Halabja and America’s Support for Using Chemical Weapons Against Iran
by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
As Americans and others around the world note the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (the American military commenced hostilities on March 20, 2003), it is equally appropriate to recall another anniversary connected to wars of aggression in the Middle East—the 25thanniversary of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks against the town of Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan (on March 16, 1988). For those who want to appreciate what happened at Halabja—and the context in which it happened—we highly recommend a post by Jean-Pascal Zanders, Senior Fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, on Dan Joyner’s excellentArmsControlLaw.com. We append a substantial excerpt from Zander’s excellent post below but highly recommend reading it in its entirety, see here.
Halabja marked something of a turning point in the United States’ scandalous support for Saddam Husayn’s war of aggression against the Islamic Republic—including his use of chemical weapons against civilian as well as military targets. Ever since the Iraqi military had started using chemical weapons in 1982 and Iran had started complaining about it to the United Nations Security Council, the United States had blocked any Security Council action on the matter. As we recount in Going to Tehran, UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, acting on his own (because the Security Council wouldn’t support him), sent six fact-finding teams to investigate Iraq’s use of chemical weapons between 1984 and 1988. Their reports consistently confirmed Iran’s charges—and just as consistently, the United States refused to let the Council act. As then Secretary of State George Shultz later explained, Washington blocked international pressure on Iraq to stop using chemical weapons because “you don’t want Iran to win the war.”
It was only after the Iraqi military was caught red-handed in a chemical weapons attack on Halabja—again, not located in Iran, but in Iraqi Kurdistan—that even the United States felt compelled to let the Council take formal notice. But when it finally adopted Resolution 612 in May 1988, the Council (at U.S. insistence) merely condemned “the continued use of chemical weapons in the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq,” without specifying who had been using them, and exhorted “both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons,” though no credible charges that Iran used chemical weapons have ever been advanced.”
American complicity in Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran went beyond protecting Iraq from international sanction for its violations of international law. As we lay out in Going to Tehran, the United States took Iraq off the state sponsors of terrorism list so it could support Saddam’s war of aggression, working with allies to make sure Iraq had steady supplies of weapons and military technology—including technology used to produce the chemical munitions that Iraqi forces used against Iranian targets, and at Halabja.
So read Zander’s post. And if you’re American, as we are, think about what your country was promoting in its support for Saddam’s use of chemical weapons—against Iran as well as against Iraqi Kurds.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Thinking of Halabja—25 Years Later Today
16 March marks the 25th anniversary of the chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja. Since the First World War it was one of the few cases wherein chemical weapons (CW) were deliberately used against a civilian target. Human Rights Watch documented over 3,200 deaths and many times that number of other casualties. Since then, thousands more of people have succumbed to their injuries or preventable infections affecting organs damaged by exposure to gas. Many women also suffered extensive genetic damage, thus passing the consequences of the gas attacks down the generations.
The town of Halabja in northeast Iraq has become a modern-age symbol condemning chemical warfare. Together with Ieper, a medieval town in the Belgian province of West Flanders. On 22 April 1915, the day on which scientific research, industrial production and military art finally found each other, German Imperial troops released a chlorine cloud from thousands of canisters buried in the trenches on the northern flank of the Ieper salient. Two years later, in the night of 12–13 July 1917, the town became associated with the first use of a new chemical warfare agent—mustard gas (which the French subsequently called ‘Yperite’). Mustard was also one of Iraq’s agents of choice against both the Iranians and the Iraqi Kurds.
The Iran–Iraq war lasted twice as long as the First World War: from 1980 until 1988. Iraqi use of toxic chemicals against Iranian soldiers was first reported in 1982, but by the end of 1983 press outlets told of widespread usage of mustard gas and tabun, a nerve agent. In April of the next year, a UN team of experts confirmed chemical warfare. From then onwards, Iraqi chemical attacks escalated, reaching a first peak in 1986 in the southern marshes. Two years later Iraqi forces had also assimilated CW for offensive operations and employed them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.
Possibly earlier, but definitively from 1987, Saddam Hussein opened a second chemical front against the Iraqi Kurds in the north. Names of towns such as Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish) in the north of the country or Penjwin, east of Sulaymaniyah, recurred frequently in interviews I had with Kurdish Peshmergas coming for a break to Belgium. They recounted chemical strikes against agrarian communities in north and east Iraqi Kurdistan. They described how eating the vegetables from their fields poisoned women and children many weeks after a CW attack. Unwittingly, they ingested the mustard agent that had settled on the bottom side of the leaves. The Peshmergas also depicted bombing raids high in the mountains, after which the mustard gas rolled down the mountain sides, penetrating deep into any cave sheltering Kurdish fighters.
About two years later, when listening again to my recordings from 1987, I recognised another town being referred to—Helebce, since then better known in the West as Halabja. The local population had risen up against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed the revolt. Half of the city fled to Iran, about 15 kilometres to the east, according to the interview. When Kurdish guerillas fighting alongside Iranian troops ‘liberated’ Halabja on 15 March 1988, supreme vengeance against an insurrectionary town came the next morning in the form of a gas cloud. Attacks were to continue until the 18th. Privately I have always been convinced that the 1987 uprising together with the ‘betrayal’ of the Iraqi Kurds seeking to break Baathist control over northeast Iraq with Iranian help in 1988 provoked the extraordinary escalation of chemical warfare against Kurdish guerillas and civilians alike. From that perspective, Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds through August and September 1988 merely systematised the Halabja method on an even grander scale.
A few weeks after the attacks against Halabja, members of the Kurdish community in the Leuven area (where many Iraqi Kurds stayed with relatives and local acquaintances for a breather from combat) took me to the Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht, just outside Brussels. It had accepted four or five victims of chemical warfare for treatment. One was an Iranian soldier badly affected by mustard gas; one was a boy aged around five recovering from the chemical attacks on Halabja; the remainder were farmers from a wide area surrounding the town…
[M]y Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier. He was by far the worst victim of gas exposure in the hospital (he was to die not too long after my visit). His skin looked blackened where white ointment did not fully hide it. Lesions from the vesicles covered parts of his body and his difficult, assisted breathing betrayed internal injuries. A faint, but unforgettable smell of decayed flesh penetrated the dominant odour of disinfectants. He had fallen victim to mustard gas outside of Halabja, possibly being one of the soldiers along whose side the Peshmergas were fighting against Saddam Hussein. The Kurds, however, did not spare a thought for him…
The other face of Halabja
This incident was my first concrete exposure to the deep ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages in the Middle East, difficult to bridge and a perennial source of misunderstanding and hostility. It also shows why Halabja can never be a symbol for Iran’s suffering from CW in the way Ieper does for all chemical warfare during the First World War…
Iran’s own Halabja is called Sardasht, a municipality without much military significance across the border north of Sulaymaniyah. Saddam’s air force hit the town on 28 June 1987, almost nine months before Halabja. Although initial reports of CW victims were low, it soon emerged that almost three quarters of a population of 12,000 had been exposed to the toxicants. Some 130 people died, most of them civilians. The international press barely noticed this strike on a target with hardly any military significance.
Sardasht emblemised Iran’s predicament. The Islamic revolution of 1979 bought the country few friends. With the hostage taking in the US embassy, pent up anger over Washington’s unwavering support for the Shah’s repressive regime exploded into the open. The new leadership also refused rapprochement to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile it called for Islamic uprisings against the corrupt, autocratic leaders in the Gulf and beyond. When Iraq invaded its neighbour, Saddam Hussein presented himself as the bulwark against Persian territorial designs and Islamic revolutionary fervour. Although the United States and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the war; having lost a major regional ally, Washington nevertheless sought to pry Iraq away from the Soviet sphere of influence. The tide soon turned against Iraq, but the international community could not afford to let it lose the war. Such geostrategic calculations were to clash with international law.
When Saddam Hussein ordered the first chemical attacks, he breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Both Iran and Iraq had been party to the agreement for many decades. To Iraq, CW were a force multiplier that arrested the incessant Iranian human wave attacks when it was about to lose the war. National governments expressed their outrage, but the UN Security Council, while condemning the chemical attacks, never specified Iraq as the perpetrator for the duration of the war with Iran.
Countries adopted national sanctions and restricted access to certain chemical warfare agents and their precursors, but, absent a specific designation of responsibility under international law, applied them to both belligerents. The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end. The international stance had its moral merit. This, however, did not apply to the refusal to assist Iran with defensive countermeasures, including gasmasks, decontamination equipment, other types of individual and collective protection or prophylaxis. In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva even had to travel to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran…
Just like Trotsky concluded after Russia’s capitulation to Germany in 1917, those experiences convinced Iran of the need to overcome technological backwardness in order to survive. They also taught the country that international law does not guarantee international justice, and it harbours deep misgivings about international promises for assistance. Adding insult to injury, US officials from 1989 onwards several times indicated that Iran rather than Iraq had gassed Halabja, a claim so preposterous that its motive remains a mystery until today.
Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky in all security-related matters drives today’s political leadership. Most Iranian politicians of all persuasions, as well as much of the population, belong to the generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. War is therefore not necessarily a state of affairs they will seek to avoid in the pursuit of national interests. Nor do international confrontation or the threat of war particularly frighten them. Layer upon layer of fresh economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the blood-soaked trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.
Halabja therefore also symbolises the long-term fallacy of short-term interests. It is the one lesson the world does not seem to have learned.