Why Halabja should be recognized as genocide - opinion

The scene left in the unpaved streets of Halabja resembled the atrocities of the Holocaust.

 IRAQI-KURDISH children visit a cemetery for victims of the 1988 chemical attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja, near Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. (photo credit: AKO RASHEED/REUTERS)
IRAQI-KURDISH children visit a cemetery for victims of the 1988 chemical attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja, near Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.
(photo credit: AKO RASHEED/REUTERS)

At the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Kurdish city of Halabja was chemically bombarded by the Iraqi army. It left thousands of children, women and men suffocated to death. After 34 years, the incident has been largely forgotten, and it is still not recognized as genocide.

On March 16, 1988, 32 Iraqi fighter jets began bombarding the city of Halabja for six consecutive days. “We hid in a cave on the border of Iran for days as the fighter jets continued to bombard,” said Nawshirwan Pasha. He is now 45 and lives in Europe. Surprisingly, he is still labeled as a martyr of the chemical bombardment by the government, he added. 

The fighter jets deployed internationally banned weapons of mass destruction (WMD) such as mustard gas, cyanide and nerve agents. It left between 2,000 to 3,500, not 5,000 people, as it is publicly claimed, dead and more than 10,000 refugees. The scene left in the unpaved streets of Halabja resembled the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Halabja is home to religious minorities such as Kakis, a distinct religion found in Halabja. Kakai’s holiest site is also located in Halabja. The town hosted a substantial Jewish population at the time. 

All these religious minorities were ethnically Kurdish, but the Ba’athist party in control of Iraq denied their existence – making it a textbook example of genocide. If genocide is the intentional extermination of an ethnic, national, racial or religious group, then Halabja suits all the categories.

 Halabja Monument (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Halabja Monument (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Halabja is a city that lies only 15 km. from the Iranian border. During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the city was constantly shelled. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) could not capture the city, as Saddam Hussein had positioned one of Iraq’s nine divisions in the governorate of Sulaymaniyah which includes the district of Halabja. 

Hussein had positioned a brigade in Halabja. The Iraqi Army had shifted its military center to the area, after years of stalemate in the south. Each division included more than 30,000 troops assisted by various paramilitary forces, usually made up of the local Kurdish population.

The formidable Iraqi army, backed by the West, was difficult for the IRGC to defeat on its terms. Tehran was able to penetrate the rank-and-file of the Ba’athist army in Halabja using methods such as Shi’ite ideology and escape from Saddam’s execution. It was common for commanders to be executed after failing to secure an objective.

IN 1988 an Iraqi brigadier general in charge of the Ba’athist army in Halabja, Ali Najafi, had secretly pledged allegiance to Tehran. In mid-March 1988, Tehran commenced “Operation Zafar 7” to capture the governorate of Sulaymaniyah. The objective of capturing Sulaymaniyah was to give Tehran a better bargaining position in the ongoing ceasefire talks.

As Halabja was under constant attack, on March 15, Hussein came to Sulaymaniyah, a city that lies 45 km. north of Halabja. According to a former Ba’athist adviser, who didn’t want to be named, and various Kurdish military commanders and figures, from Sulaymaniyah Saddam Hussein directly radioed Ali Najafi and told him if he needed further assistance. 

The commander replied, “let the assistance go to your dad’s grave,” a severe rebuke in Iraqi culture. Later that day, Najafi surrendered to Iran. IRGC alongside their Kurdish Peshmerga allies entered the city. The angered dictator gave the order. A decision was made to erase the city, to deny Iran any territorial claims, and save its army from disintegration and coups in Baghdad.

After eight years of trench warfare, Hussein was convinced that to save his country, he had to stop the war. A guilty conscience for Halabja did not convince Saddam to stop the war. But the collapse of its military in Halabja did convince the brutal, obstinate dictator to give in. 

Although the decision to chemically bombard Halabja was not planned before, the Ba’athist regime had perpetrated similar crimes. On April 14, 1988, the Iraqi army commenced the Anfal campaign. 

More than 182,000 Kurds of all ages and genders, from newly born infants to septuagenarians, were buried alive and treated in the worst possible ways in Saddam’s gulags in the deserts of Iraq. Not to mention that its random targeting of Iranian cities during the war claimed thousands of lives. Serving as one of the main factors of concluding the longest war of the 20th century, Halabja has been denied its proper recognition. 

Hussein felt the graveness of his crime. Months after the chemical bombardment Hussein built a brand-new Halabja city about 30 km. from the original Halabja. The city was populated in six months, mostly by internally displaced Kurds who had run from Halabja.

My family was one of those families who moved to the city. In 1989, the dictator promoted the city to a municipality and named it “Saddamist Halabja.” In colloquial language, it is called “The New Halabja.” Now the city is officially known as Sharazoor. 

The Ba’athist regime built the city to prove to the international community that it had not destroyed Halabja using WMD. The new city served as a façade for Saddam Hussein to hide its textbook example of genocide.

TEHRAN WAS quick to bring international journalists to cover what had really happened. Hundreds of journalists took photos of the people of Halabja who had suffocated to death and their corpses scattered across the streets. 

Hundreds of infants and young children went missing. Many of the missing have assimilated into the places they were raised in; they don’t know their real origins because they were infants or only one or two years old at the time.

“It was appalling to see infants suffocated in their mothers’ arms,” said Ahmad Natqi, a veteran Iranian journalist who covered the incident as the jets were flying over. The documents gathered in Halabja helped in toppling its perpetrators years later.

Halabja was a great factor in justifying the US invasion of Iraq. After months of looking for weapons of mass destruction, the coalition against Hussein did not find any evidence. Halabja became the center of attention but only to be forgotten hours later. Former US secretary of state Colin Powell; and provisional coalition administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, visited the newly repopulated Halabja. The visit brought international media attention to prove that Hussein did possess weapons of mass destruction.

The West had supplied Hussein with its arsenal for the war’s entirety. The Ba’athists did use chemical weapons on Iranian targets as well. Yet they did not possess the technology to make them. Though officially no evidence of WMD was found in Iraq, Halabja proved that Baghdad did possess WMD. 

The incident demonstrates how the states that supplied Hussein can escape impunity. Producing WMD should be illegal. Even if the producer doesn’t deploy it, these weapons would provide a rogue regime a reason to deploy them for economic and scientific purposes.

HALABJA IS currently ruled by the Kurdish people, yet the city lags behind. It has not been entirely rebuilt, and its appearance is worse than before it was bombed. There are still tens of wounded from chemical weapons who need immediate attention. Every year several people lose their lives to their wounds. 

More than 95 percent of its officials, including its governor, mayor and head of municipality live outside the city. Most of them only visit the city three or four times a week and stay there for a short period. In comparison, the Ba’athists who ruled the city did stay in the city until their duties were over. 

The genocidal aspect of the atrocity aside, the incident tells us how war sacrifices everything for meaningless military victories. The war in Ukraine is far more dangerous, with far more lives in danger. 

Halabja reminds us that genocide is usually a side effect of war. Most appalling genocides, including the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, happened during war. Halabja deserves to be recognized as genocide internationally. It helped the world realize Hussein’s threats to world peace and security. 

The writer is a researcher and journalist covering the Middle East and international affairs. His work has been published in The Jerusalem Post, The National Interest and various Kurdish magazines. He is a former editor-in-chief of Birst newspaper. Currently, he is a researcher at the Kurdistan Conflict and Crisis Research Center (KCCRC) focusing on international relations. He tweets at @farhangnamdar.