Bush Challenges Iran, Offers 'Way Forward' In Nuclear DisputeU.S. President George W. Bush has told Persian-language broadcaster Radio Farda in an exclusive interview that it is Iran's "right" to have a civilian nuclear-power program but that there is no need for the country to enrich uranium.
Bush also voiced support for offers by third countries, including Russia, to process nuclear fuel for Iran could provide a solution to the heated international dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.
In an extensive interview ahead of the start of the Persian New Year on March 21, the U.S. president expressed "great respect for the people" of Iran but emphasized that "we've got problems with the [Iranian] government."
Bush cited his "belief that the Iranians should have a civilian nuclear-power program. It's in their right to have it." But he added: "The problem is that the [Iranian] government cannot be trusted to enrich uranium because, one, they've hidden programs in the past and they may be hiding one now -- who knows? And secondly, they've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people -- some -- in the Middle East."
Iran has consistently said that its uranium-enrichment program is aimed only at producing energy, but the United States and some allies fear Iran is seeking the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
"There's a chance that the U.S. and Iran can reconcile their differences, but the government is going to have to make different choices," Bush said. "And one [such choice] is to verifiably suspend the enrichment of uranium, at which time there is a way forward."
The UN Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions against Iran in an effort to pressure Tehran to halt its enrichment activities.
"What is acceptable to me is to work with a nation like Russia to provide the fuel so that the plant can go forward, which therefore shows that the Iranian government doesn't need to learn to enrich [uranium]," Bush said.
Speaking on the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led coalition's invasion of Iraq, Bush reiterated his resolve not to "run in the face of violence" and said the United States and its allies are "there for the right reason, which is to promote freedom and peace."
"We are promoting and helping the Iraqis develop a free society," he said, adding that "a free Iraq will help the Iranians seek the blessings of a free society."
U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing weapons and training to armed opponents of Iraq's central government, a charge that Tehran has dismissed.
"A peaceful Iraq will depend upon making it clear to the Iranians to stop exporting weapons from Iran into Iraq that arm militias and arm criminal gangs that cause there to be harm for the innocent people," Bush said.
Bush challenged Tehran over restrictions on free speech and political participation, including a swipe at the March 14 parliamentary elections in which scores of reformist candidacies were disqualified.
"This is a regime that says they have elections but they get to decide who's on the ballot, which is not a free and fair election," Bush said. "So this is a regime and a society that's got a long way to go. But the people of Iran can rest assured that the United States -- whether I'm president or [it's] the next president -- will strongly support their desires to live in a free society."
Radio Farda is a joint broadcasting venture between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
Interview conducted by Radio Farda correspondent Parichehr Farzam
Iranian Magazines Shut Down Over 'Immoral' Coverage Of Hollywood Celebs
Thirteen other publications were warned to avoid printing similar photos and stories -- or face losing their publishing licenses.
The Culture Ministry announced the closures, accusing them of publishing stories about "immoral and corrupt" Hollywood stars and for promoting "superstitions."
"Sobh-e Zendegi," "Havar," "Donya'e Tasvir," "Baznegari," "Talash," "Haft," "Neda’e Iran" and "Be Sooye Eftekhar" were among the magazines whose publishing licenses were revoked by the ministry.
"Sobh-e Zendegi" had recently published photos of actresses Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, and Naomi Watts with short reports about their lives.
The foreign movie stars were pictured without head covering but all were wearing long sleeves and loose clothes -- the practice tolerated in some Iranian state media.
Most of the magazines generally shy away from politics, and mostly focus on lifestyle, celebrities, cinema, and family issues. The only exception is "Havar," a magazine published in Kurdistan Province, which covers political and social issues.
Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman for Iran's Association for Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that although the publications do not cover politics, their closures were politically motivated.
"The government of [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad interferes with everything; it doesn’t have to be only politics," Shamsolvaezin says. "The authorities want literary and cultural publications to follow the government's line. These publication were closed down because they did not follow the Ministry of Culture's policies."
On its website, the ministry says it banned the magazines for using photos of artists "as instruments [to arouse people's desire], publishing details of their decadent private lives, propagating medicines without authorization, promoting superstitions."
The ministry's Press Supervisory Board, a body controlled by hard-line conservatives, did not elaborate about the magazines' alleged practice of promoting superstitions. The publications often run advertisements for vitamins and remedies, including pills to treat impotence.
The magazines, including "Haft" and "Talash," have been popular among Iranian youth. Some news agencies have argued that their ban will not have a significant effect on young people because similar information about celebrities, cinema, and culture is available elsewhere, including on the Internet.
However, Shamsolvaezin says the magazines' closures will have an impact on Iranian journalists, driving them to self-censorship to keep their jobs and prevent similar bans on their publications.
"As a result, hundreds of journalists lose their jobs, they are forced to change their profession or go abroad. Journalists working for other publications [will] practice self-censorship," Shamsolvaezin says. "These are direct impacts. It also has an indirect impact on public opinion. People want to have their favorite publications but the government deprives the public of their right to have such publications."
More than 50 pro-reform publications have been closed down and dozens of journalists and editors have been jailed in Iran on vague charges since 2005.
Most recently, "Zanan," a monthly publication that has covered women's issues for the past 16 years, had its license revoked. "Madrasseh," "Sharqh," and "Karnameh" are among many other publications that have been shut down by the authorities.
Many Iranian journalists have come under pressure for working for independent and pro-reform publications.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF,) a Paris-based group that advocates media rights, dozens of Iranian journalists have been imprisoned "just for doing their jobs."
Reza Moeni, who is in charge of affairs in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan for RSF, tells RFE/RL that two female Internet journalists -- Jelveh Javaheri and Maryam Khosseinkhah -- were recently arrested in connection with their professional activities. Both were subsequently released after paying heavy bails, but many other journalists are still serving their sentences.
"We call Iran the 'biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East' in recent years because it has the biggest number of imprisoned journalists," Moeni says. "Last year, more than 50 journalists were detained, arrested, and sentenced. The sentences range from three months in prison to the death penalty."
Iranian journalists Hassan Falahizadeh and Kaveh Javanmard have been serving prison terms for the past two years, while Mohammad Siddigh Kabud-Band has been detained without charges.
The spokesman for Iran's Association for Press Freedom says it is unlikely that the nine magazines would be able to reinstate their licenses to publish. The association also questions the Press Supervisory Board's right to shut down the magazines, arguing that it "does not have the legal authority to make such decisions."
Parsing The Iranian Parliamentary ElectionsRFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari says broad patterns emerge from the March 14 voting that suggest President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will have a tougher time with the new parliament than with its predecessor.
Iran's Conservatives Claim Victory, But President Faces New ChallengesIran's Interior Ministry says conservative allies of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have received 70 of the 190 parliamentary seats decided so far, although full results from the March 14 national elections have not been announced.
Although reformists are questioning the vote count, it was clear before the vote that the president's allies -- who call themselves "principle-ists" to emphasize their loyalty to what they regard as the Islamic republic's values -- would fare well. The Guardians Council -- an unelected body of jurists and clerics answerable only to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- had barred hundreds of opposition reformists from running on grounds they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or the 1979 revolution.
Because of those disqualifications, the EU Presidency called the elections "neither free nor free" -- a judgment rejected by Iran's Foreign Ministry as "hasty, politically motivated, opportunistic, and hence unacceptable."
Nonetheless, the question now is how the results bode for Ahmadinejad's future ahead of next year's vital presidential election, when he is expected to run for a second four-year term.
Many observers say the election results do not necessarily mean the political atmosphere in the new Majlis will be the same as in the outgoing parliament -- or that all conservative deputies will necessarily back Ahmadinejad's policies.
Isa Sahakhiz, a Tehran-based independent journalist, tells Radio Farda that the president and his government will face challenges from the new legislature. Sahakhiz says those challenges will come not only from some 50 reformists and a group of independents in the Majlis, but from some conservatives themselves.
"The issue is there are some moderate people and Mr. Ahmadinejad's rivals among the [conservatives] who have been elected to the parliament," Sahakhiz says. "I think the government is going to face serious challenges, especially during discussions over the economy. In some cases, the situation would go to the brink of crisis."
Some prominent conservatives apparently share the same viewpoint.
Ali Larijani, a conservative who secured an impressive victory in the religious city of Qom, warned the results "should not lead to arrogance" among conservatives. Larijani, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, predicted that the new Majlis would be "much more effective than the current one, and give priority to national interests."
Larijani belongs to those conservatives known as "revisionists." They backed Ahmadinejad at the beginning of his presidency, but later distanced themselves over his uncompromising stance on the nuclear issues as well as his economic policies.
Many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad for high unemployment and inflation that has soared reportedly to as high as 20 percent.
Larijani will head a powerful bloc of more pragmatic conservatives inside the new parliament, and according to some media reports he may be offered the post of speaker of the Majlis. The two blocs of conservatives are expected to occupy about two-thirds of parliament after runoffs are held.
The speaker of the current Majlis, Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel, is another critic of the president's approach to economic issues. Hadad-Adel, reelected in a landslide in Tehran, said his faction does not intend to have disputes with the president but added that it "will not blindly approve all the government's decisions, either."
Both Larijani and Hadad-Adel, as well as former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, are seen by many as potential candidates in the 2009 presidential vote. So is the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, also seen as a pragmatic conservative.
With such powerful rivals reportedly lining up for a run at the presidency, observers inside Iran say that Ahmadinejad is far from guaranteed reelection next year despite his allies' victory on March 14.
So as one election comes to a close, the campaign for another seems to have already begun.
With additional wire reports
Revisiting Halabjah: Lessons Of A TragedyJoost 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, and...place 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.
Revisiting Halabjah: Survivors Talk About Horror Of Attack, Continuing OrdealRadio Free Iraq correspondent Ahmad al-Zubaidi traveled to Halabjah recently to talk to survivors of the March 1988 attacks about the physical and psychological effects of the tragedy.
RFE/RL: There are no official statistics on the number of casualties from the 1988 chemical attack against Halabjah. But estimates by the media and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Halabjah Martyrs Organization, suggest that about 5,000 civilians were killed -- mostly women, children, and elderly who were unable to flee the town quickly enough. Kherwan, a native of Halabjah, still remembers the sound and smell of bombs and artillery shells that were packed with lethal chemical agents.
Kherwan: It was a beautiful spring day. As the clock approached 11:00 in the morning, I felt a strange sensation; my heart convulsed as if it were telling me that we were on the verge of a major calamity. Within minutes, artillery rounds began to explode in Halabjah and planes began dropping bombs on the town. The bombing was concentrated on the northern neighborhoods, so we ran and hid in our basement. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, as the intensity of the bombing wound down, I carefully sneaked out of the basement to the kitchen and carried food to my family. When the bombing stopped, we began to hear noises that sounded like metal pieces falling on the ground. But I didn’t find an explanation.
I saw things that I won't forget for as long as I live. It started with a loud strange noise that sounded like bombs exploding, and a man came running into our house, shouting, "Gas! Gas!" We hurried into our car and closed its windows. I think the car was rolling over the bodies of innocent people. I saw people lying on the ground, vomiting a green-colored liquid, while others became hysterical and began laughing loudly before falling motionless onto the ground. Later, I smelled an aroma that reminded me of apples and I lost consciousness. When I awoke, there were hundreds of bodies scattered around me. After that I took shelter again in a nearby basement and the area was engulfed by an ugly smell. It was similar to rotting garbage, but then it changed to a sweet smell similar to that of apples. Then I smelled something that was like eggs. Some time later, I discovered that the Iraqi air force had bombed Halabjah with chemical weapons.
When you hear people shouting the words "gas" or "chemicals" -- and you hear those shouts spreading among the people -- that is when terror begins to take hold, especially among the children and the women. Your loved ones, your friends, you see them walking and then falling like leaves to the ground. It is a situation that cannot be described -- birds began falling from their nests; then other animals, then humans. It was total annihilation. Whoever was able to walk out of the town, left on foot. Whoever had a car, left by car. But whoever had too many children to carry on their shoulders, they stayed in the town and succumbed to the gas.
Hope Of Recovery?
RFE/RL: Walking through one of the neighborhoods of Halabjah that had been targeted, the destruction left by the attack 20 years ago can still be seen everywhere today. Many survivors who returned years later have never been able to obtain the money needed to repair what is left of their homes. On one -- an Iraqi Kurdish housewife who lost seven family members in the chemical attacks -- has used pieces of fabric and jagged wood to cover holes left in the building by shrapnel.
Iraqi Kurdish housewife: I lost seven family members who were martyred as a result of the chemical attacks. We were here three or four days before the massive bombardment. That was when the former regime [of Saddam Hussein] ordered intermittent shelling of the area. We thought that it was just [conventional artillery] shelling and that it would soon be over. But then, after that, they used chemical weapons. That resulted in the martyrdom of my father, my brother, my mother, and four other siblings.
RFE/RL: The woman, who asked not to be identified, also complained that political affiliations are playing a role in the way Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq disburse aid payments to widows and survivors -- with victims from one of the major political parties being allocated more money than those who were political independents.
Iraqi Kurdish housewife: We do have a complaint regarding the fact that a family with one martyr receives the same salary as another family with seven martyrs. We think that it should not be this way. There has to be equity, for those families with seven martyrs are not the same as those with one martyr.
RFE/RL: Continuing to walk through other parts of Halabjah, the correspondent met more witnesses of the chemical attacks. Several spoke about the arrival of a delegation from Baghdad headed by Rashid Majid Salih -- a representative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Indeed, Salih was in Halabjah to meet the families of victims of the chemical attacks -- particularly those who are still suffering the physical and psychological effects of exposure to chemical agents. Catching up with Salih, the prime minister's representative told RFE/RL that his mission was to conduct a field study with the aim of bringing medical treatment to those injured by the chemical attacks and to clear up the remaining debris 20 years after the shelling and aerial bombardment of Halabjah.
Salih: All of those who were wounded and who are still suffering from their injuries as a result of the chemical compounds -- they lack both the medication and the specialized doctors that they need. So they go to other countries for help -- increasing the economic burden on Iraqi citizens [due to medical reimbursements]. Furthermore, there are a large number of patients suffering from various forms of cancer and respiratory diseases. In addition to that, we have found 70 people who are suffering from sterility. These are all matters that we need to focus on. We need to resolve this with great care and precision so that we may remove the social and psychological effects. (A member of Salih's delegation told RFE/RL that Prime Minister al-Maliki intended to visit the town soon to see the situation there for himself. The Iraqi government delegate said al-Maliki was expected to announce the allocation of $5 million for the reconstruction of Halabjah.)
Revisiting Halabjah: 20 Years After Chemical Attack, Town Still Bears Scars
It is a reminder that in Halabjah, the Iraqi Kurdish town that was the center of the Hussein regime's 1988 chemical attacks, the past has not been forgotten.
In this small plot of land, walled in by towering gray stone slabs, there are an estimated 1,500 bodies of Kurds killed during the attacks, 20 years ago this week.
"This location was the target of napalm rocket attacks, and there was a very large hole in the ground," says a journalist on a recent visit to the town. "The townspeople gathered a number of the martyrs' bodies and buried them here haphazardly. They used earthmoving machines because of the pervasive stench."
Less than 16 kilometers from the Iranian border and about 260 kilometers north of Baghdad, Halabjah is run-down, populated mostly by shepherds and farmers. Many of the buildings, even on the town's main street, still show signs of the attacks.
In Halabjah, the past is inescapable, the town's memorials a constant reminder: a cenotaph erected by the Kurdish regional government, with battered helmets and hands reaching out to heaven; or less conspicuously, in front of a municipal building, an electricity worker who was killed in the attacks.
The attacks -- or what the Kurds, many human rights groups, and a Dutch court have labeled genocide -- took place during the Iran-Iraq war, when the region was under the control of Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by Iran.
Over a period of four days, in March 1988, Iraqi warplanes dropped bombs on the town and the surrounding area. It has never been established what the exact mix of the chemicals was, but it reportedly included mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
Some 5,000 people were killed, mostly civilians. In June 2007, the Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," to death for using chemical weapons against the Kurds.
In spite of the Iraqi and international media's interest in Halabjah, reconstruction has been slow, with residents complaining of a shortage or a total lack of civil services.
The townfolk say promises of more development have been made and are still being made by officials, but nothing has come of them.
That frustration has sometimes erupted into violence. In 2006, local residents attacked the cenotaph during a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the attacks. They claimed the regional government had not provided enough aid, or even had siphoned off funds bound for Halabjah.
The head of the town's municipal office, Fu'ad Salih, agrees that reconstruction has been limited, given the extent of the damage.
"All the villages [around Halabjah] have been destroyed," Salih says. "This increases the burden on the regional government, and I -- as a municipal head and as a citizen -- am not satisfied with what has been done for Halabjah."
There has been some international aid relief to Halabjah, including a project funded by the Japanese government to provide drinking water, which Salih says costs more than $70 million.
But some residents are reconciled to the idea that they have to go it alone. A local intellectual, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the town had been neglected since the Ba'athists came to power in 1963.
"The town lived on its own, relying on its agriculture, its orchards, the mutual assistance of its inhabitants, and on trade in general," he says.
"With regard to construction, or any assistance in this regard by the Iraqi government, it was practically nonexistent. But, despite that, the town was living in peace."
Iranian Voters See Little Choice, Less Democracy In Parliamentary Poll
A good many of those listeners disagree with that description of the March 14 voting.
They see the contest, involving 4,500 candidates for 290 seats in the Majlis, as little more than democratic window-dressing. They point to the thousands of reformist candidates, deemed unfit to represent the Islamic revolution, who have been barred from running. And they note the state-run media’s bias toward the ruling conservatives and “principlist” faction of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
“These polls are taking place only among the osoolgrayan (principlists) and their insiders,” says Nasim, a female listener who texted a message from Mashhad. “There is no opportunity for others.”
But the others are trying, even if many voters claim not to see much of a difference between the three reformist parties that make up the opposition camp and the two factions that compose the conservative coalition.
Former President Mohammad Khatami, a leading reformist, has urged a massive turnout by voters for the opposition to reverse their 2004 electoral defeat and retake control of parliament. “We must safeguard fundamental freedoms,” Khatami said. “That’s what reformism is all about.”
It’s also about risking disqualification from the race.
More than 7,000 candidates were initially registered to run in the election, but some 3,000 were disqualified during the screening process -- the huge majority of them reformists. As in the last parliamentary polls in 2004, the Guardians Council -- the 12-member body that answers to Iran's supreme leader -- later reinstated nearly 1,000 barred candidates. Yet many of the top reformists were still kept out.
The mass disqualification of their candidates means the reformists will compete for fewer than half the seats in parliament. The Majlis, already dominated by conservatives, looks set to stay that way. Which explains the feelings of Iranians like Hamid, who wrote in a text message from Esfahan: “What freedom? What justice? What election? In this Islamic Republic? To talk about justice here is laughable!”
But as reformists bemoan their fate, conservatives look to the future. Indeed, the polls can be seen as a referendum on Ahmadinejad, whose hard-line foreign policy and rhetoric have helped isolate Iran and bring about three sets of UN sanctions over Tehran’s failure to cooperate on its nuclear program. The sanctions, among other things, have made it harder for Iranians and their banks to do business, a development that has led some conservatives to break ranks with the president.
Above all, the right-wing dissenters take issue with the style, if not substance, of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy. Dubbed the Broad Principlist Coalition, they are led by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezaie, and former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. All three men are reported to be considering running in next year’s presidential election.
Meanwhile, the president’s United Principlist Front, though under fire from fellow conservatives, is hoping to consolidate its hold on power. Analysts like its chances. Yet apart from the right-wing critics' views of Ahmadinejad and his confrontational approach abroad, it is difficult to detect major differences between the conservative blocs.
There are also two reformist coalitions competing for votes, albeit far smaller than the conservative factions, due to the disqualifications. Some 30 parties make up the Khatami-inspired Reformist Coalition. Khatami has been critical of his successor’s economic policies. As president from 1997 to 2005, he was also known for promoting political openness, press freedom, and reducing tensions with the United States.
The other grouping, the National Confidence Party, is led by the reformist former speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karroubi. Karroubi is seen by many Iranian observers as a possible candidate in the 2009 presidential campaign.
Analysts say the reformists mostly depend on votes from the middle class, youth, and educated Iranians. Conservatives, and particularly Ahmadinejad supporters, depend more on voters from outside Tehran and poorer rural areas. "The reformists focus on criticizing Mr. Ahmadinejad's government, including foreign policy, economic hardships, and restrictions on student political movements and women," says Ali Reza Haghighi, a professor at the University of Toronto.
No Talk Of The Issues
Yet there has been little public policy debate, even as ordinary Iranians grapple with joblessness and runaway inflation. "There are no visible disagreements between the candidates' positions and slogans,” Said Rajayi Khorasani, a former parliamentarian, tells Radio Farda. “Most candidates are principlists. But the reformists have not presented a platform that is tangibly different from the conservatives.'"
Which explains partly why the polls appear to have failed to attract the attention of many Iranians, especially young people. Iranian state-run television this week reported predictions that voter turnout would be near 60 percent. Yet most messages received by Radio Farda suggest apathy will win the day.
“Once more, with this election, the regime is fooling people,” Ali, from the city of Jooybar in northern Mazandaran Province, says in an e-mail. He is partly echoed by a Tehran bazaar trader interviewed by Reuters: "The candidates must promise something they can actually deliver on,” Masud Amiri is quoted as saying. “They really must work and try to solve young people's problems in housing and unemployment. Slogans are not enough -- they must act."
Similar sentiments, to be sure, are heard among voters in Western democracies. And analysts say that despite their shortcomings, Iran’s parliamentary elections are better than anything the region’s other authoritarian regimes offer.
Conservatives clearly also have their supporters, who sent in messages to Radio Farda as well. Like a man called “K.” Writing from the port of Bandar Abbas, he says the elections will finally “strike a blow” to U.S. President George W. Bush. Others say they will vote out of patriotism. “I am Iranian and will vote for Iran,” one listener says. “Unity is the most important thing -- the principle-ists and reformists are no different.”
Yet for others, that’s the problem.
And even as differences between right and left may not be huge, the disqualification of reformists means many Iranians see their choice as between two conservative blocs -- one supportive of the president, the other a little less so.
“Please tell me, what sort of enthusiasm could send us to the voting booths?” asks Mr. Abdibeig, a listener from Orumieh. “What kind of hope?”
RFE/RL correspondent Iraj Gorgin and Radio Farda’s Javad Koorushy contributed to this report. Radio Farda is a joint, Persian-language broadcast venture between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
State-Controlled Media Coverage Under Fire Ahead Of Elections
Political opponents of the complain that state-controlled media -- and television in particular -- have not been objective in covering the ongoing parliamentary election campaign, clearly favoring the ruling conservatives and marginalizing reformists.
Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of Iran's Association for Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that while state television offers reformists their "rightful airtime," television authorities usually schedule such broadcasts so that television appearances by opposition politicians reach as few people as possible.
The Guardians Council, a 12-member body that answers to Iran's supreme leader, has already eliminated hundreds of reformist candidates from running in the polls, mostly because they are deemed unfit to continue the work of the Islamic revolution. But Saharkhiz says the opposition's chances are also hurt by television, which "draws a negative portrait of reformists and -- directly and indirectly -- encourage people not to vote for them, and at the same time promote the conservatives."
"In various television and radio programs -- including news, reports, and other programs -- we can see some kind of double standards: undermining one side and promoting and supporting the other side," Saharkhiz says. "The airtime that is provided by the law is very short. It's probably not even 1 percent of programming."
Critics cite an example of state television bias on March 10. Some 170 well-known figures from Iranian cinema, theater, and television issued a statement stating their support for the Reformist Coalition inspired by former President Mohammad Khatami.
Yet the statement did not appear in state-controlled media. Soon afterward, the semiofficial Fars news agency published an urgent report saying that most of the performers whose names appeared on the statement had denied ever signing it.
But some independent journalists claimed that television employees who signed the statement were put under pressure to either reject the document or terminate their employment with state-run television.
Mostafa Tajzadeh is a member of Islamic Revolution Mojaheddin Organization, a political group that, along with nearly 30 other factions and parties, forms the Reformist Coalition. Tajzadeh accused state-controlled media of violating the election law by openly supporting some political groups while creating restrictions for the others.
"We, the reformists, do not have a publication, do not have a newspaper," Tajzadeh said. "All those state-run newspapers -- including, 'Iran,' 'Jam-e Jam,' 'Hamshahri' and 'Kayhan' -- have been acting against the law by promoting conservative movements."
The Reformist Coalition claims that state-controlled television has sought to set various reformists groups against one another.
For example, last week, after Khatami reportedly refused to give an interview to state television, the network swiftly aired an interview with Mehdi Karoubi, the leader of another reformist coalition, the National Confidence Party.
Karoubi happily thanked the station: "We thank this television and radio station for their efforts to rally political forces. We are grateful."
But journalist Saharkhiz said that no matter how hard the Iranian authorities tried, they could not prevent the free flow of information and keep Iranians in total darkness.
There are still a number of independent publications in Iran -- including, "Etemad-i Melli," which belongs to Karoubi's group -- as well as foreign radio and television targeting Iranian audiences as well as the Internet with hundreds of blogs produced both inside and outside Iran.
Nonetheless, authorities routinely block and filter websites, and access to the Internet is still limited beyond cities.
Ironically, Saharkhez thinks state media's perceived bias during the election campaign may work to their own disadvantage.
"People have realized that the state-run media is biased and that it does not offer the information they need," he said. "As a result, people's interest in independent publications, blogs, and foreign radio stations has increased in Iran suddenly over the past few weeks."
RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report