According to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was not responsible for the gassing of Kurds in Halabja:
Looking tired and pausing several times to drink water, Aziz – once the public face of Saddam’s regime – blamed Iran for a gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed.
“The chemical weapons used at that time causing the death of thousands of people were made with cyanide gas and not mustard gas. Iran had this gas at this time, not Iraq,” said Aziz.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother commenting on anything Aziz says, except that this is a question that has been bothering me for a long time.
In most accounts of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship, it is taken as an article of faith that the regime in Baghdad intentionally gassed the Kurds in the village Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000. Now the arabization al-Anfal campaign of genocide carried out against Iraqi Kurds is well documented, but there seems to be some at least some dissent on the particulars of Halabja.
In particular, I remember an op-ed piece in the Times by Stephen Pelletiere during the build up for the war in Iraq:
…all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.
I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.
This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq’s main target.
And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.
The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds’ bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent — that is, a cyanide-based gas — which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.
The DIA report that Pelletiere quotes from, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War has this to say about the matter:
Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents-and the Iranians do-we conclude that the Iranians
perpetrated this attack. It is also worth noting that lethal concentrations of cyanogen are difficult to obtain over an area target, thus the reports of 5,000 Kurds dead in Halabjah are suspect.
Human Rights Watch, on the other hand has this to say about the incident:
The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus. “It was different from the other bombs,” according to one witness. “There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire.” The raids continued unabated for several hours. “It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come.”
Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled “very bad, like snake poison.” No one needed to be told what the smell was.
The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases–although these, by now, had been abandoned.
I’ll refrain from a judgment, mostly because I’m not really sure what to believe. HRW notes that the villagers’ symptoms were consistent with mustard and nerve agents, but I’m not sure if that means a mixture of the two or one or the other. In any case, though, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would have intentionally gassed their Iraqi Kurdish allies, but that doesn’t mean that the village of Halajba didn’t just get caught up in the crossfire.