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Who really bombed the Kurds?

By George Thomas - posted Tuesday, 8 October 2002

The repeated American propaganda weapon to rationalise the deaths of more than one million innocent Iraqis since 1991 through economic sanctions is that Saddam Hussein used poison gas against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war and against Iraq's own Kurdish citizens. The accusation is now being invoked to launch a full-scale American assault on Iraq. This claim of Iraq gassing its own citizens at Halabjah is suspect.

First, both Iran and Iraq used chemical weapons against each other during their war. Second, at the termination of the Iran-Iraq war, professors Stephen Pelletiere and Leif Rosenberger, and Lt Colonel Douglas Johnson of the US Army War College (USAWC) undertook a study of the use of chemical weapons by Iran and Iraq in order to better understand battlefield chemical warfare.

They concluded that it was Iran and not Iraq that killed the Kurds. In the first report they wrote: "In September 1988 - a month after the war had ended...the state department abruptly, and in what many viewed as sensational manner, condemned Iraq for allegedly using chemical weapons against its Kurdish population...with the result that numerous Kurdish civilians were killed. The Iraqi government denied that any such gassing had occurred...Having looked at all the evidence that was available to us, we find it impossible to confirm the state department's claim that gas was used in this instance. To begin with there were never any victims produced. International relief organisations who examined the Kurds - in Turkey where they had gone for asylum - failed to discover any. Nor were there any found inside Iraq. The claim rests solely on testimony of the Kurds who had crossed the border into Turkey, where they were interviewed by staffers of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee."


Regarding the Halabjah incident where Iraqi soldiers were reported to have gassed their own Kurdish citizens, the USAWC investigators observed: "It appears that in seeking to punish Iraq, Congress was influenced by another incident that occurred five months earlier in another Iraq-Kurdish city, Halabjah. In March 1988, the Kurds at Halabjah were bombarded with chemical weapons, producing many deaths. Photographs of the Kurdish victims were widely disseminated in the international media. Iraq was blamed for the Halabjah attack even though it was subsequently brought out that Iran too had used chemical weapons in this operation, and it seemed likely that it was the Iranian bombardment that had actually killed the Kurds."

The likely scenario is as follows: The Iranians thought the Kurds had fled Halabjah and that they were attacking occupying Iraqi forces. But the Iraqis had already vacated Halabjah and the Kurds had returned. Iran gassed the Kurds by accident. In March 1991 as the massive US-led attack on Iraq ended, I was visiting the USAWC to give a lecture on South Asian security and discussed this problem with professor Pelletiere at lunch. I recall Pelletiere telling me that the USAWC investigation showed that in the Iranian mass human wave battlefield strategy, Teheran used non-persistent poison gas against Iraqi soldiers so as to be able to attack and advance into the areas vacated by Iraqis. On the other hand, Baghdad used persistent gas to halt the Iranian human wave attacks. There was a certain consistency to this pattern.

However, in the Halabjah incident, the USAWC investigators discovered that the gas used that killed hundreds of Kurds was the non-persistent gas, the chemical weapon of choice of the Iranians. Note it was the Iranians who arrived at the scene first, who reported the incident to UN observers, and who took pictures of the gassed Kurdish civilians. However, Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in August and the truth of the Halabjah incident became inconvenient. I asked Professor Pelletiere in March 1991, when he thought their findings would come out. I recall him telling me that it would probably take about five years after emotions over the Gulf war crisis died down. However, the USAWC report of 1990 has been dispatched into oblivion.

The propaganda that Iraq gassed its own Kurdish civilians is constantly invoked by the media. It was reactivated by President Clinton in December 1998 to justify the further bombing and destruction of Iraq. Meanwhile, estimates of the number of innocents who have died in Iraq from relentless American-dictated UN sanctions range between 1-1.7 million, including more than half-a-million children. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine, assessed through a study of monthly and annual infant mortality rates in Iraq that "more than 46,900 children died between January and August 1991. UNICEF official Thomas Ekfal estimated that about 500,000 children have died in Iraq since the United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Baghdad. These deaths have occurred because of the lack of immunization for children and vaccine-preventable diseases, contaminated water supplies, spread of malaria, the poor functioning of hospitals, and lack of basic medicines".

Blame for all of this death and suffering has been attributed to Saddam Hussain for his failure to make good use of the limited oil exports allowed for humanitarian purposes. In the past two years, two U.N. Assistant Secretary Generals, Hans von Sponeck of Austria and Denis Halliday of Ireland, and the head of the World Food Program, Jutta Burghardt, have resigned in protest against the sanctions but with no effect on the conscience of Washington's foreign policy bureaucracy.

If the US bombs Iraq, it is not the direct loss of Iraqi lives from "collateral damage" alone that will be the only tragedy, but the unseen and accelerated loss of lives of tens of thousands of more infants, the sick and the elderly from lack of medicine and other healthcare. Before the US bullies all countries into supporting its bombing of Iraq, major countries such as France, Germany, Russia, China, India and Indonesia should stand up in unison and say "no more bombs" to the sole superpower.

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About the Author

Raju G C Thomas is the Allis Chalmers distinguished professor of International Affairs at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His most recent book is as contributing editor of Yugoslavia Unraveled : Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Intervention, Lexington Books, 2004

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