In his long reign of calculated cruelty Saddam has used every means available to him – from assassination, kidnapping and torture, to full-scale war, poison gas, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportation. But even by his standards, the gassing of civilians in Halabja on 16 March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, is an act with few parallels. It has also become the test case, repeatedly cited in recent months of build-up to another war, of how “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people”.
But there are a few outstanding questions regarding Halabja, and Saddam is not the only villain.
For years before this particular atrocity, only a handful of London-based reporters and regional specialists (including myself) condemned Saddam. Ours were lone and isolated voices. Most western media organisations lapped up the deliberately misleading agenda set by lobby briefings and the White House and State Department. In the words of Geoffrey Kemp, at the time the head of the Near & Middle East at the State Department - Saddam was “our son of a bitch”.
The Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, was relentlessly demonised by US government sources, and a steady stream of stories appeared about children who were sent to clear minefields armed only with plastic keys to the ‘pearly gate’ of martyrdom. Khomeini was the monster who had to be stopped by all means, even if it meant enlisting the support of neighbourhood gangster Saddam Hussein.
The first recorded use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war was in 1982, two years into the conflict. Both sides used them, but Saddam was the first, in response to Iran’s vast manpower that had begun to turn the tide on Iraq’s initial advances.
On more than one occasion, seasoned British foreign correspondents – very much the minority in the press corps - informed the British and American embassies in Baghdad of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. It was even discovered that some of Saddam’s mustard gas was delivered by British-made artillery shells (although there is no suggestion of British involvement in modifying their use).
British and American diplomats refused to act on anything other than material evidence. They never sought such proof themselves, and knew full well that it was near impossible for we reporters to secure it. One journalist who tried, Farzad Bazoft of The Observer, was caught at Baghdad airport in 1989 with soil samples that would have provided crucial evidence. He was jailed, tortured, forced to sign a confession of being a spy, and executed on 15 March 1990.
A crime of war
Halabja was a turning-point because for the first time the evidence of chemical attack was impossible to ignore. The town had no military or economic value in itself, but control of it allowed access to a strategic road controlling a complex of water projects in north-east Iraq. The Iranians wanted to take it and it was the scene of heavy fighting.
According to a suppressed CIA report mentioned in the book The Iran-Iraq War: chaos in a vacuum by former CIA political analyst Stephen Pelletiere, the Iranians did use chemical weapons in the battle around Halabja.
It is certain that the town changed hands during the fighting and in a desperate attempt to fend off the Iranians, the Iraqi commanders ordered the use of mustard gas. There were at least two raids made by low-flying Iraqi aircraft spraying the gas - some Kurds claim there were more.
According to Pelletiere, the CIA report indicates that Kurdish civilians were collateral damage, and were not a deliberate target of Saddam. He also suggests that many deaths were caused by a cyanide-based gas, which was used by the Iranians, and not by the Iraqis.
I recall being invited by the Iraqi press attaché in London to the Brompton hospital to interview Iraqi soldiers being treated for the effects of poison gas. He claimed this was the result of Iranian attacks. I regret not investigating the story more fully at the time. I gave in to pressure from my editor who was convinced the Iraqis were affected by their own gas and not the Iranians’.
The Iranians flew an ITN camera crew which happened to be in Tehran straight into Halabja, together with agency photographers. It took three more weeks for the world to realise the full scale of the horror. Even at this stage, Washington and London were not interested in taking the story any further: they continued to support Saddam.
If it had not been for a number of honest journalists, and the US Congressman Peter Galbraith (who, a year later, fought to introduce an anti-genocide bill), the issue would never have been raised or debated in Congress.
Some commentators saw Halabja as Saddam’s vicious revenge against Kurdish disloyalty to him. It could also be seen as a warning of what might await them if they were to let their villages and positions fall into Iranian hands. Whether Saddam deliberately targeted the Kurds, or whether they were caught in crossfire as Iraq targeted Iranian soldiers, the fact remains that whoever gave the orders - Saddam or one of his officers - was fully aware that the theatre of deployment for this horrendous weapon was a mass of civilian men, women and children. That is a war crime.
In the months that followed, Kurds were targets for Saddam’s gas in other villages north and west of Halabja. The Iranians were interested in the plains west of the town, and there is evidence that Saddam’s forces continued to use chemical attacks to fend them off.
Even after the war ended, Saddam continued to use chemical agents to settle scores with the Kurds. Beekeepers on the Turkish side of the border reported the death of their bees as the wind carried a whiff of poison gas that Saddam had sprayed miles away in Kurdistan. But official voices in Washington and London maintained their silence.
Now that Saddam is no longer the favoured ‘son of a bitch’ of Washington and London, the State Department and the Foreign Office make frequent reference to Halabja, trying to convince those of us who reported Saddam’s atrocities long before them, of what a monster the man is. These are some of the same people who tried to discredit us when we first reported his atrocities two decades ago.
The current anniversary of Halabja comes amidst a great debate about the real aims and reasons for the war over Iraq that is about to start. There are, however, few signs that western statesmen have given up their addiction to secrecy, double standards and double-talk.
There is no doubt that regime change in Iraq, and full implementation of UN resolutions to secure human rights, are universally desirable. The legal grounds for going to war are debatable, although Kosovo may be seen as a precedent.
Yet George W. Bush and Tony Blair have not served their cause by citing Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction as a reason for war (none of the dictator’s neighbours see these as a real threat) before switching the emphasis to Halabja and other atrocities. The lack of trust in these leaders’ honesty and good intention makes people doubt whether they will truly help ensure that a tragedy like Halabja never happens again.