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Report from Iraq: Halabja and the Politics of Tragedy

REPORT FROM IRAQ: Non-violent protests by the people of Halabja at the 25th anniversary commemorations of the town's gassing help highlight the political misuse of the massacre.

ImageSaturday was the 25th anniversary of the March 16, 1988 gassing of the town of Halabja, which is north-east of Baghdad and whose backdrop is the mountains that make up part of the Iran-Iraq border. This attack killed upwards of 5000 civilians, mostly women and children, injuring thousands more as Iraqi planes dropped chemical bombs on the town.

Having previously visited the town in April 2009 I returned to Halabja on Saturday to be part of the commemorations, although, for reasons I'll explain later, this most recent trip can only just be described as an actual visit to Halabja as it was a very sanitised version of the town, where the true impoverished nature of the place was kept hidden from visiting eyes.

Away from ceremony and international attention, the first time I visited Halabja I met a man who had lost 24 members of his family of which he was the only one to survive, he lost brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, nieces, nephews, his parents and his grandparents. He himself only survived because he had been injured in a previous 'conventional' attack a couple of days earlier and had shrapnel in his leg. For this reason alone he was outside the centre of the town receiving treatment as the chemical attack rained down on his family and all the others that were murdered on that March day in 1988.

I've visited the mass graves in the town's cemetery and I've walked the same small back streets which were once littered with bodies that effectively drowned in poison gas. This walk led me to the home of a man who lost five of his seven children. I say 'lost' but that's not a word that properly describes the event, 'stolen' is closer as these children were brutally murdered in one of the most appalling of ways. He spoke through his tears and cries of pain of how the gas had knocked him unconscious in a way that he was convinced would kill him but that would leave his children alive. He woke up with a dead child lying in each arm and to then find a further three taken from him, left in the streets where the chemicals took hold of them.

There was nowhere to hide and only luck saved the survivors. As he told his story on the walls were pictures of the five young children now in the mass graveyard a short walk from his house. The two that survived have gone on to grow older, to get married and live happy and successful lives, one in Iraq and one in Germany.


ImageThe murderous crime that occurred in 1988 has since be used as a political tool, indeed, at times it almost appears as if Halabja is the default setting example to invoke to best argue your position in regards to Iraq, whatever that may happen to be.

Both Nick Cohen in a op-ed for the Observer and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair before him have in recent months invoked and directly used Halabja to articulate and justify their particular stances on the validity of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq ten years ago.

The political misuse of the gassings extends not just to those in the west but also to Iraqi politicians, particularly those of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) who govern the northern part of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the grandson of the founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the nephew of the KRG's current President Massoud Barzani, was in attendance at the 25th anniversary commemorations alongside numerous foreign dignitaries. Just as Bazani was coming to the end of his speech, a small group of young men stood up and held aloft protest signs written in both English and Kurdish that condemned the broken promises that had been made to the people of Halabja, specifically in relation to a promise that Halabja would become its own governorate so it could administer its own badly needed services.

Whilst much has been promised to Halabja, often in the name of the massacre that occurred there, little has actually been delivered and it remains an undeveloped and impoverished town.

I felt moved and humbled by the bravery these young men expressed in defiance of potentially serious repercussions. They did so knowingly and told me of their fears both before and after their action of what might happen to them once the commemorative event was over.

As the protesters made their way towards the front of the seated guests and the assembled media others joined them, improvising signs and cheering them on.

ImagePerhaps the irony of the day was when one of Bazani's handlers spoke to the protesters saying that if they ceased their protest the Prime Minister would be willing to speak to them once the event was over. As it turned out, having accepted the deal after a few hours the handler returned to say that Bazani was too busy to meet with them after the event and that they should instead come and visit him in his office in Howler (Erbil), 160 miles away, at some point in the future. In effect, Bazani broke a promise to meet with protesters denouncing broken political promises.

If I had not been to Halabja before, beyond the dignity of the protesters, I would have no sense of the place or its people following this event.

Whereas in previous years the commemorations were held in the cemetery that is in the heart of the town, on this occasion it was held in a massive tent on its outskirts. In addition to which, the mile or so march along a closed road towards the town was furnished with banners along the side of the road. One of the protesters told me that this was done so those visiting the town would not see the state of disrepair the roads and buildings were in. Upon leaving the event I walked on the other side of the banners on a small road that ran parallel to the main, closed off road used for the procession and in doing so it became immediately clear what the protester was talking about.

The protest that occurred on Saturday was set against a prolonged backdrop of actions against what many see as the high-jacking of a tragedy for political ends whilst the town itself is marred in a lack of basic services. These recent commemorations cost $25 million, a vast sum of money that could have been spent providing much needed services to the town and to the victims of the 1988 atrocity being remembered.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State during the 2003 invasion, opened the memorial to the victims of the 1988 gassing in Halabja that sits on the outskirts of the impoverished town. At that point the names of the victims were clearly visible on the lower section of the monument that is shaped like hands grasping into the air in agony but where soon blackened by smoke from a fire that left the lower section of the memorial in ruins.

The fire itself was a deliberate act and one initially blamed on "Kurdish Islamists or infiltrators from Iran" by KRG officials. The reality of the situation is somewhat different, it was in fact residents of Halabja that undertook this defiant act, seeing the monument not as a commemorative artifact but instead a symbol of corruption and how the history of the town led to political promises about providing resources that were in fact hollow and empty rhetoric. As Jonathan Steele once wrote, "For victims to destroy their own monument is almost unprecedented."
In 2006, following that year's commemorations, Patrick Cockburn made the direct link between the constant highlighting of the plight of Halabja in relation to the gassing whilst failing to recognise the town's current developmental issues: "Although the poison gas attack on Halabja is frequently invoked as a symbol of their people's suffering by Kurdish leaders the inhabitants of Halabja complain that their houses are dilapidated and supplies of water and electricity are poor."

As the BBC reported at the time of the fire, "Entire neighbourhoods in the city are rubble, streets remain unpaved and schools are dingy and decrepit." This followed a visit in 2004 by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L Paul Bremer, who was the defacto head of state during the first year of the occupation, who "said the town served as proof that the US-led invasion of Iraq was justified". Two years on and "the people of the town are saying that officials have used the atrocities for their own political ends, but they have seen little in return."

After a call for reconstruction of their ruined town to be quicker in its progress, during the demonstrations that followed government security personnel fired live ammunition over the heads of oncoming demonstrators, "a panicky move that only enraged people - and fled as furious protesters approached the monument before setting it ablaze." A young student was shot and killed.

No inquiry was held into the shooting and whilst the soldiers who fired their weapons were questioned they were not punished for doing so.

In the wake of this action money was subsequently allocated by the KRG to Halabja for reconstruction and development but the town "still ha[d] no running water supply or sewerage."


Halabja was not always such a politically expedient tool. Indeed, at the time of the atrocity, and the ongoing Anfal campaign, Halabja was political inconvenient. Just after the conclusion of the Gulf War Human Rights Watch reported in March 1991 that in the three years since the chemical attacks "the international community has done practically nothing to help the Halabja survivors, or the other tens of thousands of Kurds driven out of their country by Iraq's chemical warfare."  

Despite this lack of any help to the people directly affected by the chemical attacks, since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait "Halabja has become a leitmotif for Saddam Hussein's disregard of human rights, and a major rationale for the war."

In part it was in Halabja's name that the 2003 war was also justified, still to this day Tony Blair invokes the events there to help provide the moral legitimacy for the invasion. Indeed, the US Congress authorisation in October 2002 granting the president the power to undertake military action against Iraq directly cited the willingness of Iraq to use "weapons of mass destruction against other nations and its own people".

Yet despite this, whilst invoking their suffering via Halabja the on-going plight of the Kurds generally and the people of Halabja specifically are often completely missing from the narrative and discourse about Iraq. Indeed, as mentioned in recent blogs, the Turkish bombing for instance is at best underreported in the international meida and even many here in northern Iraq aren't aware of the Turkish military bases on Iraqi soil, let alone it being widely known outside of the country.

Returning to the aforementioned recent examples from the UK, in the former Prime Minister's case this was as a response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid figurehead and Nobel laureate, who had refused to appear at an October 2012 leadership conference due to the fact that Blair would also be attending. In explaining his decision not to attend, Archbishop Tutu described what he saw as a morally indefensible invasion of Iraq and a lack of leadership on Blair's part

"Leadership and morality are indivisible. Good leaders are the custodians of morality. The question is not whether Saddam Hussein was good or bad or how many of his people he massacred. The point is that Mr Bush and Mr Blair should not have allowed themselves to stoop to his immoral level… My appeal to Mr Blair is not to talk about leadership, but to demonstrate it."

Consequently, Archbishop Tutu felt an "increasingly profound sense of discomfort about attending a summit on "leadership" with Mr Blair."

Blair's response to this and subsequent claims of immorality by Archbishop Tutu was to invoke Halabja.

After expressing his "great respect for Archbishop Tutu's fight against apartheid" Blair turned to Halabja and the use of chemical weapons, "to say that the fact that Saddam massacred hundreds of thousands of his citizens is irrelevant to the morality of removing him is bizarre" Blair argued. To support this he then went on to point out that, "We have just had the memorials both of the Halabja massacre, where thousands of people were murdered in one day by Saddam's use of chemical weapons, and that of the Iran-Iraq war where casualties numbered up to a million including many killed by chemical weapons."

On a side note, it is interesting to point out that the examples Blair uses to denote the positive effects of the war, "despite the problems" in Iraq, are likely to be explained in part by the removal of the economic sanctions against Iraq, the maintenance of which Blair was a strong advocate of during his premiership, than by the war and subsequent occupation; Blair highlights three specific examples of denominators of post-war success in making his argument for the morality of invading the country in 2003, stressing that "Iraq today has an economy three times or more in size, with the child mortality rate cut by a third of what it was. And with investment hugely increased in places like Basra." All would be somewhat natural consequences of lifting the sanctions regime.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Blair's reference to Halabja that was picked up by the press when covering the issue, as evidenced in the coverage by the BBC, the Guardian (more than once), and the Independent.

Many of those in the UK cabinet at the time of the 2003 invasion that openly supported the war had been members of parliament at the time of the 1988 gassing and failed to register any formal condemnation of the event at the time. Just days after the gassing an Early Day Motion was tabled in the House of Commons that condemned Iraq's use of chemical weapons. Despite being a parliamentarian, Tony Blair did not sign the March 24, 1988 motion, neither did Geoff Hoon who was Defence Secretary at the time of the 2003 invasion, nor Jack Straw the Foreign Secretary at the time of the invasion.

None of them signed the condemnations that followed on the first, sixth and tenth anniversaries of the attack in 1989, 1994 and 1998 respectively. [N.B. For a comedic take on this see Mark Thomas in the New Statesman.]


Like Blair before him, Nick Cohen in the Observer directly cites Halabja to provide justification for the 2003 invasion, stressing that, when allowed, "I then talk about Saddam's terror state and the Ba'ath's slaughter of the "impure" Kurdish minority, accomplished in true Hitlerian fashion with poison gas."

Whilst invoking Anfal and Halabja and talking about this as a forgotten history by those that objected to the 2003 invasion, at no point does Cohen address any of the current Iraqi Kurds complaints, not a single one. None of the regrets he expresses about the consequences of the occupation directly relate to Kurdish issues. Instead of citing even one of the litany of genuine complaints Iraqi Kurds currently have, Cohen simply uses these atrocities to, ten years on, maintain that his support of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was justified. Without a hint of irony, Cohen accuses others of "being selfish" in invoking morality to justify their position.


The appeal to Halabja is perhaps an instinctive one as the events of 16 March, 1988 are one of the most profound single examples of Saddam's regime's brutality. With up to 5000 indiscriminately dead within but a few hours and killed by the horror that is chemical warfare, this single event rightfully lives long in the memory, but what compounds this barbarism further was that it was set against the wider context of the Anfal campaign. The Anfal campaign, undertaken by the Ba'athist regime during the Iran-Iraq war, killed 182,000 people and destroyed thousands of villages in a determined and concerted effort to destroy a people within the borders of Iraq.

The point here is not an attempt to denigrate or diminish the undeniable horrors and scale of tragedy that unfolded in Halabja in 1988 but rather to locate it within the wider context of the Anfal campaign. Explicit in this attempt is a desire to highlight the plight of the Kurdish people in Iraq more generally both historically but also in the present tense in terms of the nepotism, lack of political transparency and the general political corruption that currently blights the administration of the region.

As the official event on Saturday was coming to a close, a considered and apt summation was put to me in a single sentence by one of the young protesters, "Halabja", he told me, "has been bombed twice; first by chemical weapons 25 years ago and then by lies ever since."

 It's hard not to agree.

Topics: Iraq | Activism