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.