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Revisiting Halabjah: Lessons Of A Tragedy

Joost Hiltermann (TV screen shot) Joost Hiltermann was the primary researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the 1987-88 Al-Anfal campaign by Saddam Hussein's regime -- a campaign that sought to annihilate northern Iraq's Kurdish population. The March 16, 1988, chemical attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabjah, which killed an estimated 5,000 people, is the subject of Hiltermann's latest book, "A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja." Hiltermann, now the International Crisis Group's deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa, spoke to RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Halabjah attack.

RFE/RL: Could you share with us your thoughts about the significance the 20th anniversary of the Halabjah chemical attacks and what it means to you as someone who closely studied what had happened there?

Joost Hiltermann: It's been 20 years. That's not such a long time. The events that transpired in 1988 are still very fresh in the memories of those who lived through these terrible times in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was there a month ago, and the scars are very visible. Interestingly, the Kurdistan Regional Government is only now starting to draw international attention to these events -- obviously for political reasons. But it is very important that the memory of these events be kept alive. What happened was, first of all, a chemical attack on a major town that killed thousands. The first such attack in history. So far the only one; hopefully, it will always be the only one. Secondly, [it was part of] a counterinsurgency campaign that involved the systematic murder of tens of thousands of civilians -- Kurdish civilians -- in an act of genocide that also is relatively unknown in the world.

I have published on this. Human Rights Watch, of course, as an organization has published on this. But until now, very few people know what happened. Some key elements of these events remain disputed, or controversial. What is most important maybe [is] that no significant help has come to the victims. It hasn't come from the Kurdistan regional government. It hasn't come from the international community. And that's a terrible thing. People feel abandoned, forgotten.... They feel they've paid for something that they weren't part of, really -- for example, the Iranian incursion into Halabjah that provoked the chemical attack, or the Kurdish insurgency by Kurdish parties in the rural areas of [Iraqi] Kurdistan that maybe was supported by people in a lukewarm sort of way -- but that they weren't really part of in fighting terms, and they paid the price.

RFE/RL: Why do you think it took so long for the reports of the chemical strikes during Halabjah to actually hit the radar screens of people in the West? In your book, you talk about how it took a fair amount of time for people to become aware of [the chemical attacks], and even then it was never seen for the severity of what was taking place.

Hiltermann: We were dealing with two countries -- Iran and Iraq -- that were closed, at least at the time, and access for independent observers was almost impossible. There are some notable exceptions to that. But they are so limited that they just simply didn't have the magnitude to reach a larger audience. And so, the fact of the matter is that when chemical strikes began -- when Iraq began using chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers [as part of the Iran-Iraq war] -- even though this was known at the time, nobody really cared because these were Iranian soldiers and Iran was in the doghouse, having gone through the Islamic revolution, [having] taken American hostages, started kidnapping people through Hizballah in Lebanon, etc. It was not a country that was part of the international community as such. So whatever happened to Iran was irrelevant.

Secondly, when chemical-weapons attacks started against Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi Kurdish parties tried to publicize this. But these accusations were deemed biased and ungrounded. And so no one really -- except for a very small group of people -- believed that these allegations were true. And again, there was no access. So nobody could verify it. And when the large chemical attack on Halabjah took place in March 1988, it took about a week before the Iranians managed to get foreign journalists into Halabjah, which they controlled. So the images of the death scenes in Halabja were available in people's living rooms through television within a week. But, because it was the Iranians who organized this, it allowed the elements in the Reagan administration to accuse Iran of being partly to blame for what had happened -- including for carrying out chemical strikes in Halabjah. So the whole picture was muddied and there was never really any clarity as to who was really responsible for the chemical attack in Halabjah. So international opinion turned elsewhere.

RFE/RL: In your book, you write about the Iraqi regime's ultimate responsibility for what happened. But you also say the Kurdish peshmerga put civilians in Halabjah in danger because of their entry into the town -- and, of course, facilitating Iranian troop movements toward the town. So who do you think was responsible?

Hiltermann: There's a debate going on within the Kurdish community about the level of responsibility on the part of the Iraqi Kurdish parties. Clearly, the perpetrator is the guilty party: Saddam Hussein's regime carried out a chemical attack against a defenseless population. It is guilty of that attack.

However there is some complicity there, not only by the United States, which allowed Iraq to use chemical weapons and even assisted [Iraq] with satellite intelligence. But the Iraqi Kurdish parties did make a mistake by bringing Iran into Iraqi territory during a war that was in many ways existential to both countries. This was, of course, an act of treason from an Iraqi point of view, and this justified -- in their eyes, in the Iraqi regime's eyes -- the retaliation that they carried out. Again, attacking a defenseless city of civilians is not legal. It's clearly a war crime, a crime against humanity. And the perpetrators have been or will be put on trial for that.

The other argument is a moral argument. The Kurdish parties: Should they have done this -- brought the Iranians into the town, knowing as they did, that the Iraqi regime would retaliate for that? Of course, nobody knew exactly what the Iraqi regime would do. But they knew the brutality of that regime, and they knew whatever the regime would do would be brutal and would be...mostly against the civilians, because the peshmergas -- the Kurdish fighters -- had ways of protecting themselves relatively well, including against chemical attacks. And so this is the debate. And I think it is very important and very healthy that this debate take place -- and that people come clean about why they took certain decisions at the time.

RFE/RL: What were the discussions on Al-Anfal about during your trip to cities like Kirkuk, Irbil, and Al-Sulaymaniyah?

Hiltermann: I attended a conference on Anfal in Irbil at the end of January, and there were some people there who were victims of Anfal. Otherwise, there were a number of researchers who gave presentations. And there were a lot of Kurdish intellectuals who take an active interest in these issues and who were there to debate the various issues that came out in the presentations. There was a lively debate over Anfal and Halabjah and those issues. And my book was released in Kurdish on the final day of the conference. So hopefully that also will set in motion a further debate in terms not only of who perpetrated the attack but what were the enabling circumstances at the time.

RFE/RL: What is being done now to help the victims of Anfal? Are there long-standing effects on the next generation because of the chemical attacks? Also, media reports during the past two or three years indicate that people in Halabjah are very unhappy with the regional government and the lack of services for the population.

Hiltermann: First of all, I should say that there's absolutely no evidence of birth defects resulting from the use of chemical weapons in 1988 in Halabjah. Whatever problems have been seen there, no one has been able to prove any connection to the chemical attack. It may well be environmental factors involved here.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't a serious situation for the victims. First of all, victims of mustard gas who survive do tend to show long-term effects. And if you go to Iran today, you find that people continue to die two decades after exposure to mustard gas from the delayed after-effects. They are in very painful conditions. And that we see with all victims in [Iraqi] Kurdistan as well.

The second issue is that people were not only attacked with chemical weapons, but they were also systematically murdered otherwise. And those who survived lost their entire families in many cases -- and in most cases, their breadwinners. So they are widowed, with large numbers of children usually, and [living] in indigent circumstances, with very few resources, no real income, totally dependent on charity and the goodwill of the regional government.

The complaint has been that the regional government has ignored the plight of these people, by and large; it hasn't addressed their real social and economic problems. Secondly, in the case of Halabjah, the people accuse the regional government of bringing in foreigners to see the mass graves, the monument [built to honor the victims of Halabjah], etc. -- but not extending any aid that they think these foreigners are bringing. They think this money disappears into the coffers of the regional government. It may or it may not. But the perception is that it does. This has led [Halabjah residents] even two years ago, during the annual commemoration on March 16, to burn down the memorial that was erected there in their honor. They burned down their own memorial out of outrage over the regional government's neglect of this very important issue -- the issue that defines their lives.

RFE/RL: What is the lesson of Anfal?

Hiltermann: There are a number of lessons from Anfal. One is that if you build up a dictator, that dictator will do things that you may not have wanted him to do. You wanted a dictator to contain Iran by stopping [the Iranians] at the border, including with chemical weapons. But that dictator then turns around and uses those chemical weapons against defenseless civilian populations. This is, of course, I doubt, what was intended. But it was totally embarrassing, clearly, as it was to the Reagan administration -- which explains the dissimulation that occurred subsequently.

Secondly, I would say that if justice is not done to...ensure that people who committed these acts are punished appropriately, then there is no effective deterrent. And other leaders, elsewhere, may take away the lesson that they can act with impunity. And that's a very dangerous precedent, especially in the case of a chemical attack on a major town.

And thirdly, I would say for political actors and non-state actors such as the Kurdish parties were at the time, to ally themselves with a neighboring state, with which their own government -- which, of course, they don't recognize as a legitimate government, fair enough -- but with which their own government is at war, themselves in the midst of a civilian population, then it is predictable that that regime will take revenge against the population in order to drain the sea in which the peshmerga fish [were] swimming. And this can only be brutal, and that means that these parties have a certain responsibility as well, in order to prevent harm to the civilians. Because they were [in effect] using the civilians as shields. And that, of course, is clearly out of order.

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