This month we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi-Kurdish city of Halabja.
The attack was part of Saddam Hussein’s massive al-Anfal campaign that displaced and killed many in the populations in northern Iraq. Beginning in 1986 and ending in 1989, Kurdish towns and villages were destroyed, tens of thousands of Kurds disappeared or were killed, and Saddam forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their home. The campaign also terrorized other small ethnic and religious communities, including Assyrians, Shabaks, Iraqi Turkmen, Yazidis, and Mandeans.
In mid-March 1988, Iraqi government forces spent two days shelling the city of Halabja with rockets and napalm. This broke the doors and windows of still-intact buildings and drove the city’s 50,000 inhabitants into cellars and underground shelters.
On the evening of the second day of the attack, March 16th, the shelling stopped. Iraqi helicopters and fighter planes began to pepper the city with canisters of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun, and VX. Heavier than air, the toxic chemicals sank to the ground and seeped through broken door and window frames into homes, then down to where the people huddled in fear, waiting for the attack to stop.
It was the first time in modern history that a government attacked its own people with chemical weapons.
Some 5,000 civilians died as a direct result of the toxic chemicals dropped on Halabja. Around ten thousand more were blinded, maimed, or disfigured. And in the decades that followed, thousands more died from horrific health complications and debilitating diseases.
The two men who held the greatest responsibility for this crime eventually paid for their deeds. Saddam Hussein, who ordered the horrific attacks of the Anfal campaign, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. His cousin, Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, who led the Anfal campaign and was responsible for the attack on Halabja, was convicted of the crime of genocide against Iraqi Kurds and was sentenced to death.
While the fate of those who instigated the al-Anfal campaign and killed thousands of innocents in Halabja should serve as a warning to others not to follow in their murderous footsteps, it is clear from the use in Syria of Sarin gas that the world must remain ever vigilant against atrocities and weapons of mass destruction