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Remembering Halabja

Today the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) remembers what happened in Halabja 24 years ago today.

Halabja is a Kurdish town on the very northeastern edge of Iraq 8 to 10 miles from the border with Iran. It stands at the base of the mountainous Hewraman region which stretches across the Iran-Iraq border.

Halabja today
A snapshot from Halabja today (Photo by @epicEKG, Sept 30, 2011).

Last fall I joined a couple expat and local friends of Metrography‘s Kamaran Najm for an unforgettable day trip to Halabja and the neighboring village of Hawar. It is a truly beautiful area rich in culture, folklore, and natural heritage. Sharing a full spread of lunch with a family, walking through the walnut and pomegranate groves of Hawar, napping along a babbling mountain stream, and enjoying songs and drinks with men on the roadside, it is truly hard to imagine that such an idyllic place could be the setting of such a terrible crime. Yet what occurred in Halabja 24 years ago today remains the largest scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.

It happened in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian forces held the town and followed two days of conventional artillery attacks by Iraqi forces. What came next was no ordinary military maneuver, but rather an operation that sought to annihilate the entire population.

In the early evening of Friday, March 16, 1988, the attack began with indiscriminate bombs and napalm. Then the munitions changed. Eyewitnesses reported 14 bombings in sorties of 7-8 planes and columns of “white, black and then yellow” smoke billowing 150 feet upward. The smoke was a toxic mix of nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, VX, and mustard gas, and it seeped into homes and bomb cellars.

As many as 5,000 people were killed and many thousands more died from related injuries, toxic exposures, and birth defects.

We must never forget the victims and surviving families of Halabja, and ensure that such weapons are never used again. In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, we must also work to consolidate lasting peace and a future where no government can ever again commit genocide and crimes against humanity.

Terry Lloyd of Britain’s ITN was among the first reporters to witness the terrible aftermath. Lloyd was later killed in 2003 when he and his team got caught in crossfire between the Iraqi Republican Guard and U.S. forces. You’ll have to disregard the two mistakes made by the narrator at the beginning of this broadcast.

Saddam’s Chemical attack on Halabja

Erik K. Gustafson

Erik K. Gustafson

Erik is EPIC's founder and director. As a U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Erik has devoted his life to humanitarian action and empowering youth in support of Iraq's peace and development.


John Reinke

Thank you for this important reminder about what happened in Halabjah in 1988.

In an article published in the NY Times in 2003, well known human rights expert Joost Hilterman had this to say about the US government’s connection with this terrible event:

“Analysis of thousands of captured Iraqi secret police documents and declassified U.S. government documents, as well as interviews with scores of Kurdish survivors, senior Iraqi defectors and retired U.S. intelligence officers, show (1) that Iraq carried out the attack on Halabja, and (2) that the United States, fully aware it was Iraq, accused Iran, Iraq’s enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack. The State Department instructed its diplomats to say that Iran was partly to blame.
The deliberate American prevarication on Halabja was the logical, although probably undesired, outcome of a pronounced six-year tilt toward Iraq, seen as a bulwark against the perceived threat posed by Iran’s zealous brand of politicized Islam. The United States began the tilt after Iraq, the aggressor in the war, was expelled from Iranian territory by a resurgent Iran, which then decided to pursue its own, fruitless version of regime change in Baghdad. ”

The complete article can be found at this link:

Erik K. Gustafson
Erik Gustafson

Very well put John. For a timeline of how the U.S. enabled Iraq’s non-conventional weapons programs and uses, see Nathaniel Hurd, “U.S. Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships with Iraq, 1980 – 2 August 1990,” 15 July 2000 (updated on 12 Dec 01 with Glen Rangwala)

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