi Kurdistan at the end of 1988, when he obtained soil samples for independent analysis back in Britain. These confirmed the presence of compounds associated with the use of mustard gas. He also reported on another chemical attack in October 1988 on Kurdish civilians who had fled to the Bassay valley just south of the Turkish border, where survivors reported that up to 3,000 people had been killed.
Kuwait and the Gulf War 1990-91
It was not until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, however, that western governments began to take Saddam Hussein's manufacture and use of chemical weapons seriously. Then the decision to go to war against Iraq heralded a new international concern about both his weapons of mass destruction and his treatment of the Kurds. The war ended with the Iraqis having been driven out of Kuwait and major uprisings taking place in Iraq itself. Having urged opponents of Saddam to rise up in the first place, however, western governments did nothing to assist the uprisings when they took place. The remnants of Saddam's defeated army proved sufficient to put down his internal opposition; and in both the south of Iraq and parts of the north, the rebel forces were ruthlessly crushed. The allied imposition of "no-fly zones" and their establishment of the so-called Kurdish "safe havens" tied Saddam's hands to some extent, but not before more than 1.5 million people had been forced to flee into the mountains or across the border into Iran.
The plight of the Kurdish refugees did attract major attention in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. The ensuing international action, however, quickly ran into all sorts of problems. Fundraising and relief efforts were dogged by the difficulty of the terrain, the misappropriation of money and aid supplies, and the dispersal of the refugees across several national borders. The governments of those countries -- principally Turkey and Iran -- were engaged in longstanding conflicts with their own Kurdish populations and were unwilling to allow any outside access or relief efforts that might assist the local resistance to their rule. The Kurds themselves were bitterly -- and often violently -- divided between different political organisations and armed groupings. The allied coalition that had just defeated Iraq in the Gulf War had no taste for further military action in support of the Kurds; and in any case had no desire to do anything to back an independent Kurdish entity in the region that would upset the regional balance of power and go against such a crucial western ally as Turkey.
The result has been a stand-off in which different parts of the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq have come under the control of different Kurdish parties, while Saddam Hussein has been deterred from significant further military action against them. Meanwhile, Turkey's war with the Kurds has escalated, often spilling over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid has been patchy.
Halabja itself has remained under the control of Iranian-backed forces separate from the dominant Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. Cut off from the main relief supply routes, it has receded into the background of international attention, leaving its people to live as best they can with the long-term effects of the chemical terror of ten years ago. So a handful of medical staff, lacking any semblance of adequate facilities, equipment, drugs or training, struggles to make sense of and treat terrible ailments they often do not even understand. Most often there is nothing at all that they can do; the victims can only be sent home to suffer still more.
Despite the internecine strife that continues to divide the
Kurdish people of Iraq, all of their different organisations -- which worked
together to guarantee the safety of the Dispatches team in their recent
visit to the region -- are united in their horror at what happened in Halabja,
and in their desire to see something done to relieve the ongoing suffering
of its people. As international attention turns again towards Saddam Hussein
and Iraq, the "chemical martyrs" of this small Kurdish town on
the Iran-Iraq border are crying out for the world to take notice.
Chemical weapons, Halabja and Iraq
The use of biological or chemical weapons is banned by international agreements, but that has not prevented a number of countries developing large chemical arsenals. By far the biggest are those possessed by the US and Russia, which have a total of 70,000 tonnes of chemical agents between them. Other countries with chemical weapons include France, China, India, North Korea, South Korea, Syria and Libya.
The weapons used by Iraq at Halabja include mustard gas and the nerve agents, sarin, tabun and VX.
Mustard gas (so named because of the distinctive smell of its original formula; modern variations can be virtually odourless) was widely used in the first world war. Relatively easy to manufacture and store, its immediate effect is to cause burning and blistering of the eyes, skin and lung tissue. It also results in birth defects, abnormalities and cancers. Like nerve agents, it is delivered in liquid form, being vapourised and dispersed on impact.
Nerve agents, which were responsible for most of the fatalities at Halabja, were first developed by Nazi scientists in the 1930s. Absorbed through the skin as well as by breathing, they act on enzymes in the nervous system, causing a breakdown of normal muscle control and so resulting, typically, in asphyxiation. The long-term effects of exposure to nerve agents are still uncertain, although they are certainly linked to congenital defects, cancers and many other ailments and abnormalities. The future consequences of the Halabja bombing may be particularly severe because this is the only known large-scale example of the use of chemical or nerve agents against women and children; yet nobody has been back to investigate either the short-term or long-term effects of the gassing.
The nerve agent sarin, which was used by the extreme Aum Shinri
Kyo sect in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway, has also been identified
as a possible contributory factor in Gulf War Syndrome, a generic term for
a range of different ailments that have affected thousands of US and British
personnel involved in the 1991 war against Iraq. This is because quantities
of sarin were released into the atmosphere when an ammunition dump at Khamisiyah
in southern Iraq was blown up by allied forces at the end of that war.
Iraq and the Kurds: A Brief History
From 1534, when Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Baghdad,
until 1917, when control was ceded to Britain, the bulk of modern-day Iraq,
including the whole of the northern Kurdish regions, was under the control
of the Ottoman Turks. The collapse of
the Ottoman empire at the end of the first world war sparked hopes of an independent Kurdish homeland (indeed, the Treaty of Savres proposed such a scheme in 1920 as part of the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire). But in fact the area known as Kurdistan was divided between Iraq, Iran (then called Persia) and Turkey, with small areas of Kurdish population also falling within the borders of what became the USSR and Syria.
Iraq obtained independence from the British mandate in 1932, and there followed a bloody sequence of coups and internal conflict. This culminated in 1958 with the murder of the royal family and the establishment of a republic. Three years later, the Iraqi army launched a major offensive against the Kurds, who had never been fully subjected to rule from Baghdad. A large-scale guerrilla war resulted.
In 1968, Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party seized control and negotiated the 1970 Kurdish autonomy accords, which brought about a temporary halt to the war with the Kurds (though not before a major army atrocity have been perpetrated in the Kurdish village of Dakan in 1969). This broke down in 1974, resulting in all-out war in the north. A number of Kurdish towns were destroyed and hundreds of thousands fled into the mountains. The Kurdish resistance was finally crushed when Iraq agreed to Iranian territorial demands in return for Iran's support against the Kurds. The Iraqi government then launched a programme of mass deportations and destruction of Kurdish villages, followed by the forced "Arabisation" of Kurdish lands.
In 1979, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq at the head of the Ba'athists. Across the border in Iran, the US-backed Shah was overthrown and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile as the spiritual leader of a militant Islamic revolution. A Kurdish uprising in Iran was crushed during 1980, and in September that same year, Saddam launched what was intended to be a quick attack to seize territory from Iran but turned out to be an eight-year war of attrition that left at least a million men on each side dead or wounded.
In the Kurdish areas, both Iran and Iraq exploited divisions between different Kurdish groups, providing aid and ecnouragement according to their usefulness at any given time in the war against their bigger enemy. Among other things, this produced a situation in which Kurdish opposition groups in Iran were backed by Iraq, and Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq were backed by Iran. Iraq also cooperated with Turkey in military actions against Iraqi Kurds, including a Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1983. A long record of brutal repression of the Kurds culminated in March 1988 with the chemical weapons attack on Halabja. The end of the war with Iran also saw the further use of chemical weapons and freed Iraqi forces for another onslaught against the Kurds.
Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, following its invasion of Kuwait, inspired another massive uprising by Iraqi Kurds. Saddam Hussein's weakened army still had sufficient strength to launch another attack on his Kurdish compatriots, however -- which was only halted by the United Nations' declaration of protected "safe havens" and a military "no-fly zone" in northern Iraq. Even so, more than 1.5 million Kurds had been forced to flee, a large proportion of whom still live in mountain refugee camps, where their problems are exacerbated by bitter and often violent divisions between the major Kurdish organisations and a continuing guerrilla war with the Turkish army.
In all, there are around three million Iraqi Kurds, comprising
some 16 per cent of the population of Iraq. (The largest Kurdish population
is in Turkey, with about nine million, while there are some four million
in Iran. Numbering about 17 million in total, the Kurds are the world's
largest stateless people.) The Kurdish areas of northern Iraq include the
fertile and well-watered Zagros mountain region, the Kirkuk oilfield (the
oldest and largest in Iraq) and the Lesser Zab dam. With such valuable resources
at issue, it is highly improbable that the current regime in Baghdad would
ever voluntarily cede control to an autonomous Kurdish administration.
Selective reading and references
No friends but the mountains: the tragic history of the Kurds, John Bulloch and Harvey Morris (Penguin Books)
Unholy Babylon: the secret history of Saddam's war, Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander (Gollancz)
Republic of fear: the inside story of Saddam's Iraq, Samir Al-Khalil (Hutchinson Radius)