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Did Saddam Gas the Kurds?

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In a recent New York Times op-ed, Stephen Pelletiere argued that the March, 1988, gassing of Kurds during the waning months of the Iran-Iraq war may have been perpetrated by Iran, not Iraq. This issue has taken on importance because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds is often given as one ground for the U.S. to go to war to effect regime change. As it happens, Pelletiere, a former CIA analyst, is just plain wrong and appears not to have kept up with documentation made available during the past decade.

As a result of the successful bid for autonomy of Kurds in northern Iraq under the U.S. no-fly zone, tens of thousands of documents from the Iraqi secret police and military were captured by Kurdish rebels from 1991 forward. These were turned over to the U.S. government. Some ten thousand of them have been posted to the World Wide Web at the Iraq Research and Documentation Program at the Center for Middle East Studies of Harvard University: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~irdp/.

The captured documents explicitly refer to Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Kurds, called "Anfal" (spoils) operations. Some documents were reviewed by Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s, which issued a report, entitled "Genocide in Iraq." Robert Rabil, a researcher with the IRD Program, has also published an analysis of the documents, in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

The documents under review never mention Iraqi authorities taking precautions against Iranian uses of chemical weapons, and there is no good evidence that Iran did so. Since Iran and the Kurds were allies, Iran in any case had no motive to gas thousands of Kurds. The Baath documents do frequently mention the Anfal campaign of February-September 1988, when high Baath officials in the north were authorized to gas the Kurds.

The Kurdish minority of northern Iraq speaks an Indo-European language very different from the Semitic language of Arabic, and has long sought greater autonomy from Baghdad. Largely farmers and pastoralists, they practice a mystical, Sufi form of Islam that is distinctive in modern Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, which Saddam Hussein launched against his neighbor, the Kurds sought Iranian support for their insurgency. The Baath regime, threatened, responded by destroying Kurdish villages in strategic zones, resorting to ethnic cleansing.

These brutal conventional measures failed to achieve their objective, and for that reason the Baath regime initiated its chemical warfare on the Kurds in 1988. The operation was headed up by Saddam's cousin, Ali Hasan al-Majid, the Secretary-General of the Northern Bureau of the Ba'th Organization. For this reason, Iraqis call him "Chemical Ali."

The Baath regime launched 39 separate gas attacks against the Kurds, many of them targeting villages far from the Iran-Iraq border. Beginning at night on Thursday, March 16, and extending into Friday, March 17, 1988, the city of Halabja (population 70,000), was bombarded with twenty chemical and cluster bombs. Photographs show dead children in the street with lunch pails. An estimated 5,000 persons died. Although some analysts say the gas used was hydrogen cyanide (not in Iraq's arsenal), others have suggested it might have been sarin, VX, and tabun. Iraq is known to have these agents. (Iran is not known to have hydrogen cyanide, in any case).

High Iraqi officials, including Vice-Premier Tariq Aziz, have since admitted using chemical weapons against the Kurds. Last year, Radio Free Iraq broadcast the allegation by a former brigadier general in Saddam's air force that the command to use "extraordinary" weapons against Halabjah came from the president himself.

The Anfal campaign deeply traumatized the Kurdish people, and its psychological effects are felt powerfully to this day. Kurds of Halabja recently protested against Western skeptics who questioned whether Saddam had and would use chemical weapons. They said they were living proof that he did and would.

There is no doubt that Saddam launched this chemical weapons campaign (which was also waged on the battlefield against Iranian troops, with devastating results). Persons may argue in good faith about whether his resort to weapons of mass destruction in 1988 justifies forcible regime change now. My own knowledge of the horrors Saddam has perpetrated makes it impossible for me to stand against the coming war, however worried I am about its aftermath. World order is not served by unilateral military action, to which I do object. But world order, human rights and international law are likewise not served by allowing a genocidal monster to remain in power.

ALSO IN HNN: "He Has Gassed His Own People" (July 16, 2002).