Iraqi Kurds Remember the Past, Look to the Future

A Kurdish representative in the United States reflects on the 20th anniversary of the gas attacks on Halabja by Saddam Hussein's government, as well the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Today is an especially poignant day for Iraqi Kurd Qubad Talabani. He is the son of the president of Iraq.

Mr. QUBAD TALABANY (U.S. Representative, Kurdish Regional Government): The month of March is bittersweet for many Iraqi Kurds. Not only does this month mark the fifth anniversary of the liberation of all Iraqis from Saddam's reign of terror, but it is also the anniversary of the genocide against the Kurdish residents of Halabja.

A variety of poison gases were used to exterminate innocent men, women and children 20 years ago this very day on March 16. The genocide of the Kurds between 1987 and 1988 included the brutal attack on Halabja as part of the Anfal operation - a larger campaign intended to annihilate the Kurds of Iraq.

During this campaign, as many as a hundred and eighty thousand Kurds were killed or disappeared. Many were straight-out executed. Thousands more were abducted, never to be seen again until they were exhumed from mass graves after Iraq was liberated.

Today, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Halabja tragedy, our sight is on the future as we develop ways to assist survivors in rebuilding their lives. The people of Halabja still suffer from the effects of the attack, including unusually high rates of cancers, birth defects and miscarriages - not to mention the irreparable damage done to the environment.

Halabja, once a vibrant center of Kurdish culture was in a day turned into a symbol of Kurdish tragedy. It is our ground zero. The United States needs to make a commitment to the people of Kurdistan to address the needs of the survivors 20 years after the genocide.

The people of Iraqi Kurdistan have made remarkable progress since the Anfal campaign, thanks in large part to the protection provided under the no-fly zone established after the 1991 Gulf War by the U.S., Britain and France, and based out of Turkey.

Americans should be proud of where Iraqi Kurdistan stands today with its thriving civil society, ongoing transition to democracy and a free market in the heart of the Islamic world. The success of Iraqi Kurdistan as a region of stability can serve as a model to the rest of Iraq as it builds its institutions of government and its new economy.

Later this month Kurds will be celebrating Nowruz, the start of our new year. The start of a new year stirs hope and fuel dreams for many Kurds, Turcomans, Assyrians, Arabs and others living in Kurdistan. Share with us our determination as we usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. But when Kurds celebrate Nowruz, we also remember those who died in our decades-old struggle.

The international community should honor the victims of Halabja, along with those across the country who were exterminated by Saddam's brutal regime.

SHAPIRO: Qubad Talabani is the U.S. representative of the Kurdish regional government in Washington, D.C. He's also the son of Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq.

And coming up on WEEKEND EDITION, more on the myth and symbolism behind Nowruz, an ancient celebration of the beginning of spring.

Unidentified Woman: One of the ritual of the Nowruz actually is you houseclean mentally. You forgive oneself and others for wrongdoing.

SHAPIRO: Nowruz, or new day, coming up.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: You're listening to NPR News.

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