Fifteen years ago, Saddam Hussein's regime ordered a chemical weapons attack on a village in Iraq called Halabja. With that single order, the regime killed thousands of Iraq's Kurdish citizens. Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive still suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory diseases, miscarriages, and severe birth defects among their children.1

--George W. Bush, March 16, 2003.

Given that George W. Bush has thus used the gassing of the Kurds at the town of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war as one of his justifications for Gulf War II, it is instructive to look at what might have actually happened there in 1988, on March 16 and 17.

According to Human Rights Watch, "at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 people, many of them women and children, were killed out of hand between February and September 1988, the victims being Iraqi Kurds systematically put to death in large numbers on the orders of the central government in Baghdad." The Iraqi army allegedly used chemical weapons in "40 separate attacks on Kurdish targets" during a campaign that HRW labels as genocide.

The statements raise a number of questions. Saddam Hussein was known to have possessed only mustard gas and nerve gases of various types (such as sarin) at the time. Reading the mustard gas writeup and some related documents shows that it is actually a blister agent that is primarily used to incapacitate--not kill--the enemy. While mustard does cause a lot of painful blistering and burns, and may in some cases cause death by pulmonary edema or secondary infections, the majority of those exposed to mustard gas tend to survive, and it has a fatality rate of only 2%. The Iranians, on the other hand, were known to possess at the time blood agents like hydrogen cyanide (better known as Zyklon B), that actually were designed to kill. While the nerve agents that Iraq possessed at the time were certainly just as lethal, the evidence of what happened at Halabja shows that these weapons were not used there.

In 1990, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College published a possible reconstruction of what may have actually happened at Halabja based on credible evidence that is available that contradicts the contentions of HRW and other commentators about the atrocities supposedly inflicted on the Iraqi Kurds of the city. The Iranians managed to overrun Halabja and its small Iraqi garrison on March 15th, and to ease retaking the town the Iraqis counterattacked the next day using mustard gas, but while they were were in the process of recapturing the town, the Iranians bombarded them with cyanide, killing many civilians in the process. They retook the town, with all of its grisly dead, and held onto it for several months, and blamed the Iraqis for the gas deaths. A credulous world media swallowed these allegations, and a little while later these were used by a cynical US administration as a rationale for a new war on Iraq.

Eyewitness accounts of the dead in Halabja by reporters and other observers on the scene report that the victims were blue in the extremities. Even the HRW report acknowledges this, saying: "Journalists noted that the lips of many corpses had turned blue." This is a clear sign that these victims were killed by cyanide or some other type of blood agent. Mustard gas or the GB/GF nerve agents Iraq was known to have at the time do not have this kind of effect on people. Iraq never possessed nor did it ever have the capacity to create such blood agents, but the Iranians did and were known to have used such weapons elsewhere in the conflict, so the inescapable conclusion is that it was primarily the Iranians who killed the Kurds of Halabja.

The Central Intelligence Agency had for fifteen years supported HRW's allegations, but in October 2003 they released a report that endorsed the War College's reconstruction and concluded that the Iranians perpetrated the attack in an attempt to sway world opinion on the war.

Stephen Pelletiere, former CIA analyst for Iraq at the time of the Iran-Iraq war, had this to say:

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent - that is, a cyanide-based gas - which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.

Further, Pelletiere's report found that international relief organizations ministering to Kurdish refugees in Turkey did not find any victims of poison gas. This leads one to be further skeptical of HRW's claims that chemical weapons were used elsewhere on the scale they describe, for certainly if it were true there should have been some refugees who would exhibit signs of being exposed to chemical warfare agents.

So while it may be true that Saddam Hussein may have perpetrated many other atrocities during his reign (where he was, for the most part, aided and abetted by the United States), and may well have mightily oppressed the Iraqi Kurdish population too, it seems that it isn't quite true that he "gassed his own people" to use George W. Bush's words.

Or at any rate, it didn't happen at Halabja, which was the only place where there was any real, reliable evidence for any kind chemical weapons attack.

1 Ironically, it may actually be his father's indiscriminate use of depleted uranium weapons a decade ago that might have caused these kinds of things on the people of Halabja in particular and on the Iraqi people in general...



Write-up does not mean reply, so rather let me develop the above. dido has written one theory about what occurred at Halabja in March 1988, but it is very much the minority report. Almost every organization and state that has expressed an opinion on the issue, many after intense investigation, have concluded that Iraq was responsible for the incident. This includes some of the reports dido actually cites. Ironically, the claim that Iran was responsible for the incident was actually disseminated in bad faith by the United States in an attempt to defend its ally, Iraq, and defame its enemy, Iran. Let's look at the facts.


Baghdad had gone to war with Iran in 1980, hoping to quash the appeal of the Iranian Revolution to the Shi'a that predominate in the Iraqi east and south. As is by now well known, given the tragic circumstances under which Iraq has the world's attention nowadays, the Kurds are a stateless people who are split across Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The Iran-Iraq war was an opportunity for the Kurds to try and wrestle back some control from Baghdad, and an insurgency was launched; some Kurds openly sided with Iran.

Saddam was vexed by this development, and began to Arabize Kurdish areas close to Iran. He set up exclusion zones and carried out a systematic campaign of destruction against the villages of rural Kurds, as it was in the countryside that he had difficulty keeping track of what was going on. Then, in 1983, guerrillas loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Party joined forces with Iranian regulars to seize an Iraqi border town, Haj Omran. This prompted a round-up of 8,000 Kurds from the clan of the leader of the KDP, and their subsequent execution. Saddam's repression was ratcheted up a notch.

The United States remained quiet about what was transpiring. In December 1982, the Reagan administration had begun to supply $210 million in agricultural credits to Iraq. This figure was soon upped to $500 million. Iran was seen as the most dangerous revisionist power in the region, and had attracted much ire in the United States due to the Iranian hostage crisis, where American embassy staff had been held captive by Iranian radicals. Reagan's national security team wanted to use Iraq to contain Iran, and hopefully weaken both in the process. It was a cynical tactic, and it involved turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by the Iraqis.

Iraqi forces had used chemical weapons against the Iranians as early as 1983, and witnessed a feeble response from the U.S. As author Samantha Power notes, 'Once Hussein saw he would not be sanctioned for using these weapons against Iran, the Iraqi dictator knew he was onto something'. In 1987, he appointed Ali Hassan al-Majid as secretary-general of Iraq's northern administrative zone. Al-Majid has two dubious honours. The first is that he was appointed overlord of Kuwait following Iraq's annexation of it, overseeing the brutal occupation. Secondly, he earned the nickname 'Chemical Ali' for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds.

In a campaign beginning in 1987 and lasting until late 1988, Al-Majid oversaw the destruction of over 4,000 villages and the execution of some 100,000 - 200,000 Kurds in pre-meditated mass killings which included the use of chemical weapons. This campaign, of which the Halabja massacre was a part, has been assiduously documented by Human Rights Watch (see below for link) based on 'several tons of captured Iraqi government documents and . . . field interviews with more than 350 witnesses'. Mass graves have been uncovered, and any traveller to the region will find simply empty space where a vibrant rural culture used to be.

The U.S. did little to discourage this campaign, which was presented in the American media as an anti-guerrilla war. Saddam was taken at his word that he was seeking to quell a rebellion among the Kurds. We know for sure that Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against the Kurds in dozens of incidents. And it appears that, operating with impunity, Saddam carried out the most deadly chemical weapons attack against civilians in history at Halabja.


In mid-March 1988, Kurdish and Iranian forces routed the Iraqi troops who were stationed in Halabja, which is about ten miles from the Iranian border. The Iraqi campaign against the rural Kurds had caused the population of the town to swell to some 80,000. When the town was hit with chemical weapons on March 16 and 17, it was under the control of Kurdish guerrillas and Iranian regulars and Revolutionary Guards, Iran's elite infantry unit. Hence, if the Iranians carried out the chemical weapon attack on Halabja, they deliberately struck their own elite forces.

Numerous eyewitnesses report seeing Iraqi planes delivering the payload. The Human Rights Watch report cited in the write-up above blames Iraq for the incident, and includes eyewitness testimony as to the culprit. Meanwhile, there is no credible testimony that attributes the attack to Iran. In fact, there is no credible testimony of Iranian use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war whatsoever. While Iraqi use has been documented by the United Nations, HRW, and other credible bodies, Iranian use has not been proven at all.

In fact, all the evidence indicates that Iran had no significant chemical weapons capability during the Iran-Iraq war. Even A.J. Venter, who has written a book highly critical of Iranian efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon and skeptical of Iranian claims to the contrary, is unable to drum up any evidence of Iran seeking a chemical weapons capability during this period. Human Rights Watch's point man on the subject, Joost Hiltermann, wrote in a 1995 book that allegations of Iranian use of chemical weapons were just that: allegations, with no proof. The disadvantageous peace agreement that Tehran eventually agreed to is often considered to have been partly a result of its feeling of vulnerability in this area of warfare.

In the light of this, quibbles over the particular colouration of skin and various symptoms seem rather academic. There is disagreement among experts about the particular effects to be expected from various weapons. The Halabja attack is also known to have involved a cocktail of deadly agents, which could have produced varying symptoms. Reports that Iran were responsible came from two principal sources, both of which are reflected in dido's notes above.

The first was the U.S. government. An initial Defence Intelligence Agency report concluded than Iran was responsible, but the agency later backed off from this claim. The State Department was quick to blame Iran, but this was more diplomatic maneouvre than a decision based on hard fact. Iraq was an ally of the United States, and Iran was an enemy: the Bush administration would still be trying to 'engage' with Iraq and befriend it on the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The Army War College report which is frequently cited as evidence of Iranian complicity was leaked at a time when, as the second Human Rights Watch report cited below notes, 'the Bush Administration was strenuously resisting renewed Congressional efforts to introduce comprehensive trade sanctions against Iraq'. The authors, continue HRW, 'cite no authority for their key allegations. In an earlier footnote, the report even notes that Iraq admitted using poison gas at Halabja.'

The second source was, of course, the Iraqis themselves. They were quick to blame Tehran, even though the attack fit Iraq's modus operandi, was part of a centrally-coordinated campaign to use chemical weapons against the Kurds which was a year old, and was carried out while Iranian and Kurdish forces held the town of Halabja. The Iranian regime, for all its faults, has never been proven to even have possessed chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, never mind use them. The Iraqis consistently did.

The Kurds of Halabja are still living with the after-effects of the gas attacks today. Allegations that it might have been depleted uranium rounds deployed by U.S. forces that are causing birth defects in Halabja are comical: American forces never went north of the Euphrates during the Gulf War, which by my crude calculation is some 300 miles from Halabja. The residents of Halabja are living with the terrible after-effects of the poisonous regime of Saddam Hussein. If Iraq is ever to know peace, then those responsible must be denounced by all Iraqis, including their own sectarian group, and brought to justice. If Iraqis do not confront their past as a nation, together, they are destined to confront the future apart, and at war.


You will find a basic narrative of the campaign against the Kurds and some specifics on Halabja in Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, a HRW report,

Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds?,a HRW report,

Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons: A Critical Analysis of Past Allegations, a report from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies,

A. J. Venter, Iran's Nuclear Option: Tehran's Quest for the Atom Bomb (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2005).

Joost Hiltermann, Iraq's Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

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