Saddam Hussein’s Chemical War Against the Kurds
By Dlawer Abdul Aziz Ala'Aldeen
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Poison and Saddam Hussein
- Kurdish fears
- Events prior to the first use of chemical wepons in Kurdistan
- Mustard gas and the first clouds of death in Kurdistan
- Nerve gas and the Anfal operations
- The casualties and damages
- The environment
- Saddam's aggression rewarded
- Documents I
- Documents II
- Documents III
- Documents IV
- Table of attacks and casualties
- Maps of Iraq and Kurdistan
The Gulf war between
Governments from East and West, including the two major superpowers, have consistently refused to address the Kurdish issue, in part because stability in the region has not always been in their political or economic interests. During the Cold War era, both sides were heavily engaged in supporting powerful, yet often dictatorial regimes in the region, particularly in strategically important countries such as
This neglect by industrial nations has allowed the proliferation of chemical weapons and the production of these weapons across the globe. It is the urgent task of the United Nations to put an end, once and for all, to the production, proliferation and use of chemical and biological weapons. It would be made clear that the international community will not suffer arsenal of chemical weapons to be used against states or, indeed, against the minority populations of a particular nation.
In the Gulf war between
The recent history of the Kurds in
The record of the current Iraqi Ba'thist Party, which seized power through a coup d'etat in 1968 , reveals a long history of ruthlessness towards its opponents and national minorities. This includes physical and psychological harassment of people; unlawful extermination of individuals and members of the Kurdish and non-Kurdish pro-democracy opposition; violent suppression of mass unrest and, in the case of armed insurgency, bloody and exhaustive warfare on a massive scale regardless of cost.
when crowded schools, education centres and other public buildings were targeted on April 24th 1974 . During the four years of negotiation that preceded this war, the Ba'thist government made several failed attempts to assassinate the powerful Kurdish leader, Mala Mustafa Barzani. One of these attempts, in 1972, involved offering Barzani and his colleagues oranges that had been injected with deadly poisons.
Rumours began to emerge in the early eighties about
Although chemical weapons were not used against them until April, 1987, the Kurds had witnessed these weapons being used on Kurdish soil in Iranian Kurdistan in January, 1982, and against Iranian troops in the fierce battles of Haji Omaran and Grdamand in Arbil province, late in 1983 . Initially, suspicion that Saddam intended to use poison gases against the Kurdish democratic opposition was based on rumour, and speculation on the Iraqi military psychology. Suspicions were subsequently confirmed when taped communications, captured high-ranking military officers  and military documents revealed the Ba'thists' terrible plans.
Documents I and II, shown below, were captured by Peshmargas (freedom fighters) of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and clearly demonstrate the Iraqi military preparations for the use of chemical and biological weapons long before their eventual use. It is important to note that document I refers to the distribution and stocking of biological materials in addition to chemical ones. This was a further evidence that
It is important to look at the events prior to the use of chemical weapons in Kurdistan to enable the formation of a comprehensive picture of their deployment Therefore, a number of relevant historical events will be mentioned before presenting the available data concerning actual attacks.
The PUK saw a number of possible long-term achievements to be gained in these negotiations. For the first time since 1975, the Ba'thists officially recognised the Kurdish movement; they implicitly recognised the right of the Kurds to fight for their rights and confirmed that no genuine autonomy had been granted to them. In private, Saddam Hussein went as far as making a number of concessions to Talabani, the leader of PUK, promising a number of changes in
Sulaymania, Duhok and
- to remove and deport all the people from the "grey" areas where the government retained only partial control, raze their villages to the ground and prohibit re-building or any other activity (see document LII below).
- to impose a total economic blockade on defined "prohibition zones" where shoot-to-kill policies were applied and no moving creature was allowed to survive (see documents III and IV below).
- to bum down crops, farms, bushes, trees and other plants and to spoil the water supply.
- and finally, to launch systematic, and highly organised attacks on liberated areas at several stages (the Anfal operations, see below) on different fronts, in order to regain control over these areas.
Steps 1, 2 and 3 were all preparations for 4 in order to minimise the support to Kurdish fighters before the final attacks and to impose a total blockade on the whole region including the vast number of civilians and peasants who inhabited the area. It became evident that the target was not merely the Peshmargas but the whole population of
On April 15th, 1987, four planes flew very low over Helladen, Bergallu, Kanitu, Sirwan, Awazic, Noljika and Chinara, all in Sulaymania province , and dropped very unusual bombs in each of these small towns and villages. The people were unfamiliar with the strange sound of the bombs, the unusual colour of the smoke, the absence of the normal rocket attacks and the peculiar tin-like bomb shells that actually fell. It was long feared that the Iraqi Government might seek to use chemical weapons in battles with the Peshmarga. However, it did not occur to the villagers that these odd-looking shells were poison weapons, being dropped without any prior fighting or provocation in the area . In Bargalu, five men went to the scene of the bombing after the planes had left and began close examination of the shells and craters. Puzzled by their findings, some (like Mr. Rawaz) went as far as touching the peculiar shells, carrying them to the town centre. It was past midnight before examiners of the bombs, one of whom (Hakem Omar Aziz) now lives in
As a result of this first attack there were tens of serious casualties. In Bargalu, almost all the inhabitants suffered from severe headaches, weakness and other mild symptoms which took several days to disappear. Those who were exposed to heavy doses of the gas, because they were close to the attack area or were downwind, suffered extensive eye, skin and lung injuries. Infection of the wounds often led to complications and many died as a result. Those who survived tended to be disfigured by scars, developed various eye problems or had chronic breathing disorders . Doctors stressed that lack of proper advice on protective measures and ignorance played a significant role in worsening the effects of these bombs. There were no laboratory means of identifying the chemical used. However, from the symptoms and injuries the doctors concluded that a powerful vesicant poison, like Mustard gas, was the agent used in these raids.
On the very next day, April 16th, Arbil province was attacked by Iraqi planes and several villages were bombed with similar poisonous gases. These villages were Sheikh Wassanan, Totma, Zeni, Ballokawa, Alana, Darash and the whole of the
From our contacts with doctors and paramedics in the Kurdish cities, we learnt that all the staff were ordered not to treat or in any way assist victims and were ordered to inform the authorities about the presence of any patient bearing wounds from chemical weapons. Failure to do so, or any moves to publicise the occurrence of such injuries, would be subjected to the severest punishment possible. My mother was severely injured in one of these attacks and was subsequently taken to Arbil for proper medical treatment. There she consulted one of my old medical colleagues in Arbil Teaching Hospital who was shocked and terrified by their meeting. He refused to examine my mother and his only advice to her was to go back to where she came from as soon as possible, or else she would be caught by the authorities like those in Sheikh Wassanan and would not be seen again.
The attacks of April 15th and 16th were followed by daily attacks on villages and Peshmarga strongholds in Arbil and Sulaymania provinces for at least six days (as shown in the table below), causing death and injury to hundreds of people. On May Day, 1987, the people in the liberated areas of Duhok, another province in Iraqi Kurdistan, witnessed their first raids by chemical weapons in which two people died and tens were injured. The major Kurdish
By mid 1987 chemical attacks on the Kurds had become a daily reality and it was clear that the Government would no longer hesitate to use these weapons in spite of the indiscriminate nature of poison gas attack. Unlike the war with Iran, where chemical weapon attacks were almost always preceded by fierce fighting and concern over military defeat, most attacks in Kurdistan were completely unprovoked and were not preceded by military activities by the Peshmarga in those areas. On the contrary, the government used chemical weapons as a preliminary step to terrify people and generate panic before waging organised military offensives. Furthemore, in many instances aircraft were witnessed dropping bombs on uninhabited land and farms far from villages for no apparent military reason other than the poisoning of the environment .
Mustard gas at first remained the predominant chemical weapon used and it was not until the Government launched the "Anfal Operations" that the more toxic nerve gases were used on a wide scale in
Escaping death became more difficult. The conventional methods of protection were no longer useful as the gases (odourless and lighter than mustard gas) seeped through the wet breathing-turbans, damaging the respiratory system of the victim. People were seen gasping and struggling for breath and helplessly lying on the ground jerking with convulsions. Mr. K. Bakhtiar, 27, a victim and eye witness recalled his experience when his village was attacked by the fast killing nerve gas. He said: "We all knew it was a gas attack and tried to follow the usual steps of protection. But this time it was different. First, I saw people behaving strangely and so were the animals, acting as if they were struggling. Some were lying on the ground. I saw birds falling off the trees. Every thing was mad. I knew that the situation was very dangerous and I was frightened and did not know what to do but to run away towards the hill. I felt like I was weak, unable to run or fully control my movements. My mouth was full, I could not see properly, but worst of all, I could not breath normally. I did not know what I was doing and realised that I must be dying. I can not remember any more and I must have lost concience. Doctors tell me that it is a true miracle that I am alive and I believe so too. This is my second life and I am trying to enjoy the most of it."
The numbers of deaths increased considerably. In Halabja, 5,000 died and over 9,000 were injured . It is important to clarify events before the holocaust of Halabja and to stress a very important historical fact, as I have noticed that the world media, press and public have been mislead so far. Halabja was not occupied by Iranian troops before the Iraqi planes bombarded the town with chemical weapons. Halabja was liberated from government control by the Kurdish Peshmargas, mainly from the PUK who were partially assisted by the other Kurdish organisations . Mr Shawkat Haji Mushir, a member of the leadership committee of the PUK, led 500 Peshmarga and fought his way towards Halabja while government forces were busy carrying out the Anfal-I operation in Jafaty valley. The people of Halabja, desperate for freedom, welcomed the native Peshmargas, including their leader who was himself from the town of
In Dashti Koya, and the
Chemical attacks became increasingly intense and widespread all over
The available data, see the table below, consists of reported victims with chemical injuries only [15, 17, 20, 21, 23, 28]. It was not easy to maintain a proper record of the casualties in these areas due to the far from ideal circumstances of collecting information. Not registered were those who suffered mild injuries, those who did not come forward for treatment and those who were outside the attack areas and received injuries as a result of breathing-in poison blown by the wind. The latter casualties were much higher than all initial estimates, due to the massive scale of the attacks. An eye witness, Mrs N. Khidir, 49, spoke about her experience in Bargalu when she, and many others, woke up in the morning with headaches, tight chests and a general feeling of weakness. At first she thought her symptoms were due to a bout of flu, but it soon became known that they had been breathing in poison gas which had traveled on the wind from Sargalu, a village few miles away, which was bombarded late the previous night with artillery shells loaded with chemical weapons.
Panic would fill the minds of the people in risk areas with each air raid or artillery bombardment. The whole population would run in panic, screaming "Kimiawy, Kimiawy". Children ran in fear looking for parents, parents wandered in panic trying to account for members of their family. Some would rush to their homes to grab breathing cloths (or old gas masks for the few lucky ones) and then dash to higher altitudes. Mr. F. Karim, 29, an eye witness, said that on one occasion "as soon as the cloud from smoke of the bombs started to spread we went climbing the mountain. Only after reaching the top I realised that I was running with one bare foot and had dropped a fruit sack which I was carrying at the time. I was shaking and we were all looking down at the village in the valley watching the other villagers, including women, children and even animals, running in all directions and we could hear them crying. I suddenly realised that my handicapped cousin was left behind. I wanted to go back and rescue him, but friends stopped me and said 'if you go down you will never come back and we will lose you both. The only thing you could do is to sit down and pray for him'. Mr Karim added "He is martyred, and I still feel guilty because I forgot him at the time of panic, I should have behaved like a brave man and should have saved him despite the risks".
Soon after the planes had gone, people would head towards the areas attacked to assist the injured and bury the dead. The injured were usually taken to local health centres, where young Peshmarga doctors or paramedics were based. For the doctors, the difficulties were endless. In most areas they could not offer any treatment. In most centres, no oxygen or life-support machines were at their disposal to support victims with severe lung or bone marrow damages. They were only able to offer first aid, advice and some symptom- relieving agents like pain killers or eye drops. They used to clean the wounds with antiseptics and protect them from infection. "The severely affected either died before us or were sent across the border to
Also not included in the available data is the amount of damage inflicted by the chemical weapons on the environment and wild life. Mr Omer, 28, injured in March, 1988, and currently being treated in
Kurdistan is the most fertile part of
Animals like birds, chickens, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, cats, guard dogs and even insects like bees were not spared . Animals suffered in various ways. Some were directly affected just like the humans and killed instantly or suffered from watery eyes, burnt skin, damaged lungs and ill health. Others were indirectly affected either through eating contaminated grass and wild plants or drinking contaminated water. Many starved due to lack of healthy pet food and were therefore put down by their owners. Some of the sick animals and even the more healthy ones were sold at very cheap prices (one tenth or even one twentieth of normal). Owners of these animals had tremendous problems in selling diary products like milk, yoghurt and cheese and even meat because people in the cities refused to buy potentially contaminated animal products. This also forced owners to destroy their animals. It goes without saying that the local wild life all suffered a great deal. There were scenes of snakes lying dead on the ground; falcons lying dead as a result of feeding on the carcasses of poisoned animals; frogs and tortoises lying dead at the lakesides and fish floating dead in the water, dead flies, cockroaches and earthworms were everywhere.
By the end of May, 1988 the area looked like a different planet. The land had become uninhabitable and the people, including the Peshmargas, had to retreat from the Sulaymania area and parts of Arbil province in the face of massive poison attacks. Elsewhere, the Kurds were still able to maintain liberated areas and Peshmargas were able to repulse Government forces in fierce battles, inflicting heavy losses on the government. The situation remained unstable throughout this period until
The lucky ones who managed to cross the border into
The Bahdinan tragedy gained international publicity and aroused public concern world wide. But the governments of the major world powers and of the Middle Eastern countries failed to condemn Saddam for this inhuman attack on his own citizens. The Soviet Union failed to comment on the tragedy in its own internal media and went as far as condemning the Western media for publicising the gas attacks calling it "American propaganda" against sovereign Iraq based on "no evidence" . Some Western countries even rewarded Saddam by increasing his credit for buying military hardware . Most of the Arab states failed to express any humanitarian concern and some of them, such as
The impotence of the international community and the lack of condemnation from individual governments in the face of Saddam's clear violation of human rights allowed this regime to continue with its genocidal war. Indeed, some expert media commentators suggested that western impotence acted as an incentive to Saddam to continue these monstrous attacks . Chemical bombardment of Sheikh Bizeni and Hamea in Kirkuk province and Chami Razan in Sulaymania province in mid October, 1988, only a few weeks after the Bahdinan holocaust, showed that Saddam was swift to realise the opportunity that this lack of opposition offered him.
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