An Inconvenient Truth
If the United States ever possessed a shred of moral authority for the invasion of Iraq, it came from Halabja, a Kurdish town of about 70,000 people nestling in a bowl in front of the towering mountain chain that fringes Iraq's northeast frontier with Iran. Halabja was once famous among Kurds as the "city of poets," and the townspeople were known for their love of books. It is doubtful that George W. Bush had ever heard of the poets, but he did find it useful to know that in 1988 Halabjans were the victims of the largest use of chemical weapons against a civilian population in history, thereby providing inspiration for Bush's repeated observation that Saddam was "evil" and had "gassed his own people."
Like Guernica or My Lai, Halabja (in Kurdish, "the wrong place") suffered an experience of mass murder intense enough to transform the town's very name into a historical event. That event occurred on the afternoon of March 16, 1988--a cold but pleasant day, with occasional showers, notes Joost Hiltermann in A Poisonous Affair, his comprehensive and powerful delineation not only of what happened that day but of all those who helped bring it about. The day before, Kurdish fighters, with Iranian encouragement and support, had occupied the town after driving out Iraqi government troops. Now the Iraqi air force had returned to deliver Saddam's response.
According to survivors, mustard and nerve gas bombs that rained down on the town and its outskirts did not sound like conventional explosives when they detonated but instead gave off a deceptively mild noise, "more like a 'tap,'" as one witness put it. A report from Human Rights Watch described how "dead bodies--human and animal--littered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of their cars. Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically, before collapsing.... Those who had been directly exposed to the gas found that their symptoms worsened as the night wore on. Many children died along the way and were abandoned where they fell."
A large number of people perished in their cellars, where they had taken refuge from anticipated Iraqi artillery barrages. Many more were killed as they fled from town, pursued by the lethal vapors. On a 2005 visit to the area, I sat on one of the grassy mounds that line the roads out of town, not realizing that these marked where groups of terrified escapees had fallen and been hastily covered with dirt.
Abbas Abd-al-Razzaq Akbar, the cameraman who recorded the first images of the slaughter, recalled to Hiltermann, "The gas had killed all natural life.... I couldn't hear anything. No birds. There was absolutely no sound.... The silence drove me crazy."
In September 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell descended on the town to inaugurate a newly completed museum commemorating the 5,000 victims, making emotional reference to the "choking mothers [who] died holding their choking babies to their chests." Inside, tasteful displays featured dioramas of huddled corpses and other evocative memorabilia, including the empty casings of mustard and nerve gas bombs now painted up in bright colors.
"If you want evidence of the existence and use of weapons of mass destruction," Powell exhorted the press as he was leaving, "come here now to Halabja, look today and see it." Farther south, US military search teams were fruitlessly scouring the land for more contemporary evidence of WMDs. As usual, the people of Halabja, dead or alive, were being pressed into service on behalf of someone else's agenda.
Back in March 1988, Powell was National Security Adviser to President Reagan. While images of the massacre shocked, albeit briefly, a Western public jaded by reports of slaughter in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Administration moved quickly to protect its ally Saddam Hussein. Within a week of the attack, US diplomats began publicizing the canard that the Halabjans had died from Iranian chemical weapons, thereafter eliciting a Security Council resolution with no specific condemnation of Iraq that urged both sides to refrain from use of chemical weapons. This gambit was employed throughout the war, and Hiltermann, the Middle East deputy program director at the International Crisis Group, is particularly effective in exposing the utter falsity of the claim. Thus encouraged by the international silence, Saddam was free to expand his program of extermination against large swatches of the Kurdish population in Iraq. Hiltermann's demolition of the "Iranians did it" lie, and his meticulous tracking of the spurious intelligence used to buttress it (later embraced by many on the left in revulsion at Washington's subsequent anti-Saddam tub-thumping), are among the major contributions of the book.
Powell must have recalled these shabby maneuvers, yet during his day at Halabja he unblushingly declared, "At the time, Halabja was commented on by the Administration. And it was commented on both by the White House at that time as well as by the State Department. Strongly condemned. And there was no effort on the part of the Reagan Administration at that time to either ignore it or not take note of it."