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Halabja poison gas attack

The Halabja poison gas attack was an incident on March 15-19 1988 when either Iran or Iraq used chemical weapons to kill an estimated 7,000 people in the Iraqi town of Halabja (population 80,000). Halabja is located about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad and 8-10 miles from the Iranian border.

Photo said to have been taken in the aftermath of the attack.

Most accounts of the incident regard Iraq as the party responsible for the gas attack, which occurred during the Iran-Iraq War. For example, the TerrorismCentral web site states, "The poison gas attack on the Iraqi town of Halabja was the largest-scale chemical weapons (CW) attack against a civilian population in modern times. ...The CW attack began early in the evening of March 16th, when a group of eight aircraft began dropping chemical bombs, and the chemical bombardment continued all night. ... The Halabja attack involved multiple chemical agents, including mustard gas, and the nerve agents SARIN, TABUN and VX."

Some debate continues, however, over the question of whether Iraq was really the responsible party. In part, this controversy stems from the fact that the Halabja incident and other uses of chemical weapons by Iraq occurred while Iraq was receiving military and economic support from the United States. "By any measure, the American record on Halabja is shameful," says Joost R. Hiltermann of Human Rights Watch, which has extensively investigated the Halabja incident. In fact, the U.S. State Department even "instructed its diplomats to say that Iran was partly to blame. The result of this stunning act of sophistry was that the international community failed to muster the will to condemn Iraq strongly for an act as heinous as the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center."

Some people affiliated with the United States government at the time of the Halabja attack continue to insist that Iran, rather than Iraq, committed the atrocity. "All we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds," wrote Stephen C. Pelletiere in a January 2003 opinion piece for the New York Times. "I am in a position to know," he stated, "because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair."

Pelletiere's position is disputed, however, by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has conducted its own extensive investigations into the incident. According to HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth, "Iraqi forces used mustard and nerve gases, as well as mass executions, to kill some 100,000 Kurds in the genocidal 1988 Anfal campaign. The commander, Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, said of the Kurds, in a taped speech obtained by Human Rights Watch: 'I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community?' The evidence is incontrovertible: Iraq is responsible for the crime of genocide, committed against its own Kurdish population. The gassing at Halabja was part of that crime."

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