An Inconvenient Truth
The Iranians were indeed learning how to deal with the Iraq chemicals thanks to protective gear and medical services, but there were other potential victims who would not have these advantages. While the Iraqis had been battling desperately to hold off the Iranians in the south, the Kurds had seized control of much of the countryside in the north. In particular, Jalal Talabani and the PUK had switched sides in 1984 and forged a warm relationship with the Iranians, leading to a highly successful joint raid in October 1986 on Kirkuk, in the heart of Iraq's vital northern oilfield.
This growing threat led Saddam to appoint his vicious cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid as a new viceroy in Kurdistan. There Majid embarked on the classic strategy of "draining the sea" of support for the insurgents by depopulating the countryside. He later pithily summarized his strategy in a meeting with leading officials. "I will kill them all [Kurds] with chemical weapons," he announced in his distinctive high-pitched voice. "Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them...and those who listen to them." Majid's lethal role recently earned him a death sentence from an Iraqi court, but at the time he had no need to worry about the international community and certainly not its most influential member, which by then had joined the war on the Iraqi side. By 1988 the US Navy was in combat against the Iranians in the Persian Gulf, while Secretary of State George Shultz publicly criticized "both Iran and Iraq" for using poison gas.
Planning their traditional spring offensive for 1988, the Iranians, exhausted by the costly battles in southern Iraq, opted to attack in the north, in the area around the border town of Halabja, and with a leading role for Kurdish guerrilla units. As the CIA noted, "By avoiding an assault on a heavily defended strategic target, the regime would be more likely to avoid high casualties in the period leading to the Parliamentary elections" scheduled for April 1988. This is a story in which no one has a monopoly on cynicism. Given the Kurds' experience of Saddam's brutality over the years, they should have been in little doubt as to what would happen if they captured an Iraqi town and handed it over to the Iranians. For whatever reason, the Kurdish commanders went ahead.
The opportunistic offensive was of little benefit to the Iranians, but it was an utter disaster for the Kurds. Kurdish resistance collapsed, largely thanks to what Hiltermann calls "the Halabja demonstration effect." Encouraged by the effective silence of the international community, Saddam and Majid embarked on Operation Anfal, a methodical campaign to exterminate a large percentage of the Kurdish rural population, using gas to send terrified villagers fleeing into the arms of Iraqi units. The men would then be killed, the women and children incarcerated in desert concentration camps. Although the Baghdad press carried regular reports on Anfal (omitting specifics about the extermination part), US officials apparently failed to notice anything untoward happening until the genocide was almost over. It took the resourceful British journalist Gwynne Roberts (unfortunately unmentioned in Hiltermann's book) to make a covert expedition to Kurdistan in October 1988 and bring back contaminated soil samples as conclusive proof that Saddam had been gassing Iraqi citizens.
Halabja was finally liberated from Saddam's control in 1991, when the Iraqis withdrew from much of Kurdistan under US military pressure. The Halabjans could return to their shattered city (it had been looted by the retreating Iranians, then largely demolished by the vengeful Iraqis in 1988). Unnoticed by the uncaring outside world, many of them exhibited horrifying symptoms of the lingering aftereffects of the poison--soaring rates of obscure cancers, miscarriages, birth defects. In 1998, following a perilous journey to the town with a genetic scientist he had brought from England, Roberts reported that not only were the survivors suffering the horrible effects of the gas but so were children born long afterward. Roberts also noted that, partly out of bitter resentment at their neglect by the established Kurdish politicians, the townspeople had fallen under the sway of fundamentalist Islamists.
Victims of one war fomented and supported by the United States, the suffering Halabjans, old and young, were soon unwittingly recruited to play their part in promoting another. George Bush started invoking the gassing of the Kurds in October 2001, and never stopped. Furthermore, in a sinister paradox, the growth of fundamentalism in the area made it possible for the jihadist group Ansar al-Islam to establish control, with some Iranian support, in villages along the nearby border. It was here that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi first established a presence in Iraq, furnishing Colin Powell with some arresting if highly misleading passages on Zarqawi's putative links to the Baghdad regime in Powell's infamous February 2003 UN presentation. He was not alone in purveying such misinformation. The New Yorker ran an award-winning 16,000-word piece by Jeffrey Goldberg that artfully wrapped a highly detailed and affecting description of the original Halabja attack and subsequent massacres around a wholly fictitious saga linking Saddam to Al Qaeda via Ansar al-Islam. The shocking truth of the first element was designed to lend verisimilitude to the myth, apparently concocted by Kurdish officials eager to hasten the downfall of Saddam, of the second.
The memorial inaugurated by Powell six months after the invasion was a priority project for Kurdish officials, built, so locals concluded, for the benefit of visiting dignitaries who came to view the exhibit and grieve accordingly. Halabjans, chafing at their neglect by their supposed representatives, were not impressed. On March 16, 2006, the eighteenth anniversary of the attack, they marched to the building and torched it. "Many delegations went to that monument," one of the locals was quoted as saying. "They were paying a visit to the dead people, but neglecting the living." The memorial remains a burned-out shell. Thanks to Islamist resurgence, the town is now dangerous for outsiders to visit. The city of poets has played its part in history and been left with the poison.