Friday, March 16, 2007

March 16

Nineteen years ago today, the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja was struck by mustard, sarin and cyanide gas weapons during the last brutal months of the Iran-Iraq War -- already one of the most senseless conflicts in a century already brimming with them. The massacre lasted for two days, killing 5000 immediately and perhaps as many as 12,000 within a few weeks; birth defect and cancer rates subsequently accelerated in the region, as the effects of the massacre lingered.

At the time of the attack, Halabja was part of nearly 25,000 square miles of Iraqi territory that had been recovered in recent years by Kurdish insurgents, who had been locked in varying states of combat with the Baghdad government since the early 1960s. Beginning in spring 1987, seeking to tip the balance of the war, Saddam Hussein’s military forces renewed their campaign against the Kurds and focused their attention on towns and cities like Halabja, Kormal, and Dojeyleh that lay along the border with Iran. By this point in the war, Iranian fighters had spilled into Iraq and had taken shelter in the Kurdish areas, with whose residents they were allied. The Iraqi government was determined to root out the foreign fighters while collectively punishing the Kurds for their resistance.

Helicopters and planes -- many of the former manufactured in and sold by the United States -- began assaulting Hallabja on the morning of March 16 and continued through the 18th. The people of Halabja were thrown into a panic -- people wandered the streets, dazed and vomiting, collapsing by the thousands in their homes and as they tried to flee. When the attacks subsided, Iranian military forces escorted journalists and photographers through the human wreckage. David Hirt, writing in the London-based Guardian a week after the massacre, described the ghostly aftermath:
No wounds, no blood, no traces of explosions can be found on the bodies -- scores of men, women and children, livestock and pet animals -- that litter the flat-topped dwellings and crude earthen streets in this remote and neglected Kurdish town...

The skin of the bodies is strangely discolored, with their eyes open and staring where they have not disappeared into their sockets, a grayish slime oozing from their mouths and their fingers still grotesquely twisted.

Death seemingly caught them almost unawares in the midst of their household chores. They had just the strength, some of them, to make it to the doorways of their homes, only to collapse there a few feet beyond. Here a mother seems to clasp her children in a last embrace, there an old man shields an infant from he cannot have known what...
After the accounts and photographs of Halabjah were broadcast to the world, the events in Kurdistan were largely ignored by Western nations, including the United States. The Reagan administration in fact blocked efforts by the US Congress as well as the United Nations to investigate and/or condemn the chemical attacks. Instead, additional grain credits were extended to allow Saddam Hussein’s regime to continue its war against the Iranian theocracy.

By the end of the 1990s, Halabja was rarely mentioned in the American press and almost never by political leaders like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. By the summer of 2002, however, Bush administration officials had developed a certain fondness for the town’s name, invoking it as often as possible as the United State prepared for yet another war against Saddam Hussein. Three days before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, George W. Bush spoke in his radio address about the anniversary of the Halabja massacre:
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.
Much, of course, could be said for the rest of the country, which has been littered for four years now with depleted uranium from American weapons used to “disarm” Saddam Hussein.

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