Halabja: Symbol of Hussein’s Inhumanity


By Jim Garamone, AFPS

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2003 – "Bloody Friday." That’s what Iraqi Kurds call the attack on Halabja, Iraq, on March 16, 1988.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s largest use of chemical weapons on his own people. At least 5,000 Iraqi Kurds died from a lethal mixture of mustard gas and the nerve agents Sarin, Tabun and VX. Another 10,000 were reported injured.

The victims were not Iranian soldiers, but the men, women and children of Halabja. Some reports indicated the Iraqis dropped cyanide gas, but that has never been proven. In 1988, Halabja, with a population of about 80,000, was a battlefield in the Iran-Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had started in 1980. Just before March 16, local Kurds and Iranian Revolutionary Guards had passed through the city.

Local officials and the Iranians would not let people leave the city. They figured there was no military use to the city and that Iraq would not bomb a population center.

They were wrong.

Iraqi forces shelled the city, and aircraft dropped conventional bombs there. On March 16, the chemical weapons attacks began.

Eight Iraqi aircraft began dropping chemical bombs over the city, Kurdish officials said later. The chemical bombardment continued all night with flights of seven or eight aircraft releasing weapons on the city and roads leading out of it. The attacks continued through March 19.

"In the streets and alleys of Halabja, corpses piled up over one another," according to information on the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iraq Web page: "Tens of children, while playing in front of the their houses in the morning, were martyred instantly…. The innocent children did not even have time to run back home. Some children fell down at the threshold of the door of their houses and never rose again."

Christine M. Gosden, a professor of Medical Genetics at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, reported on Halabja to the U.S. Senate in 1998. "I was shocked by the devastating effects of these weapons which have caused problems such as cancers, blindness and congenital malformations," she said.

Gosden likened the secondary effects to those of an atomic bomb. Survivors of the attack reportedly continue to suffer and die from its effects, she claimed.

Halabja was not the first instance of Iraqi chemical attacks. Hussein first used chemical agents against Iranian soldiers in 1983. CIA documents show the largest documented attack was a February 1986 strike against al-Faw, where mustard gas and tabun may have affected up to 10,000 Iranians. Hussein continued to use the weapons against the Iranians, but then turned the weapons against the Kurds, who wanted to depose him.

Before the attack on Halabja, Saddam Hussein launched chemical strikes on 20 small villages in 1987. But the scale of the attack on Halabja was unlike anything that happened before.

During the 1930s Spanish Civil War-era, people were horrified with the conventional bombardment of the Spanish city of Guernica. On April 26, 1937, reportedly about 1,500 civilians, one-third of the city’s population, died from 100,000 pounds of bombs raining down on them. Mention of the word "Guernica" gave a mental picture of the depths of cruelty man would stoop to. The Kurds maintain that "Halabja" should also trigger these feelings.