Remembering Halabja

The Iraqi ambassador to Canada, Howar Ziad wrote this important and moving piece in the National Post of Canada on March 17, 2005. (GK)

Iraq under Saddam Hussein was the only contemporary nation to use chemical weapons against civilians. During 1987 and 1988 — while Iraq was at war with Iran — Saddam gassed dozens of villages in the Kurdistan region. The worst of these attacks devastated the city of Halabja on March 16, 1988. About 5,000 civilians were killed. Thousands more were blinded or maimed, and would die later. Wednesday marked the 17th anniversary of that horrible day.
Halabja stands as a symbol for the larger genocide campaign — often called the Anfal — that Saddam inflicted on Iraqi Kurdistan in 1987-1988. And that genocide is itself part of the constellation of cruelties imposed by Saddam’s murderous Ba’athist regime.
This is a time we remember not only the fallen Kurds, but also our brothers and sisters among the Madan, the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, whose ancient habitat was destroyed by Saddam, and is only now being rebuilt. We also remember our brothers and sisters in the Shi’a Arab community, whose courageous intifada in the wake of the first Gulf War was so viciously repressed by Saddam’s troops. And we remember the Christians whose villages were razed in 1988 as part of the same campaign that slew so many Kurds.
The people of Kurdistan knew well Saddam’s murderous nature even before Halabja. Kurds had already been slaughtered by the thousands in the Anfal campaign. And many more had passed through the paramilitary camp of Topzawa, near Kirkuk, on their way to remote execution sites that even now have yet to be found. Still, March 16, 1988, managed to create a new standard in cruelty. It marked a defining turning point in the history of the Kurdish people.
We must ask ourselves how it was that the truth of Halabja was so long denied by much of the world. And how was it that its perpetrator managed to escape justice for more than 15 years? These are important questions to answer if we are to prevent the next Halabja. As with other genocides, we must do our best to make good on the words “never again.”
The horror of Halabja, the sickening pictures of children murdered by chemical weapons, should have forced world leaders to question whether Saddam was just another leader to be dealt with in the world’s geo-strategic chess game. Instead, most capitals responded with denial or equivocation. The murder of thousands of innocents was minimized and marginalized so as not to disrupt relations with Saddam.
The route of silence was also embraced by numerous Middle Eastern pundits — the same men who denounced the liberation of Iraq but rarely found a bad word to utter about Saddam. The late Edward Said, the Columbia University professor widely lionized for his support of the Palestinian cause, cast doubt on Saddam’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja. One former CIA analyst, Stephen Pelletierre, made a career of spouting propaganda on Saddam’s behalf. Pelletierre most recently plied his shameful trade in a New York Times op-ed that attempted to blame Iran for Halabja. Not surprisingly, al-Jazeera has recently peddled similar lies.
A brave few, from across the political spectrum, told the truth. Organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Physicians for Human Rights spared no effort on behalf of Halabja’s victims. The same was true of writers such as William Safire, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Edward Mortimer and Gwynne Roberts.
Politicians and personalities such as U.S. Senators Claiborne Pell, Jesse Helms and Al Gore, British MP Anne Clywd, Madame Danielle Mitterrand and Dr. Bernard Kouchner stood up for the victims with compassion and outrage. In the United States, Dr. Najmaldin Karim, and Ambassador Peter Galbraith, then a congressional staffer, battled the indifference of the foreign policy elite.
The Halabja genocide perfectly reflected Ba’athism. Like Nazism, which inspired the early Baathists, Saddam’s ideology embraced ethnic cleansing. Just as the Nazis planned to change the ethnic map of Eastern Europe by exterminating Jews and decimating Poles, and by dispatching Germans to colonize newly conquered territories, Baathists sought to wipe out the Kurds who inconveniently lived near Iraq’s northern borders.
Indeed, the Holocaust, the greatest crime in human history, was the ideal to which the Baathists aspired. If they could have, the Baathists would have eliminated not only the Kurds, but also everyone else who opposed their fascistic Arab nationalist ideology. Saddam’s uncle and political mentor, Khairullah Talfah, was a Nazi sympathizer who wrote a pamphlet entitled Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies. This manifesto of hate was reissued by Saddam Hussein in 1981. Indeed, the gassing of Halabja and other Kurdish communities is now known to have been part of a larger experiment to test the effectiveness of Saddam’s poisons.
In Iraq today, we are determined to create a pluralistic nation in which such crimes are unthinkable. That is why we voted in such large numbers on Jan. 30 — because we are determined to create a democracy, because we will never again allow the power of the state to be vested in the hands of a dictator.
The mission of Iraq’s Kurds is to remind Iraq and the world of the crime of Halabja, and by doing so to show what can happen when evil is permitted to flourish.
Howar Ziad is Iraq’s ambassador to Canada. This essay is adapted from a speech delivered on March 16 at Carleton University in Ottawa.