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...