Red fire on the mountain: Saddam Hussein's secrets still haunt the landscape

Twenty-five years after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel, the residents of Mount Shingal reveal a secret about the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and tracer flares light up the sky above Baghdad on January 17, 1991, as US and allied bombing raids launched the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and tracer flares light up the sky above Baghdad on January 17, 1991, as US and allied bombing raids launched the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"From the top of the mountain you can see hundreds of kilometers in all directions because of the height,” recalls Sharaf (not his real name), a Yazidi man from Iraqi Kurdistan who speaks in a phone interview.
For many years people in his community, a religious minority in northern Iraq that was viciously persecuted by Islamic State in 2014, have kept a secret about the 1991 Gulf War. They believe Scud missiles which rained down on Israel were tested and fired from Mount Shingal, called Sinjar in Arabic.
And they have pictures they say prove it.
In October 1990, two months after Iraq invaded Kuwait and set off an international crisis, Israel’s 4.5 million citizens (today the population has almost doubled) were sent notices telling them to pick up gas masks at distribution centers.
Saddam Hussein had threatened to “burn half of Israel” in April of that year.
He was no novice at chemical warfare, having gassed Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988, and used gas against Iran throughout the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Israel took the threat seriously. We now know from Saddam’s taped conversations that were broadcast on Channel 2 in 2015 that he ordered his senior officials to use chemical weapons on Israel if the coalition attempted to remove him from power.
As the 25th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait in January and February 1991, came and went, many civilians in Iraq who remember that time are reaching middle age. Among those are Kurds and Yazidis in northern Iraq who suffered under Saddam’s rule. Last year Rudaw, a Kurdish television channel, broadcast interviews with Yazidi civilians who recalled that the mountain many of them call home was used by the Saddam regime to threaten Israel.
Idan Barir, a PhD candidate in Middle East History at Tel Aviv University who has met with Yazidis and is interested in their community, said he first heard stories about Saddam’s work on Mount Shingal from Yazidis in Germany during a research trip in 2008. “I thought it was nonsense,” he says. But then more rumors kept coming out of Shingal after ISIS attacked Yazidis in August 2014 and caused 300,000 of them to become refugees. Mount Shingal was in the limelight because many Yazidi civilians became trapped on it and resisted the advance of ISIS from its heights. A heroic rescue operation involving a US-led coalition, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Regional Government peshmerga saved Yazidis, and stemmed the tide of the ISIS advance.
“IN 2012 I heard about a place the Iraqi regime used to fire against Israel,” recalls Sharaf. “I wanted to do research about it, but peshmerga didn’t want us entering the area due to a holy grave of Yazidis near the place. The place where the missiles were fired from is still restricted.
The grave and the top of the mountain is called Chilmera, which means ‘40 men’ in the local language.”
The sanctity of the site and its transformation into a place of intense military secrecy is clear from a reading of the 1945 account of C.J Edmonds, published in 1967 as A Pilgrimage to Lalish.
Edmonds was a British researcher who lived in Iraq for many years. During his travels, he recalls climbing Mount Shingal’s peak, called Chilmera, where there was “a chapel dedicated to Sharfadin [a Yazidi holy figure], on the highest point (1,457 meters).” Edmonds claimed he could see all the way to Mardin in Turkey from the height. At the time, the upper part of the mountain was difficult to access, without roads and with bare tracks for horses.
In 1978 Saddam Hussein embarked on a chemical weapons program codenamed Project 922. By 1981 he was testing mustard gas, a deadly weapon that gained infamy in the First World War. Later his program produced nerve gas (Tabun) and sarin gas. Iraq also embarked on a project to upgrade Soviet Scud-B missiles.
The result was the Al-Hussein, which could travel 650 km., several hundred kilometers more than the version it was based on. Saddam designed them to fire at Iran so he could terrorize Iranian cities. The problem was the missiles could only travel on a limited number of Soviet-supplied mobile launchers called MAZ-543.
Iraq constructed its own mobile launchers. It also constructed a rocket called Al-Abbas with a range of up to 900 km.
Many of those who claim Iraq fired Scuds from atop Sinjar think that the secret bunkers built there were constructed for this purpose. “If you go the place, you can see how the regime built with concrete tunnel through stone and there was a wall. They made very strong walls because they were worried about bombardment.
It was supposed to protect it from damage,” says Sharaf.
But what was going on at the Mount Sinjar launch site was far more sinister than just bunkers and sites for testing longrange rockets. In 1988, Iraqi Minister for Industry and Military Industrialization, Brig.-Gen. Hussein Kamel, told Canadian artillery expert Gerald Bull that it would fund his dream of building a super- gun. The massive 156-meter-long gun with a one-meter diameter barrel, was to be an epic weapon. Before completing it, the Iraqis commissioned Bull to build a smaller prototype called Baby Babylon.
A UN document by UNMOVIC (The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) from 2003 titled “Iraq’s proscribed weapon’s programs,” the prototype reveals a fascinating detail. “In spite of difficulties in procuring some of the parts, the 350-mm gun was assembled in a horizontal position in Iraq at Jebel Sinjar [Mount Shingal].
Following some initial experiments on the gun at Jebel Sinjar, it was relocated to Jebel Hamryn.” Sharaf, who entered the site in 2012 and photographed it, says the long distance you can see toward Damascus might have made it applicable for firing on Israel. “I spoke with military experts about what they were using this for and they said it was the closest and highest place to see Israel. They decided to use this place to fire on Israel.” From Sinjar to Tel Aviv is almost 800 km. The larger Supergun was estimated to achieve ranges over 1,000 km.
What we know is that Saddam relocated the smaller Supergun and did test fire it north of Baghdad. It achieved ranges of 200 km., not far enough to hit Israel, although the UN estimated it could shoot further. The photos from the site on Shingal show an incline that is likely related to the supergun site.
Bull’s supergun was never completed.
The Canadian artillery engineer genius was assassinated at his home in Brussels on March 20, 1990. Saddam blamed the assassination on the Mossad and became convinced that Israel was planning a strike on Iraq similar to the raid on the Osirak reactor in 1982 which disrupted his nuclear program. That is why Saddam warned Israel he would “burn” it in April.
WHEN THE coalition began to launch air strikes on Iraq in 1991, Saddam retaliated with his arsenal of Scud missiles.
The US tried bombing the mobile launchers, but it proved ineffective as the Iraqi missile teams had perfected their launch prep time to only 30 minutes.
So the US and Britain dispatched special ops teams to western Iraq, where the missiles were launched from, to search the 75,000 square km of desert for the Scuds in February of 1991. Saddam fired 88 Scuds at Saudi Arabia and Israel during the war. The hunt for the Scud launchers was largely unsuccessful.
No books on the subject mention Scuds fired from northern Iraq, and the coalition did not target Shingal.
The mountain is so far from Israel that only at their most extreme range could a Scud even hit the country.
After 1991, Sinjar was included in the no-fly zone, but Iraqi soldiers remained on the mountain. In 2003 they were removed during the invasion and US troops set up a small fort on the mountain. The photos Sharaf obtained show the US Hesco barriers atop the Iraqi defense installation.
“We tried to find people who had survived under Saddam to talk about this situation and what was done there when Iraq was there. We found two survivors from this period and those men were willing to talk about it. One of the men lives in a small village below the mountain. The other is from a town nearby also,” says Sharaf. “[In 1991] they saw the military vehicles which would traverse the route to the top of the mountain. One of the survivors claimed that there was a lot of red fire. We didn’t know what happened and heard that Iraq was bombarding Israel from the mountain.
Then people found out that the Iraqi regime was taking the weapons to this mountain. But people were afraid of the regime and did not talk about it among each other. These men saw all the shooting on Israel from Shingal.”
If true, this would be a startling revelation.
A British SAS sergeant described a Scud launch as giving off “a great big ball of light. A fireball at the base.” This is similar to the Sinjar descriptions.
Barir, the Tel Aviv University researcher, thinks that the “accumulation of testimonies” of people who remember the flashes means the stories of Scuds fired at Israel may be credible.
Scott Ritter, a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, wrote in his book Iraq Confidential about a conversation he had with an American serviceman which lends credence to the evidence.
“We had contacts with Kurdish groups in the area who reported that entire villages were evacuated and Iraqi security cordoned off the entire mountain range... we almost launched an attack on the area near the end of the war.” Just before the raid, the war ended. “The Kurds report that the security cordons are still in place... the Brits and our boys have been flying infra-red photo missions as part of the no-fly zone enforcement and we’ve detected hot spots… that we think are entrances to caves where the Iraqis are hiding equipment.”
Later another man Ritter worked with told him “Sinjar is the key. We are convinced something of value is hidden at Sinjar.” What that something of value is was never discovered. ISIS has used chemical weapons, including mustard gas, on Kurdish positions near Shingal city, and also at Makhmour. Is it possible that ISIS, with its coterie of former Iraqi military advisers who joined it, located some gas there? Sharaf is more concerned about the future. Even though Shingal was liberated by the Kurds, he believes that the Iranians might try to influence Iraq’s central government after the defeat of ISIS to infiltrate the mountain. “People are afraid of Iranian infiltration if the peshmerga will leave.”