Skip to comments.Many Iraqi Arabs Never Heard of 1988 Gassing of Kurds
Posted on 04/28/2003 10:18:54 AM PDT by bedolido
MANQOUBEH, Iraq (AP) - While the horrific images of streets strewn with bodies shook the world, many Iraqi Arabs remain unaware of Saddam Hussein's gas attack that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds 15 years ago. And those Arabs who heard rumors of the slaughter in the northern city of Halabja say they did not believe them at the time. Some remain unconvinced today.
The chemical attack on the Kurds stands as one of the most egregious examples of Saddam's brutality against his own people. It was cited by President Bush as proof that Saddam had the willingness and ability to use weapons of mass destruction - a key justification for the war that toppled Saddam.
The attack and its memory also underscore the different experiences of the Arabs and Kurds who live uneasily as neighbors in northern Iraq. The success of any post-Saddam government could falter if relations between the two ethnic groups deteriorate.
Halabja lies on the southern fringe of Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Iranian border. Some 5,000 Kurds died there when they were attacked with bombs carrying mustard gas and other poisonous gases on March 16, 1988, part of a scorched-earth campaign to wipe out a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq.
It was easy for Saddam's repressive regime, which enforced strict censorship, to keep news of the slaughter from spreading. As a result, very few people in the village of Manqouba, 155 miles west of Halabja, had heard of the chemical massacre there. And even fewer believed it.
Iraqi Arabs in other towns in northern Iraq's oil-producing province of Kirkuk showed similar disbelief, even though Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen live side by side in the region. In fact, until Iraqi security documents were seized during the Kurdish uprising of 1991, even many Kurds of northern Iraq had not heard of the Halabja attack or didn't know details of it.
Nafeh Mohammed Saleh, 42, and his brother Adel, 40, were soldiers in the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Adel was serving in Panjwain, in northern Iraq, close to Halabja.
"We heard there had been a chemical attack but we didn't know where - in the north or the south or the central sector," Adel said.
Nafeh said he had seen a video of the dead that his Kurdish friends had shown him, with children and women lying dead in the streets.
"But I don't know if it was a genuine film," Nafeh said, fingering his worry beads. "People talked, but we didn't hear it from anyone who had seen it himself. We still have our doubts."
He added: "I heard they bombed Halabja because they wanted to get the Iranians out. I heard they had bombed them with crushed stones - not chemicals."
On March 15, 1988, Halabja fell to the Kurdish peshmerga fighters of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which was supported by Iranian revolutionary guards. The next morning, Iraqi MiG and Mirage jets dropped bombs that engulfed the town in a sickly stench. In the space of a few hours, 5,000 people had died.
The attack was ordered by Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam who was later dubbed "Chemical Ali" by opponents. He was believed killed in coalition bombing this month in Basra.
The United Nations and human rights groups have assembled a mass of evidence of the Iraqi chemical attack on Halabja, including witness accounts and internal Iraqi military documents. However, Saddam's regime always denied any role, saying Iran gassed the city.
Wassim Mohammed al-Hamdani, 33, said he only heard of the Halabja gassing a couple of months ago. "Kurds told us that they were bombed by chemical weapons," he said.
He said he believed the attack had occurred because the man who told him was a Muslim and true Muslims do not lie.
But Salem Mohammed al-Hamdani, 45, insisted that the attack could not have occurred. He said he was in Halabja recently.
"Impossible, impossible," he said, using his index finger to stress his point.