Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hiltermann on Halabja

Announcing a new, very important book from Joost Hiltermann: A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge University Press), now available.

Writes Joost, "The book highlights US policy with respect to Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, from the first mustard gas attack in 1983 to the massive gassing of Iranian troops with mustard and nerve agents in the Tawakkulna 'ala Allah offensives and of Kurdish civilians and peshmergas in the Anfal counterinsurgency campaign, both in 1988. It also highights the events in Halabja: what happened there on March 16, 1988, and what happened in Washington afterwards."

He will soon be on a promotional tour: in Boston, July 8-9; New York, July 10-12; Washington, DC, July 13-19); in London, the first week of October.

For an introduction to the subjects treated in the book, here's an op-ed Joost recently published:

Two decades later, partial justice for the Kurds

By Joost R. Hiltermann | The Boston Globe, June 29, 2007

CHEMICAL ALI has been condemned to die and Kurds rejoice. More than anyone, perhaps even Saddam Hussein, Ali Hassan al-Majid personifies the horrors visited on the Kurds two decades ago. As overlord of the North, he sent his minions to suppress the Kurds' growing rebellion against his boss's tyrannical rule. Now his power has come crashing down, and this man without morals was reduced to stammering "Thank God" when the verdict was read.

Chemical Ali's reign lasted two years, long enough to crush the Kurdish revolt, level the countryside, and seek to prevent a viable Kurdish national movement from ever arising again. Appointed by Hussein, his cousin, in March 1987, Chemical Ali, who headed Iraq's security police, the Amn, wasted no time in sending a message to the Kurds that their time was up. "Jalal Talabani asked me to open a special communications channel with him," he said later in a chilling speech to Baath party faithful, referring to the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who today, in vindication of his long struggle, is president of Iraq. "That evening I went to Suleimaniya and hit them with special ammunition."

"Special ammunition" was the regime's euphemism for poison gas. In 1987, chemical attacks on guerrilla strongholds multiplied, extending to villages and, in a horrifying climax, an entire town: Halabja, in March 1988. Thousands died in Halabja, and the overpowering fear this attack instilled ensured that when Chemical Ali launched his counterinsurgency campaign, called Anfal, a few days later he caused mass panic by deploying gas at the outset of each of the operation's eight stages.

Terrified villagers ran straight into the Iraqi military's arms, who handed them over to the Amn. They in turn hauled tens of thousands of men, women, and children to areas far from Kurdistan, where execution squads completed the job. The affair was over in six months. Some 70,000 to 80,000 (the numbers are uncertain and disputed) never returned home.

Much of this was known to the Reagan administration, according to government documents and interviews with some of the principals. But knowledge is only half of it. Spooked by the specter of an Islamic revolution radiating throughout the Gulf from Khomeini's Iran, the administration threw its weight behind Hussein's unsavory regime in its eight-year war with Iran, providing it with millions of dollars in credit guarantees as well as diplomatic cover, satellite intelligence, and, indirectly, weapons.

US intelligence was fully aware of Iraq's chemical weapons use, but the administration didn't do anything about it. When it did go so far as to condemn it, in 1984, it did so with a wink and a nod, sending Donald Rumsfeld as envoy to Baghdad to appease the Iraqis by offering to restore diplomatic relations.

Encouraged by Washington's tolerance, the regime escalated its use of poison gas, chemically bombing Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians alike. To preempt rebuke, Hussein trotted out Iraqi chemical warfare casualties, blaming their injuries on Iran. Although there was little evidence of Iranian chemical weapons use and plenty of evidence of accidental blowback on Iraq's own troops, many observers soon accepted the line that Iran and Iraq were gassing each other. In Halabja, this claim was extended to argue that both countries shared responsibility for the atrocity; both were condemned by the UN Security Council. Using this critical breathing space, the regime launched the Anfal campaign on the heels of the attack, using its demonstration effect to flush villagers from their homes -- and to kill them.

The Anfal trial has now ended and although Chemical Ali's sentence will be reviewed on appeal, he is likely to follow his cousin in death by hanging. This means that neither man will be present at the Halabja trial later this year. This is a pity, as their absence will reduce the trial's impact and may deprive the Kurds of information that could help them understand the circumstances that prompted the regime to order the devastating attack.

Absent from the courtroom also, but casting an enormous shadow on the proceedings nonetheless, will be the Reagan administration that condoned if not encouraged its proxy's chemical weapons use and, when Hussein's behavior proved too embarrassing, in Halabja, did its best to defuse the fallout through cover-up and deceit.

The Kurds may be rejoicing, but justice has not been done.

(For more, see his article for Middle East Report Online, "Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War.")

Joost is also the author of Behind the Intifada, an account of the Palestinian trade union's and women's organizations that were key components of the grass-roots based intifada. He and I did fieldwork in Palestine at the same time--1984-85. He is now the Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, for the International Crisis Group.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great piece. Interesting to note that when the tribunals where set up in Iraq it specifically designated only Iraqis to be tried. Had the pool been allowed to encompass more players that played prominent roles, our current President may have found himself overseeing a tribunal trying his own father for complicity in human rights atrocities.