An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth

In 1988 US officials helped disguise Saddam’s chemical attack on Halabja. But when it came time to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they acted outraged.


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.”

Saddam never lacked for partners. He had launched his original ill-fated attack on Iran in September 1980 after garnering an indirect endorsement from Washington via the Saudis. The best the UN Security Council could do in the face of this act of unprovoked aggression was to issue a statement appealing to both parties to “desist from all armed activity.” Two years later, US official complacency was jarred by the unexpected revival of Iranian military fortunes and consequent Iraqi retreats. As a result, for the rest of the war US policy was geared toward preventing an Iraqi defeat by any means necessary.

Iraq first resorted to chemical weapons in the mountains of the Kurdish north. In July 1983, the Iranians attacked at Haj Omran, a strategic mountain pass in the far northeast of Iraq. In a telling example of the ethnic and political complexities of that part of the world, the attacking force included elements of the Badr Corps, Iraqi Shiite prisoners recruited from POW camps, along with anti-Saddam Kurds from the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani. Opposing this force were units of other Iraqi Kurds from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani, who between 1983 and 1984 was allied with Saddam against the Iranians. The attackers were initially successful, until Iraqi planes swooped overhead and dropped bombs. Fighters in the area suddenly smelled garlic and soon afterward developed breathing problems and skin lesions, symptoms that inexorably spread to those lower on the mountain as the gas–sulphur mustard developed during World War I–drifted downhill.

Confident that gas was the answer to Iranian “human wave” attacks, Iraq invested ever more heavily in chemical weapons, developing sophisticated techniques for their employment that were studied with keen attention by Western military staffs. Iran repeatedly protested, imploring the UN to take action, and the Security Council did indeed lament the violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical weapons, but tactfully avoided any mention of who was responsible. In Washington, meanwhile, the Administration knew perfectly well, at least by the fall of 1983, who was doing what to whom but was loath to say so. There was, after all, a lot of official outrage and agitation at that time over the alleged use of a biological weapon, the so-called Yellow Rain, by the Communist governments of Laos and Vietnam against their own people. The Secretary of State himself, Alexander Haig, had denounced this as a violation of an international agreement, a position that was for the most part endorsed by the press. Later, a Harvard team conclusively demonstrated that Yellow Rain was in fact bee shit. Was there one law for the Communists and another for Saddam Hussein? The answer was yes. So while issuing occasional pious denunciations of Iraqi chemical use, the United States was at pains to reassure Iraq that there would be no serious consequences. In November 1983, State Department officials expressed their concerns about chemical use to Iraq, but discreetly, so as to “avoid unpleasantly surprising Iraq through public positions we may have to take on this issue.” Hypocrisy, as la Rochefoucauld observed, is the homage vice pays to virtue.

To convince the Iraqi leader that we really were his friends, the Administration dispatched the President’s Special Middle East Envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, bearing a gift for Saddam from Reagan: a pair of golden spurs. In much of the Middle East, Rumsfeld was an unpopular figure–the US Ambassador in Damascus would leave town, after locking up the liquor cabinet in the residence, whenever he heard the envoy was on his way. But Rummy was popular in Baghdad, where Saddam’s men enthused that they regarded him as “a good listener” and “liked him as a person.” Rumsfeld did not spoil the party by giving chemical weapons more than a passing mention; instead he spent much of his private time with Saddam trying to sell his host on the idea of an Iraqi oil pipeline to Israel.

The following March, when news of Iraq’s revival of poison gas as a weapon finally surfaced in the press, the State Department condemned “the prohibited use of chemical weapons wherever it occurs,” while Rumsfeld was sent back to Baghdad to pass the word that the condemnation had been essentially pro forma and that the American desire to improve relations “at a pace of Iraq’s choosing remain[s] undiminished.” Meanwhile, US diplomats worked to quash discussion of the issue at international forums. No wonder Saddam exulted later that year over what he called “the beautiful atmosphere between us.”

The “beautiful atmosphere” soured for a period when it emerged that the United States had been simultaneously selling arms to Iran. So cynically confused had American policy become in this period that in a bloody battle for the Faw Peninsula in February 1986, both sides acted on the basis of intelligence supplied by the United States. But Washington ultimately returned to the embrace of its friend in Baghdad, scrambling to reassure him that the United States could be trusted. Quite apart from the need to curb the ayatollahs, there was money to be made. US companies rushed to sew up lucrative contracts. Even Richard Nixon got in on the act, blessing an enterprise organized by some of his staff to supply uniforms sewn in Romania to the Iraqi army.

Again and again, Hiltermann stresses that the Iraqis were very conscious of international reaction and probably would have called a halt to the use of gas if there had been a political cost to pay. But there wasn’t. He quotes a CIA assessment from late 1986 that laid out the marginal battlefield effectiveness of Iraq’s chemical weapons, citing, in his words, “poor tactical employment, lessened element of surprise [and] increased Iranian preparedness.” But, the assessment claimed, “because the political costs of continued CW use have been so small, we doubt that Iraq will abandon its use of chemical weapons in the foreseeable future.” Although Hiltermann’s overall account of the background to Halabja is indispensable, it is his theme of witting US complicity, backed by years of meticulous research, that strikes the most chilling note.

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.

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