16 March marks the 25th anniversary of the chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja. Since the First World War it was one of the few cases wherein chemical weapons (CW) were deliberately used against a civilian target. Human Rights Watch documented over 3,200 deaths and many times that number of other casualties. Since then, thousands more of people have succumbed to their injuries or preventable infections affecting organs damaged by exposure to gas. Many women also suffered extensive genetic damage, thus passing the consequences of the gas attacks down the generations.
The town of Halabja in northeast Iraq has become a modern-age symbol condemning chemical warfare. Together with Ieper, a medieval town in the Belgian province of West Flanders. On 22 April 1915, the day on which scientific research, industrial production and military art finally found each other, German Imperial troops released a chlorine cloud from thousands of canisters buried in the trenches on the northern flank of the Ieper salient. Two years later, in the night of 12–13 July 1917, the town became associated with the first use of a new chemical warfare agent—mustard gas (which the French subsequently called ‘Yperite’). Mustard was also one of Iraq’s agents of choice against both the Iranians and the Iraqi Kurds.
The Iran–Iraq war lasted twice as long as the First World War: from 1980 until 1988. Iraqi use of toxic chemicals against Iranian soldiers was first reported in 1982, but by the end of 1983 press outlets told of widespread usage of mustard gas and tabun, a nerve agent. In April of the next year, a UN team of experts confirmed chemical warfare. From then onwards, Iraqi chemical attacks escalated, reaching a first peak in 1986 in the southern marshes. Two years later Iraqi forces had also assimilated CW for offensive operations and employed them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.
Possibly earlier, but definitively from 1987, Saddam Hussein opened a second chemical front against the Iraqi Kurds in the north. Names of towns such as Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish) in the north of the country or Penjwin, east of Sulaymaniyah, recurred frequently in interviews I had with Kurdish Peshmergas coming for a break to Belgium. They recounted chemical strikes against agrarian communities in north and east Iraqi Kurdistan. They described how eating the vegetables from their fields poisoned women and children many weeks after a CW attack. Unwittingly, they ingested the mustard agent that had settled on the bottom side of the leaves. The Peshmergas also depicted bombing raids high in the mountains, after which the mustard gas rolled down the mountain sides, penetrating deep into any cave sheltering Kurdish fighters.
About two years later, when listening again to my recordings from 1987, I recognised another town being referred to—Helebce, since then better known in the West as Halabja. The local population had risen up against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed the revolt. Half of the city fled to Iran, about 15 kilometres to the east, according to the interview. When Kurdish guerillas fighting alongside Iranian troops ‘liberated’ Halabja on 15 March 1988, supreme vengeance against an insurrectionary town came the next morning in the form of a gas cloud. Attacks were to continue until the 18th. Privately I have always been convinced that the 1987 uprising together with the ‘betrayal’ of the Iraqi Kurds seeking to break Baathist control over northeast Iraq with Iranian help in 1988 provoked the extraordinary escalation of chemical warfare against Kurdish guerillas and civilians alike. From that perspective, Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds through August and September 1988 merely systematised the Halabja method on an even grander scale.
A few weeks after the attacks against Halabja, members of the Kurdish community in the Leuven area (where many Iraqi Kurds stayed with relatives and local acquaintances for a breather from combat) took me to the Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht, just outside Brussels. It had accepted four or five victims of chemical warfare for treatment. One was an Iranian soldier badly affected by mustard gas; one was a boy aged around five recovering from the chemical attacks on Halabja; the remainder were farmers from a wide area surrounding the town. Iraqi chemical strikes had neither been limited to 16 March, nor to the town of Halabja, it became clear to me. Joost Hiltermann later confirmed this impression in his detailed study ‘A Poisonous Affair’ (2007).
Two things struck me during that visit. The local Kurdish community treated the young boy as one of their own. He was slowly recovering from a low red blood cell count (possibly from a cyanide breakdown product after tabun exposure), and by the time I visited him he was already sitting up surrounded by pretty expensive toys. Most striking was a large replica with moving wings of an F-14 jet, with which the child was playing most of the time I was there. The treating physician told me of his incomprehension of why the boy had been given so many war-related presents. He also remarked on how the boy winced whenever a commercial jetplane flew over, an observation that added to his puzzlement. Three years later, when I was intensely following developments in the war over Kuwait, my son was both restless and agitated. After asking in a supermarket for a small, but accurate metal model of the A-10 close air support aircraft, which he recognised from TV newscasts, he settled down markedly. It seemed as if by holding the object of his anxiety, he was able to control the source of his angst. The Kurdish boy had definitely seen Saddam’s fighter-bombers up close.
The second lasting impression was how my Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier. He was by far the worst victim of gas exposure in the hospital (he was to die not too long after my visit). His skin looked blackened where white ointment did not fully hide it. Lesions from the vesicles covered parts of his body and his difficult, assisted breathing betrayed internal injuries. A faint, but unforgettable smell of decayed flesh penetrated the dominant odour of disinfectants. He had fallen victim to mustard gas outside of Halabja, possibly being one of the soldiers along whose side the Peshmergas were fighting against Saddam Hussein. The Kurds, however, did not spare a thought for him. This somehow offended my unconscious belief that victims of chemical warfare are all equal. At least, I knew of no such distinctions being drawn between Allied and German gas casualties of the First World War. In Belgium, common cause is against chemical warfare, full stop. And 25 years ago, the suffering in the trenches was all still part of national living memory.
The other face of Halabja
This incident was my first concrete exposure to the deep ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages in the Middle East, difficult to bridge and a perennial source of misunderstanding and hostility. It also shows why Halabja can never be a symbol for Iran’s suffering from CW in the way Ieper does for all chemical warfare during the First World War. For a while Halabja stood for all atrocities committed during Saddam’s reign of terror; the new Iraqi regime now commemorates the Halabja attacks as a national tragedy. Iran widely publicised the gassing in the weeks and months after the air raids. Halabja, however, lay in occupied territory. UN experts could not enter the town without Iraq’s authorisation. Although access to the victims transferred to Iranian hospitals was possible, lack of onsite verification diminished the value of the findings. Moreover, most victims were not Iranians, but Kurds—an ethnic group whose members living inside Iran also suffered from violent oppression by the theocratic rulers.
Iran’s own Halabja is called Sardasht, a municipality without much military significance across the border north of Sulaymaniyah. Saddam’s air force hit the town on 28 June 1987, almost nine months before Halabja. Although initial reports of CW victims were low, it soon emerged that almost three quarters of a population of 12,000 had been exposed to the toxicants. Some 130 people died, most of them civilians. The international press barely noticed this strike on a target with hardly any military significance.
Sardasht emblemised Iran’s predicament. The Islamic revolution of 1979 bought the country few friends. With the hostage taking in the US embassy, pent up anger over Washington’s unwavering support for the Shah’s repressive regime exploded into the open. The new leadership also refused rapprochement to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile it called for Islamic uprisings against the corrupt, autocratic leaders in the Gulf and beyond. When Iraq invaded its neighbour, Saddam Hussein presented himself as the bulwark against Persian territorial designs and Islamic revolutionary fervour. Although the United States and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the war; having lost a major regional ally, Washington nevertheless sought to pry Iraq away from the Soviet sphere of influence. The tide soon turned against Iraq, but the international community could not afford to let it lose the war. Such geostrategic calculations were to clash with international law.
When Saddam Hussein ordered the first chemical attacks, he breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Both Iran and Iraq had been party to the agreement for many decades. To Iraq, CW were a force multiplier that arrested the incessant Iranian human wave attacks when it was about to lose the war. National governments expressed their outrage, but the UN Security Council, while condemning the chemical attacks, never specified Iraq as the perpetrator for the duration of the war with Iran.
Countries adopted national sanctions and restricted access to certain chemical warfare agents and their precursors, but, absent a specific designation of responsibility under international law, applied them to both belligerents. The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end. The international stance had its moral merit. This, however, did not apply to the refusal to assist Iran with defensive countermeasures, including gasmasks, decontamination equipment, other types of individual and collective protection or prophylaxis. In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva even had to travel to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran. (I have detailed Iran’s defensive and offensive CW efforts in a study published by the Swedish Defence Research Agency in December 2003.) Often the Iranians were conned, leaving no option for the country to start developing its indigenous capacities—for CW defence as well as offense.
Just like Trotsky concluded after Russia’s capitulation to Germany in 1917, those experiences convinced Iran of the need to overcome technological backwardness in order to survive. They also taught the country that international law does not guarantee international justice, and it harbours deep misgivings about international promises for assistance. Adding insult to injury, from 1989 onwards US officials indicated several times that Iran rather than Iraq had gassed Halabja, a claim so preposterous that its motive remains a mystery to me until today. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky in all security-related matters drives today’s political leadership. Most Iranian politicians of all persuasions, as well as much of the population, belong to the generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. War is therefore not necessarily a state of affairs they will seek to avoid in the pursuit of national interests. Nor do international confrontation or the threat of war particularly frighten them. Layer upon layer of fresh economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the blood-soaked trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.
Halabja therefore also symbolises the long-term fallacy of short-term interests. It is the one lesson the world does not seem to have learned.