The Crimes of Saddam Hussein

By Dave Johns

1988 Halabja

Ominous soldiers standing guard

Late in the morning of March 16, 1988, the Iraqi army began bombing the Kurdish town of Halabja, some 15 miles from the Iranian border. Halabja’s residents were more or less expecting the attack; Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Kurdish peshmerga fighters had just attacked nearby Iraqi military positions and sought refuge in the city. But the attack that followed was different from previous shellings: residents rushing for shelter in their cellars detected an odd smell, like sweet apples, and were surprised at how quiet the bombs seemed. There were other ominous signs: sheep and goats were falling in the streets, birds were dropping from tree limbs. Soon people began feeling the effects of chemical weapons –– stabbing pain in the eyes, uncontrollable vomiting, tremors, confusion. Residents attempting to flee saw smoky clouds of gas hovering over the ground and a dusting of white powder. Many of them, grandparents and children alike, fell ill and died in the streets.

Charges and evidence

An estimated 5,000 people died in Halabja from the lethal mix of mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent dropped on the town. Thousands of others have died from long–term medical complications from the bombings, and the town has seen a huge spike in birth defects, cancer, infertility and miscarriages. The attacks, which were ordered by “Chemical” Ali Hassan al–Majid, mark the only time since the Holocaust that poison gas has been used to kill women and children. Photographs document the slaughter. At the time, the United States largely ignored Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction, and vetoed U.N. efforts to condemn Iraq for their use. Though the bombing occurred during the notorious Anfal campaign against the Kurds, the Halabja attack is usually considered a separate case because it occurred outside of the Anfal’s “prohibited zones.” Experts have referred to Halabja as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

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