Halabja chemical weapons: A chance to find the men who armed Saddam
Nearly 25 years ago, Iraqi forces killed thousands of their own civilians using chemical weapons on the Kurdish town of Halabja. Now steps are about to be taken to discover which country – and possibly which factory – supplied some of the chemicals.
The result of the chemical warfare attack on Halabja, on 16 March 1988, was one of the worst sights I have ever seen. Everywhere there were huddled bodies, lying in the street, sheltering against walls.
When I looked closer, I could see that many of them were protecting someone else, who was also dead: a baby, a child, a wife.
There was no protection against the nerve agents and gases which Saddam Hussein’s men had dropped indiscriminately on Halabja to teach its Kurdish inhabitants a lesson.
I had seen the results of chemical warfare against soldiers, earlier in the Iran-Iraq War; that was terrible enough. But seeing what these insidious, cruel gases did to wholly unprotected men, women and children was worse.
Sometimes the gases which the Iraqi air force had used had an almost instantaneous effect. I saw one house where a bomb had penetrated the ceiling of a room in which several people had been eating a meal.
All were dead; but it had clearly happened within a second or so. One old man had died as he bit off a piece of bread. Another was smiling, and seemed to have been cut off in the middle of a joke.
Other people had died slowly and in the most excruciating pain.
I saw the body of a woman whose body was twisted almost into a circle, the back of her head touching her feet. There was vomit and blood on her clothes, and her face was contorted in agony.
The Iraqi air force used a variety of chemicals against the town: nerve agents like VX, Sarin and Tabun, and the terrible but far more primitive mustard gas, the use of which dates back to World War I.
Nowadays, some of the bombs which were used are displayed at the museum in Halabja. Many are equipped with internal fans, which were used to mix the chemicals together.
There were two days of conventional bombing before the gas attack. It seems as though Ali Hassan al-Majid wanted to break the windows in the town, so there would be as little resistance to the gas as possible.
Iran’s government spotted the chance of a propaganda victory by showing the world the crimes which Saddam Hussein had carried out against his own people.
The Iranian authorities had prevented the survivors of the bombing from coming back to bury the dead, so they would still be there for us to see.
How many people died in Halabja? I wandered round counting the bodies with a Belgian chemical warfare specialist.
Time was short: the Iraqis knew we were there – our helicopters had been fired on as we came in – and their air force was thought to be coming back, perhaps with more chemical weapons to use against us.
Inevitably, our count was hasty and inadequate. But it seemed to us that there were the best part of 5,000 bodies lying around the town. Others had died on the outskirts, as they tried to cross the mountains into Iran.
This figure, vague though it is, is pretty much accepted by the various experts on the attack.
Yet a quarter of a century later, the horror is not over. Some of the mustard gas which was used is still present in the cellars of the town, where people took refuge during the bombing.
Unlike the nerve agents, which evaporated very fast, mustard gas is heavier than air. It sinks down and forms pockets which are still dangerous today.
When my team and I went down the steps of one house into the cellar, the gas residue, caught there in the old carpeting, made our eyes prickle and gave us headaches for hours afterwards.
On the floor lay the contorted bodies of a couple of rats and the skeleton of a cat which had died from breathing the gas. We were told that a man had died recently from inhaling it in another cellar nearby.
25 year anniversary..seems to be resonating with the syrian crisis
so they dont know who gave saddam the chemicals?..like hell they dont..is it really that hard to work out..they were gifts from the west axis to help fight iran..its that simple..