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).