Halabja 25 years on: could it happen again?

Mar 07 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
David Cliff, London

A quarter of a century has nearly gone by since the poison gas attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja on 16 March 1988. The attack—by Iraqi forces, then also in their eighth year of fighting against Iran—left thousands dead: killed by a vicious mix of chemical agents; dead in their homes, in their vehicles, in the streets; dead trying to run, dead trying to hide.

Nowadays widely considered an act of genocide, the massacre stands as one of the signature acts of repression against Iraq's Kurdish minority by Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein during the long, brutal years of his dictatorship. Today, of course, Saddam himself is dead and gone, captured and ultimately hanged following the US-led invasion of Iraq, his regime replaced by a shaky democracy. But in a time of ongoing conflict in Syria, another country whose repressive government (such as remains of it) is known to have stockpiles of chemical weapons, the possibility of another Halabja is all too real.
Last week, to mark the approaching 25th anniversary of the attack, Chatham House hosted an event to discuss 'Chemical Weapons: Lessons for the Future from Halabja'. Several VERTIC staff members, myself included, went along. (For anyone that didn't, video and audio recordings of it are available online here.) Presentations were given by Richard Beeston, foreign editor of the Times, who was one of the first journalists into Halabja after the attack, as well as Professor Alastair Hay of the University of Leeds—who has conducted a great deal of research into the chemicals used in the town and their effects—and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, high representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the UK, who sought to put the attack on Halabja in its proper, ugly context.
For this was not, after all, an attack that took place in isolation. A vicious Iraqi campaign of violence and persecution in the restive Kurdish region was being carried out at the time, while 'Arabization' efforts (i.e. the eviction of Kurds from their homes and land and their replacement with Arabs) had, by the time Halabja was attacked, been underway for several decades.
The Anfal campaign and the massacre at Halabja
At no point since the founding of the Iraqi state in the years after the first world war have its Kurdish population been enthusiastic participants. In total, around 20 per cent of Iraqis are Kurdish, geographically concentrated in the north of the country, ethnically and culturally distinct from the Iraq's Arab majority and harbouring secessionist sentiments from the outset. By the early 1980s, Kurdish guerrillas belonging to the region's main party, the KDP, were siding with Iran (an old, if not always steadfast, ally) against their common foe: the Iraqi government, led by Saddam Hussein formally since 1979 and effectively for a number of years before that.
In the first half of the decade only the KDP opposed Saddam, who managed to drive a wedge between them and Kurdistan's other principal party, the PUK, by opening negotiations with PUK leaders over autonomy. In 1985, after these talks fell apart, the KDP and the PUK forged an alliance against Saddam enabling the Kurds to carry out military operations against Iraqi forces with greater effectiveness than before. As Charles Tripp writes in his book, A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2007), by this stage of a stalemated war with Iran, Saddam 'saw Kurdistan as a field of opportunity for demonstrating his power and ruthlessness.' To that end, in March 1987 he appointed his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid—who would, in time, become known as 'Chemical Ali' owing to his fondness for the use of chemical weapons—as the official in charge of all affairs in the north, including all military forces and operations.
Al-Majid (a man described in one obituary as having been the most cruel of Saddam's henchmen, a man 'without redeeming qualities') lost little time making his presence felt. Almost immediately he set in motion the so-called Anfal campaign to oppress and terrorise the Kurds. Suspected guerrillas were captured and killed; other civilians were forcibly resettled in government-controlled camps; homes and villages and agriculture were destroyed. For its part, the use of chemical weapons by Iraqi forces in Kurdistan was recorded for the first time in April 1987—with Iraq having by then been making use of chemical weapons on its other fronts, against Iranian forces, for several years already.
In early 1988 the Anfal campaign kicked into high gear. In areas associated with one or other of the Kurdish guerrilla movements the Iraqis showed no mercy: inhabitants were all slain. By this stage the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds had become routine. Halabja—not strictly part of the Anfal campaign but rather an attack prompted by the occupation of the town by Kurdish-led Iranian forces—saw their use reach a fearsome extreme. Up to five thousand people are thought to have died in this single incident, with somewhere between seven and ten thousand others injured. Mustard gas, nerve agents and (it is thought) cyanide were all used, dropped from planes onto those below. Many of the injured still suffer today.
Anfal itself was continued for many months after Halabja—up until the late summer of 1988. Altogether, as recorded in Ali Allawi's book, The Occupation of Iraq (Yale University Press, 2007), the campaign led to the deaths of nearly 200,000 Kurdish civilians.
Concern over Syria
Halabja was recognised as an act of genocide by the Iraqi High Criminal Court in 2010. Much more recently, last Thursday here in London the House of Commons agreed to a parliamentary motion formally recognising 'the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan' and encouraging other governments, as well as the European Union and the United Nations, to do likewise. This, the motion in question said, would in part 'send out a message of support for international conventions and human rights'—a message, it added, 'made even more pressing by the slaughter in Syria and the possible use of chemical arsenals' by the regime there.
Pressing indeed. The possibility that chemical weapons may be used by Syrian government forces—whether against rebel fighters or civilians or indiscriminately against both—remains a matter of serious humanitarian concern. Despite the string of international agreements prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in warfare (added to since Halabja by the Chemical Weapons Convention, in force since 1997) and the fact that their use is also banned by the normative force of customary international law, another Halabja, or something like it, could still be on the cards.
Fears of chemical weapons use in Syria is more than just worst-case scenario worrying. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has already shown time and again that if it is to fall then it will go down fighting to the last, and that it will not give up a moment sooner. The extent to which it might go in its pursuit of survival may, many fear, stretch to the use of chemical weapons in a desperate bid to reverse the tide of rebellion—especially so if Assad and those left with him at the helm of his besieged regime start to feel that they have little left to lose.
It certainly has the means to do so. Syria is thought to have sizeable stocks of chemical agents—including mustard gas, VX, sarin and tabun. It may also already have the will. Back in early December, signs that Syria was possibly preparing some chemical agents for use prompted hurried consultations among Western countries anxious to impress upon Assad the line that the introduction of such weapons to the conflict would cross. Though in fact, some allegations indicate that Syria may have already used chemical agents on multiple occasions against the rebel opposition.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the Syrian story continues, cities go on crumbling, people on all sides go on dying, the world goes on watching; the tragedy goes on. A once vibrant country reduced, in the memorable description offered by The Economist last week, to 'a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.' Another quarter of a century from now, were the 50th year after Halabja to also mark the 25th after a similar event somewhere in Syria, history will no doubt have recorded that this was the year in which the conflict there reached a dark new low.

Last changed: Mar 07 2013 at 6:29 PM