The Halabja poison gas attack (Kurdish: Kîmyabarana Helebce), also known as Halabja massacre or Bloody Friday, was a genocidal massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War, when chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government forces in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people, and injured around 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians; thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack. The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq, was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.
The Halabja attack has been recognized as a separate event from the Anfal Genocide that was also conducted against the Kurdish people by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the Halabja massacre as an act of genocide on March 1, 2010, a decision welcomed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The attack was also condemned as a crime against humanity by the Parliament of Canada.
It was an event that is historically separate from the Operation Anfal (the 1986-1989 campaign conducted by Saddam Hussein’s regime’s in order to terrorize the Kurdish rural population and end the peshmerga rebellions by brutal means), as the Iranian troops allied to the rebels were also involved in the Halabja events. Nevertheless, the victims of the tragedy are often included in accounting the deaths attributable to the Anfal campaign, which was characterised by the widespread and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by Iraq.
The five-hour attack began early in the evening of March 16, 1988, following a series of indiscriminate conventional (rocket and napalm) attacks, when Iraqi MiG and Mirage aircraft began dropping chemical bombs on Halabja’s residential areas, far from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town. According to regional Kurdish rebel commanders, Iraqi aircraft conducted up to 14 bombings in sorties of seven to eight planes each; helicopters coordinating the operation were also seen. Eyewitnesses told of clouds of smoke billowing upward “white, black and then yellow”‘, rising as a column about 150 feet (46 m) in the air.
Survivors said the gas at first smelled of sweet apples; they said people died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals (some of the victims “just dropped dead” while others “died of laughing”; while still others took a few minutes to die, first “burning and blistering” or coughing up green vomit). It is believed that Iraqi forces used multiple chemical agents during the attack, including mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX; some sources have also pointed to the blood agent hydrogen cyanide (most of the wounded taken to hospitals in the Iranian capital Tehran were suffering from mustard gas exposure).
The first images after the attack were taken by Iranian journalists who later spread the pictures in Iranian newspapers; a film of the atrocity was also shown worldwide via news programmes. Some of those first pictures were taken by Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan. Recalling the scenes at Halabja, Golestan described the scene to Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times: he was about eight kilometres outside Halabja with a military helicopter when the Iraqi MiG-23 fighter-bombers flew in. “It was not as big as a nuclear mushroom cloud, but several smaller ones: thick smoke,” he said. He was shocked by the scenes on his arrival in the town, though he had seen gas attacks before during the brutal Iran-Iraq War:
It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (…) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.
Saddam Hussein’s government officially blamed Iran for the attack. The international response at the time was muted and the United States even suggested Iran was responsible. The United States government, which at the time was allied with Iraq in its war with Iran, said the images could not be verified to be the responsibility of Iraq.
Destruction and partial restoration of the city
After the city was retaken from the hands of the Iranian and Kurdish forces, Iraqi troops in NBC suits came to Halabja to study the effectiveness of their weapons and attacks. The town, littered with unburied dead, was then systematically razed by the Iraqi forces using bulldozers and explosives. It was partially rebuilt by the returning Kurds later, even as chemical weapons contaminated the food and water supplies,soil, and animal populations. In 2003, some 50,000 people lived in the city, compared to some 80,000 in 1988. As of 2008, it is believed there are still undiscovered mass graves in Halabja.
Medical and genetic consequences
In surveys by local doctors, a higher percentage of medical disorders, miscarriages (14 times higher), and colon cancer (10 times higher) was found in Halabja compared to Chamchamal; additionally, “other cancers, respiratory ailments, skin and eye problems, fertility and reproductive disorders are measurably higher in Halabja and other areas caught in chemical attacks”. Some of those who survived the attack or were apparently injured only lightly at the time, later developed medical problems doctors believe stemmed from the chemicals, and there are concerns that the attack may be having a lasting genetic impact on the Kurdish population, as preliminary surveys show increased rates of birth defects.
On December 23, 2005, a Dutch court sentenced Frans van Anraat, a businessman who bought chemicals on the world market and sold them to Saddam’s regime, to 15 years in prison. The Dutch court ruled that Saddam committed genocide against the people of Halabja; this was the first time a court described the Halabja attack as an act of genocide. On 12 March 2008, the government of Iraq announced plans to take further legal action against the suppliers of chemicals used in the poison gas attack.
Neither Saddam Hussein nor his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (who commanded Iraqi forces in northern Iraq in that period, which earned him a nickname of “Chemical Ali”) were charged by the Iraqi Special Tribunal for crimes against humanity relating to the events at Halabja. However, the Iraqi prosecutors had “500 documented baskets of crimes during the Hussein regime” and Hussein was condemned to death based on just one case (the 1982 Dujail Massacre). Among several documents revealed during the trial of Saddam Hussein, one was a 1987 memorandum from Iraq’s military intelligence seeking permission from the president’s office to use mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin against Kurds. A second document said in reply that Saddam had ordered military intelligence to study the possibility of a “sudden strike” using such weapons against Iranian and Kurdish forces. An internal memo written by military intelligence confirmed it had received approval from the president’s office for a strike using “special ammunition” and emphasized that no strike would be launched without first informing the president.
On 18 December 2006, Saddam Hussein told the court:
In relation to Iran, if any military or civil official claims that Saddam gave orders to use either conventional or special ammunition, which as explained is chemical, I will take responsibility with honor. But I will discuss any act committed against our people and any Iraqi citizen, whether Arab or Kurdish. I don’t accept any insult to my principles or to me personally.
Ali Hassan al-Majid (“Chemical Ali”) was condemned to death by hanging by an Iraqi court in January 2010, after being found guilty of orchestrating the Halabja massacre. Majid was first sentenced to hang in 2007 for his role in a 1988 military campaign against ethnic Kurds, codenamed Operation Anfal; in 2008 he also twice received a death sentence for his crimes against the Iraqi Shia Muslims, in particular for his role in crushing the 1991 uprisings in southern Iraq and his involvement in the 1999 killings in the Sadr City (then Saddam City) district of Baghdad. He was executed on January 25, 2010.
International sources for technology and chemical precursors
The know-how and material for developing chemical weapons were obtained by Saddam’s regime from foreign firms.The largest suppliers of precursors for chemical weapons production were in Singapore (4,515 tons), the Netherlands (4,261 tons), Egypt (2,400 tons), India (2,343 tons), and West Germany (1,027 tons). One Indian company, Exomet Plastics (now part of EPC Industrie Ltd.) sent 2,292 tons of precursor chemicals to Iraq. The Kim Al-Khaleej firm, located in Singapore and affiliated to United Arab Emirates, supplied more than 4,500 tons of VX, sarin, and mustard gas precursors and production equipment to Iraq.
The provision of chemical precursors from United States companies to Iraq was enabled by a Ronald Reagan administration policy that removed Iraq from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Leaked portions of Iraq’s “Full, Final and Complete” disclosure of the sources for its weapons programs shows that thiodiglycol, a substance needed to manufacture mustard gas, was among the chemical precursors provided to Iraq from US companies such as Alcolac International and Phillips. Both companies have since undergone reorganization and Phillips, once a subsidiary of Phillips Petroleum is now part of ConocoPhillips, an American oil and discount fossil fuel company, while Alcolac International has since dissolved and reformed as Alcolac Inc. Alcolac was named as a defendant in the Aziz v. Iraq case presently pending in the United States District Court (Case No. 1:09-cv-00869-MJG).
Allegations of Iranian involvement
An investigation into responsibility for the Halabja massacre, by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, Project Leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concluded in 2007 that Iraq was the culprit, and not Iran. The U.S. State Department, however, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, took the official position based on examination of available evidence that Iran was partly to blame.
A preliminary Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) study at the time reported that it was Iran that was responsible for the attack, an assessment which was used subsequently by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for much of the early 1990s. The CIA’s senior political analyst for the Iran-Iraq war, Stephen C. Pelletiere, co-authored an unclassified analysis of the war which contained a brief summary of the DIA study’s key points. The CIA altered its position radically in the late 1990s and cited Halabja frequently in its evidence of weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Pelletiere claimed that a fact that has not been successfully challenged is that Iraq was not known to have possessed the cyanide-based blood agents determined to have been responsible for the condition of the bodies that were examined, and that blue discolorations around the mouths of the victims and in their extremities, pointed to Iranian-used gas as the culprit. Leo Casey writing in Dissent Magazine argued that “None of the authors of these documents … had any expertise in medical and forensic sciences, and their speculation doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny.” Some opponents to the Iraq sanctions have cited the DIA report to support their position that Iraq was not responsible for the Halabja attack.
Joost Hiltermann, who was the principal researcher for the Human Rights Watch between 1992–1994, conducted a two-year study of the massacre, including a field investigation in northern Iraq. According to his analysis of thousands of captured Iraqi secret police documents and declassified U.S. government documents, as well as interviews with scores of Kurdish survivors, senior Iraqi defectors and retired U.S. intelligence officers, it is clear that Iraq carried out the attack on Halabja, and that the United States, fully aware of this, accused Iran, Iraq’s enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack. This research concluded there were numerous other gas attacks, unquestionably perpetrated against the Kurds by the Iraqi armed forces. According to Hiltermann, the literature on the Iran-Iraq war reflects a number of allegations of chemical weapons use by Iran, but these are “marred by a lack of specificity as to time and place, and the failure to provide any sort of evidence”. Hiltermann called these allegations “mere assertions” and added that “no persuasive evidence of the claim that Iran was the primary culprit was ever presented.” The 2002 International Crisis Rroup (ICG) no. 136 “Arming Sadaam:The Yugoslav Connection” concludes it was “tacit approval” by many world governments that led to the Iraqi regime being armed with weapons of mass destruction, despite sanctions, because of the ongoing Iranian conflict.