A Lethal First Chapter in Iraq's Gas Attacks Two small villages in Kurdistan remain haunted by mustard-gas attacks that took place almost a year before those in Halabja in the late 1980s. Despite the chemical assault by Saddam Hussein's regime, the West did little to help the Kurds.
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A Lethal First Chapter in Iraq's Gas Attacks

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A Lethal First Chapter in Iraq's Gas Attacks

A Lethal First Chapter in Iraq's Gas Attacks

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Iraqi government backed away this week from statements that Saddam Hussein would face trial within the next two months. When Hussein and his top generals finally do appear before an independent Iraqi tribunal, they're certain to face a multiplicity of charges, including genocide against the Kurdish people of northern Iraq. Most prominently, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, is thought to be responsible for the horrific 1988 chemical attack at Halabja in Iraq that killed more than 5,000 Kurds. But that campaign began almost a year before that. On April 16th, 1987, the Iraqi government bombed two small Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, Balisan and Sheikh Wassan, with mustard gas. Those villages were apparently a testing ground for future attacks. NPR's Jackie Lyden reports.

(Soundbite of people talking and birds chirping)

JACKIE LYDEN reporting:

The Balisan Valley is an emerald ribbon of color beneath clouds of slate gray in northeastern Iraq. Its narrow, 10-mile length is cinched in by mountain walls which rise steeply on either side, a dramatic panorama. At Balisan, there's a small sun-bleached cemetery and a tiny tin painting of planes dropping bombs. A sign declares that `Here lie the martyrs of the towns of Balisan and Sheikh Wassan' and lists their collective death date of April the 16th, 1987.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: On this most recent April 16th, jaunty, patriotic music jolts through the valley. Hundreds of people are gathered in commemoration on the hillside above of the cemetery. The festival atmosphere, the sun sparkling on a cloud of billowing sequined dresses, contrasts with the horror of what happened here. Fahki Sheikh Wassani's(ph) father is buried or, rather, represented in the cemetery. There are just 23 commemorative graves to represent 233 missing people.

Mr. FAHKI SHEIKH WASSANI (Father Killed in 1987 Bombing): (Through Translator) Yeah, they didn't recognize their bodies here, but just by their head and by their arms and feet, they have to recognized. But other parts of their body have been mixed together. They recognize their childs by their small heads.

LYDEN: By 1987, the Kurds had been fighting for an independent state in Iraq for decades. The Kurdish militia, called the peshmerga, meaning `he who faces death,' had made rural Kurdistan a no-go area for the Iraq army. At the same time, Iraq's army was fighting a death match with Iran in the final phases of a brutal eight-year war that ended in 1988. Iraq was bombing the Kurds in the Balisan Valley with napalm. Kurdish civilians sheltered in caves during the day and farmed at night. Then Baghdad began a campaign to eradicate all the Kurds along a broad swath of the no-go area that included the Balisan Valley. That campaign came to be known as Anfal. It began at Sheikh Wassan. Planes appeared overhead making a circle of vapor trail, an aerial target. From within the target, there was a rain of canisters and muffled explosions. Villagers breathed in a sweet odor like that of fermenting apples. Goli Omar Aziz(ph), a 55-year-old widow, says through a translator that it was drizzling that April night, or more people would have been outside.

Ms. GOLI OMAR AZIZ (Widow): It was evening, it almost becoming dark, and 12 aircraft came and bombing by chemical weapons. And one of those bombs crashed my brother's house, and my brother has been killed. And people are escaping. They don't know where they will go.

LYDEN: The Iraqi government had used mustard gas, gas associated with the trenches of World War I. The symptoms take several hours to appear. Fathma Ibrahim(ph), another widow, was in Sheikh Wassan. No one knew what had happened until the children, who were most affected, began to vomit and tear up.

Ms. AZIZ: My son has been affected by his eyes, and he can't see anything. There was an elder man there. He took his hand and take him to that cave. So he stayed in there for three days. I saw him, his face became very black and he can't see. He was very weak, and he can't do anything. He was in very bad condition.

LYDEN: The gas, heavier than air, made a deadly descent through the valley. One peshmerga, who'd been surveying the scene from a lookout post, held a wet cloth over his head. Ossad Gozaik(ph) raced down the mountain to lead villagers to nearby caves. For many, it was too late.

Mr. OSSAD GOZAIK (Peshmerga): Hamid Arasha's(ph) wife was pregnant, and she started having labor. Well, there was nothing to take care of her. And in the village of Sheikh Wassan, it happened to several other women, and several women gave birth. And they named most of these people--probably in the list you will see the babies are named Chemia(ph), which is chemical, because they were...

LYDEN: They were stillborn.

Mr. GOZAIK: ...born and died on the same day. So instead of giving them another name, they named them all Chemical.

(Soundbite of water running)

LYDEN: People tried to drag themselves into the streambeds. Some lay there, burned entirely through the throat where they'd inhaled. Atiah Salihee(ph) is a doctor in the northern Kurdish city of Erbil. She was on duty at Erbil Republic Hospital when, two days after the attack, Iraqi security dumped hundreds of desperate people in the hospital's reception hall. They looked as though they'd been through a fire. She suspected chemicals. The doctors weren't allowed near. That the Anfal was intended to kill Kurdish civilians as well as fighters became clear when, after denying the victims treatment, the Iraqi security rounded them up and hauled them away in trucks.

Dr. ATIAH SALIHEE (Erbil Public Hospital): Women and children were dragged into the lorry, and we don't know why. They were treated--like the most noxious insect you cannot treat like this, like cockroaches were treated. After that, we heard from the Kurdish soldiers, and they said they buried them alive. A hole was digged in the ground and disappeared.

LYDEN: To destroy evidence of a chemical weapons attack, the dead were thrown into a pit in Erbil and then covered with asphalt. It is these remains which are now reburied at Balisan Cemetery, but for many Kurds, the attack and what followed stand as testament to the West's complicity with Saddam Hussein. Barham Salih, now planning minister in Iraq, was in London representing the Kurdish government when he heard what had happened.

Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Planning Minister): When we got news of the chemical attack in Sheikh Wassan and the Balisan Valley, I immediately began writing to members of parliament, to the press. The response was abysmal. Very few people would care. I remember at the time the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and her response was quite painful, I have to say. The language, if I remember, paraphrasing it correctly, `While we recognize that there are human rights violations in Iraq, it's very difficult to corroborate.'

LYDEN: In fact, Kurdish intelligence shared news of the Balisan attack with the United States, according to a former Senate investigator. But in 1987, the United States and England supported Iraq against Iran, despite Iran's complaints that Iraq was using chemical weapons just 11 months after the chemical assault at Balisan and Sheikh Wassan. More than 5,000 Kurds were killed in a mass gassing at Halabja. Washington condemned the attack but muted the criticism when it accused both Iraq and Iran of using chemical weapons. The Anfal continued. Barham Salih.

Mr. SALIH: Somehow the human rights of the people of Kurdistan and the Iraqi people were somewhat of a nuisance because it did not fit into the overall scheme of things, that Saddam Hussein was seen as a bulwark against Iran. Saddam Hussein got presented an opportunity for investment. The Arab world was totally on the side of Saddam Hussein protesting interference in domestic Iraqi affairs. And I always think that had the world acted at the time and took those reports seriously, perhaps the massacre at Halabja would not have taken place.

LYDEN: The architect of the chemical campaign was entirely confident of the world's indifference. Ali Hassan al-Majid had been appointed to the Baath Party chairmanship in northern Iraq in March of 1987. A tape thought to be from that time records him speaking to his commanders about his intentions for the Kurds.

Mr. ALI HASSAN al-MAJID: (Through Translator) I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who's going to say anything? The international community? Damn them, the international community and those who listen to them.

LYDEN: Between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the eradication campaign, according to Human Rights Watch. Kurdish leaders insist the number is far greater. They also dispute the number of chemical attacks in 1987 and '88. Human Rights Watch says there were 40. The Kurds say there were five times that many. But both say Anfal was genocide. Joost Hiltermann, formerly of Human Rights Watch, helped research 18 tons of Iraqi documents brought out of Kurdistan in 1991. The records show, he says, that the United States ignored warnings that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Researcher): He wasn't criticized from the first day he started using chemical weapons, and the fact that from that day on, Iraq started escalating these chemical weapons.

LYDEN: And Iraq improved the killing power of its chemicals with each new attack, and it all began with the mustard gas at Sheikh Wassan.

Mr. HILTERMANN: Graduating to more lethal chemical agents and targeting ever more larger population groups, first Iranian soldiers, then Kurdish guerillas and then eventually Kurdish civilians. They were experimenting. Every single attack was, in effect, an experiment. For example, they used tabun, a nerve agent, for a while, but then that proved to be not so useful. And then they moved on to sarin, and then sarin was not doing the trick. And then they moved on to VX, and they started working on biological weapons at the time as well. And it's certainly the first case in world history in which chemical weapons were used against civilian population, where civilians were targeted. Certainly no effort was made to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Ms. FAHAYA MUSTAFA(ph) (Through Translator) And this is a picture of my husband, Salid Abdullah Roso(ph). And this is his brother, Sayid Abdullah Roso(ph). Another brother, Mahmoud Abdullah Roso(ph).

LYDEN: Two years ago, in Sheikh Wassan, survivors built a small, white shrine. In it, families have grouped photos of those who were lost. Where there is no photo, there's a drawing of a rose and a name. There is a profusion of roses. Fahaya Mustafa(ph), a 55-year-old widow, points out family pictures so faded, they look like daguerreotypes. Her face, drawn and pinched beneath heavy black brows, is engraved by suffering.

Translator: This picture, Mohammed Mustafa Mahmoud, her brother.

Ms. MUSTAFA: (Through Translator) This is my sister, Luatha Mustafa Mahmoud(ph). This is my cousin, Musman Karim Mahmoud(ph). This is my cousin, also, Maria Majit Salim(ph), and my other cousin, Majit Salim Mahmoud(ph).

LYDEN: Justice has not come, she said. And even if it does, she wants revenge.

Ms. MUSTAFA: (Through Translator) I swear to God I will never forgive him under any circumstances. For 18 years I have taken care of 12 family members and my own. There is nothing left of me. My life now is torture. I want to chop up Chemical Ali into tiny pieces.

LYDEN: Today Iraq cannot identify all those in its mass graves, all those who have disappeared not only during Anfal but many other mass murders. Bakhtiar Amin, a Kurd who served as Iraq's human rights minister, puts the number of dead and missing at two million. Nothing has been done for any of the victims, he says, though he suggested a portion of oil revenues be set aside in compensation. There's no special treatment for complications of chemical weapons. There are no cancer hospitals, no DNA testing. And justice has been a long time coming.

Mr. BAKHTIAR AMIN (Former Iraq Human Rights Minister): They have never tried anyone in this part of the world for genocide or violations of international conventions, and it's important that we are not waiting much longer. Two years have gone, and the world and the Iraqis have been waiting. Victims have also limits to their patience, and in order to avoid the cycle of violence and vendetta, in order to heal this nation's wounds and to reconciliate this nation, you need to bring before justice those who have blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on their hands.

(Soundbite of birds)

LYDEN: Today the valley's majestic. Powerful beauty belies the poisoning that's viewed here from the sky. Some survivors have returned. Many never left. What the villagers want most is acknowledgment. Halabja, they say, is well-known. Their suffering is obscure. They are the people of Sheik Wasson and Balisan, who suffered Saddam Hussein's first chemical attack on civilians, out of sight, below broad mountain walls that appear to go on forever. Jackie Lyden, NPR News.

(Soundbite of birds; music)

SIMON: Our story was produced by Peter Breslow. Photos from Balisan are on our Web site, npr.org.

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