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Halabja Revisited After 16 Years

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2004 – Sixteen years ago today, 5,000 innocent Iraqi civilians perished under a barrage of mustard gas; nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX; and possibly cyanide.

The brutal attack, launched by their own government, earned Saddam Hussein the dubious distinction of becoming the first world leader in modern times to have used chemical weapons on his own people.

The victims of the attack were residents of Halabja, 150 miles northeast of Baghdad and just south of the Iranian border. Three-quarters of them were women and children.

The chemical attacks on what has come to be known as "Bloody Friday" were the most unmerciful during a three-day assault that also included artillery fire and bombs dropped by Iraqi warplanes. As many as 12,000 people died during those three days.

The U.S. State Department reported that the attacks, part of Saddam's al-Anfal campaign, were aimed at repressing Kurdish revolts during the Iran-Iraq war.

But State Department officials said Saddam's goals were to do more than systematically terrorize and exterminate the Kurdish population in northern Iraq and to silence his critics -- he also wanted to test the effectiveness of his chemical and biological weapons.

Following the attack, Iraqi soldiers in protective gear returned to Halabja to study the effectiveness of their attack. According to State Department officials, the soldiers divided the city into grids to study the number and location of the dead and the extent of injuries. How the Iraqi dictator intended to use this information was anyone's guess.

During last year's 15th annual commemoration of the tragedy, President Bush called the attacks at Halabja a prime example of the evil Saddam Hussein perpetrated during his regime.

The attack on Halabja was not an isolated incident, but rather, part of a systematic campaign ordered by Saddam against Iraqi Kurdish civilians. Halabja was among about 250 villages targeted by the Iraqi government between April 1987 and August 1988. Human Rights Watch estimates that Iraqi forces killed 50,000 to 150,000 people during the campaign.

Mike Amitay, executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, said Halabja spells out some important lessons to the world.

"After the events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax crisis, it is clear that no one is immune from weapons of mass destruction," he said. "The people of Iraqi Kurdistan represent the largest civilian population ever exposed to such weapons. The benefit to the international community from learning about their experiences is incalculable."

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