A decade and a half ago, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein committed one of the worst of his many crimes against humanity. On March 16th, 1988, Saddam ordered his military forces to use chemical weapons against civilians in Halabja, a Kurdish town in northern Iraq. Television pictures showed some of the five-thousand people killed. Some of the dead were locked in silent embraces, mothers cradling babies, fathers trying in vain to shield small children.
In addition to those killed, an estimated ten-thousand others in Halabja suffered health effects from the chemical weapons attack. Doctors say these effects include respiratory and neurological disorders, blindness, skin disorders that have led to cancer, a higher than normal incidence of children with leukemia, and pregnancies resulting in miscarriages or children with birth defects.
On September 15th, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Halabja and spoke to Iraqi Kurds and others at a monument to the victims of the chemical weapons attack. “What can I say to you?” said Mr. Powell. “I cannot tell you that choking mothers died holding their choking babies to their chests. You know that. I cannot tell you that Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant. You know that. I cannot tell you that the world should have acted sooner. You know that. I cannot tell you of the suffering of those who were poisoned but nevertheless lived. You know that.”
“What I can tell you,” said Secretary of State Powell, “is that what happened [in Halabja] in 1988 is never going to happen again.”
The Iraqi general who led the chemical weapons attack, Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, is in jail. And Majid, known as “Chemical Ali,” will stay in jail, said Mr. Powell, “until an Iraqi court decides his fate.” As for Saddam, said Mr. Powell, he “is running and hiding. He is going to keep running and keep hiding until we catch him or until he dies. Beyond that, the system that spawned them, a system of coups and plots and assassins, is smashed and will never return.”
Secretary of State Powell says that “Saddam Hussein is gone”:
“That awful regime is gone. That threat to the region is gone. And a new democratic Iraq will arise from this.”
It will take “a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of good will” to build a democratic Iraq, said Secretary of State Powell. But “it will happen.”