The Halabja Massacre: 35 Years Later

By Lazghine Ya’qoube

In that year (1988), three newborn babies (all female) and the football team of our village were named ‘Halabja’. Although incomprehensible to us – at such an early age – it was in that year too when we first heard of chemical weapons, when they were used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein near the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). For us, the word Halabja would later became synonymous for mass murder.

At the time, Halabja (Helebce) was a small Kurdish town in northern ‘Iraq’ (occupied Southern Kurdistan). But it would soon gain international attention for being a massive war crime scene, with horrifying images of suffocated children and fleeing parents frozen in time on the ground, in the position they would have been in when the chemical gas first hit their lungs. The Halabja chemical gas attack took place on March 16, 1988 – but the events leading up to that tragic day were years in the making and are instructive to understand the full incident.

The precursor to Halabja dates back to September 22, 1980, when Iraqi forces allegedly seeking to settle long-standing border disputes with neighboring Iran, launched air raids on Iranian bases, followed up with a ground invasion of the oil-producing border region of Khuzestan.

The ‘Iran-Iraq War’ (as it is known in the West) soon became a double disaster for the Kurds living on either side of the border dividing Southern and Eastern Kurdistan. While Iran shelled Kurdish territories on the Iraqi side (Bashur), Iraq did the same against Kurds living on the Iranian side (Rojhilat). Additionally, while thousands of Kurdish villages and towns were destroyed on both sides of the border in the hostilities, thousands of others were systematically razed in Bashur by Saddam’s regime near the end of the war during the Anfal Genocide (1988), a catastrophe to which the Halabja Massacre belongs.

The Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War partly has its roots in the Kurdish aspiration for self-rule granted by the Iraqi regime in what is known as the “March Manifesto” or the 15-point Autonomy Agreement of 1970. However, since the oil-rich province of Kirkuk (Kerkûk) was excluded from the deal, Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani mounted a revolt in March 1974, with aid from Iran. Unfortunately for the Kurds, a year later, Iraq signed a territorial concession deal with Iran in March 1975, that would bring Barzani’s rebellion to an end.

Mediated and hosted by Algeria (President Houari Boumediene and Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Bouteflika), the Algiers Agreement was signed by Saddam Hussein, who was then Iraq’s Vice-President, and Iran’s Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. In the deal, Iraq conceded 30 square kilometers to Iran, in return for Tehran withholding assistance from the Kurdish uprising led by Barzani. Accordingly, Iran stopped providing assistance to the Kurds and the uprising collapsed. Yet, dramatic changes were to take place in the four subsequent years, not only in Kurdistan, but also in Iran and Iraq.

In January 1979, the Shah fled Iran for Egypt. By February, the 2,500-year-old monarchy had ended, and a Shi’ite Islamic Republic was established throughout Iran instead. On March 1,1979, Barzani died at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC, allegedly during surgery for lung cancer. Though many Kurds in Bashur doubted that version of the story. Elsewhere in Iraq, President Hassan al-Bakr resigned from office on July 16, 1979, after being forced aside by his Vice-President Saddam Hussein. Immediately, Saddam assumed absolute powers, and Iraq’s new brutal dictator was daunted with the rising image and power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who assumed leadership over Iran.

Chemical Tactics & Invasion

Due to repeated skirmishes on the border, on September 17, 1980, Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement. A few days later, one of the most devastating wars in modern history began, leaving as many as a million people dead before it was over. And one of the hellish hallmarks of that war would be Iraq’s widespread use of chemical warfare.

Chemical weapons were first prohibited by the Hague Convention in 1899. In retrospect, their first use can be traced back to German forces during World War I (April 22, 1915), who launched a chemical (lethal chlorine) attack against two French colonial divisions during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium.

Over six decades later, it was Saddam Hussein who believed in the effectiveness of chemical weapons, a belief that would eventually lead to the massacre at Halabja. But eight years earlier, the war started out positively for Iraqi forces, as their invasion of Iran was initially a success and they captured large amounts of territory.

However, Iraq’s rapid advance was soon brought to a stall by the Iranians, who in 1981 launched an effective counteroffensive. By early 1982, Iranian forces had regained virtually all of their lost territory. By the end of that year, Iraqi forces withdrew to the pre-war border lines as their forces continued to be pushed back. Eager not to lose any of their own territory, the regime of Saddam Hussein then attempted to seek peace. But Iran refused, insisting instead on continuing the conflict in an effort to topple Saddam’s regime, which had invaded their country. Khomeini maintained the war should be settled on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table.

Halabja in the Crosshairs

Throughout the years of the Iran-Iraq war, dozens of Kurdish villages located between Halabja and the Iranian border were razed, and its inhabitants found themselves at the edges of the town which swelled considerably.

Geographically, Halabja is huddled at the southwest of the Shahrizor Plain surrounded by a chain of mountains including Shenroi, Sharam, Rangin, Befrimiri, Balambo, and Surin. Militarily, Halabja’s location was strategic and significant. It was few kilometers from Darbandikhan Dam, which is a major water supply for the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The town was also only 15 kilometers from the Iranian border and 70 kilometers from the major Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah (Silêmanî).

To deal with the ‘Kurdish north of Iraq’, which saw an opportunity to finally win their own freedom from Baghdad with help from Iran, in early 1987, Saddam appointed his infamous cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (who would come to be known as ‘Chemical Ali’) General-Secretary of the Northern Bureau Command. Al-Majid, a trusted agent of the regime, adopted a scorched earth policy in Southern Kurdistan where he wanted to deport or liquidate the population to deprive Kurdish forces of manpower and resources.

In June 1987, al-Majid issued two military directives in order to destroy the Kurdish population of Southern Kurdistan. The first deemed the areas where Kurds lived as “prohibited zones” and thus applied a shoot-to-kill policy against any person found there. This essentially was an official legal dictate to murder all Kurds on sight for any reason. The second entailed summary executions of all Kurdish men who were of “military fighting age” (aged 15-60).

As a result, from February to September 1988 during the Al-Anfal Genocide, nearly 3,000 Kurdish villages were razed, and its inhabitants were rounded up. Upon being collected, all boys and men were separated from the women and taken to unknown locations where they were killed and dumped into mass graves. In some cases, this entailed being buried alive in large trenches. As for the women, they also then faced the threat of mass rape or abuse, with their male family members now dead and them at the mercy of a fascist state out to end their existence.

The Anfal Campaign started with the siege of Sergalou and Bergalou in February and ended with the chemical bombardment of Bahdinan on August 25, 1988. Al-Majid had been given a free hand from Saddam to “solve the Kurdish problem in the north of the country and slaughter the saboteurs.” For architecting the savage genocide of up to 100,000 Kurds, Saddam’s ruthless cousin would gain an additional nickname, the “Butcher of Kurdistan”.

The Infamous Morning

In April 1987, chemical weapons were dropped on Kurdish villages in the valley of Balisan. In that year alone, there were at least 21 documented chemical attacks against Kurdish villages, civilians, and Peshmerga forces. At the end of February 1988, Jalal Talabani, Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) accused the Iraqi regime of genocide.

On March 13, 1988, Iran announced “Operation Zafar 7” in the area of Halabja. The operation was partly mounted by PUK Peshmerga forces and Iran’s Pasdaran (IRGC) to relieve the tight siege imposed by Iraqi forces on the two villages of Sergalou and Bergalou, both PUK areas. On March 16, with the aim to liberate Halabja and open a second front, “Operation al-Fajr” was mounted. Its forces reached the shore of Darbandikhan Lake controlling nearly 800 square kilometers of Iraqi territory. The Halabja vicinity had been subject to Iranian shelling causing all Iraqi military units to abandon their posts and take refugee in the city.

The day prior to the Halabja Massacre, PUK and Iranian forces captured the town, where Iraqi forces incurred colossal losses. However, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces along with Iranians evacuated the town and for strategic reasons remained stationed on mountain peaks surrounding Halabja. Public employees were soon ordered to evacuate Halabja, as there was widespread anticipation of reprisals by the Iraqi regime. Local people took refuge in cellars and other shelters. For his part, Saddam feared Kurdish forces could march further west. Diyala and Mount Hamrin, which marks the historical border between Southern Kurdistan and Arab Iraq were now under threat. Chemical Ali decided to put an end to any possible Kurdish advance.

By all accepted accounts of the genocide, the next morning (March 16), Iraqi forces stationed in the village of Said Sadeq, shelled the town of Halabja with conventional munitions and launched sustained air strikes. Initially, Iraqi war planes and artillery pounded Halabja, breaking windows and destroying the cellars civilians had been seeking shelter in.

By the mid-afternoon at around 11 am (March 16), chemical warfare agents and incendiary ordinance were dropped from Iraqi war planes, which hovered at a very low height. Some 16 Mig and Mirage aircraft unleashed bombs with mustard gas (a blistering agent that destroys the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract), cyanide, and the deadly nerve agents (Tabun, Sarin and VX). Dropping the lethal ammunitions lasted for 45 minutes. And the town of Halabja was subject to one of the most heinous crimes perpetrated against humanity ever since.

Most accounts describe a white-yellowish cloud sinking to the ground. Oddly, people say the air had an indelible smell of apples, which unusually burned their eyes and skin while making breathing difficult. Those remaining in the underground shelters, basements, and caves sadly died there. Many people desperately sought safety elsewhere, but fell on the streets, where they died after coughing up green vomit. Hysteric laughing moments before death were also reported by survivors.

The chemical bombing of Halabja made headlines in the West and arouse outrage all over the world. Yet, the United States and their European Allies still firmly stood behind their ally Saddam Hussein, who at the time they believed was needed to counter Iran.

Though chemical weapons had been repeatedly used against the Kurdish forces in the months before the Halabja massacre, none had reached this level of ferocity. Nearly 5,000 Kurds – mainly women and children – died that morning, marked ever since as Halabja Day. Additionally, another 7,000 Kurds were injured and suffered long term illnesses from exposure to the nerve agents of Tabun, Sarin, VX, and mustard gas. Significantly, all are banned weapons by the terms of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention.

Kurdish Corpses Frozen in Time

The disturbing and unsettling images of dead elderly men, women, and children littered throughout Halabja’s streets shocked the whole world. Their bodies seemed to be frozen in time, trapped at the exact moment when they suffocated. But for one of the first times, with visual evidence leaving no doubt, the international community could no longer deny the brutality that was being carried out against the Kurds.

The famous photo of Omari Khawer, desperately trying to shield his one-year-old child from the chemical gas become an icon for the plight of Halabja. Its photographer, Ramazan Öztürk (a Kurd from Bakur), would name the image ‘Silent Witness’, which would eventually appear in newspapers all around the world, and later be carved into a large monument at the memorial for the victims. Öztürk describes the moment before the photo, recalling:

“I had been following the ongoing war between Iraq and Iran for years. Two days after the massacre, on 18th March 1988, I arrived in northern Iraq, near the town of Halabja. My intention was to document the war and its effects. I approached that area with a helicopter. I had been following wars, massacres and uprisings for over 35 years, but I had never noticed this kind of silence, absolute silence. You could not even hear a bird chirping. 70,000 people lived in this town at the time. You cannot imagine how powerful it is to see it almost empty but at the same time full of corpses. It seemed to me that the people who had died had been extremely surprised by what was happening to them and were trying desperately to run for their lives.”

Photographer Ramazan Öztürk as he arrived in Halabja to document the tragedy.

On March 23, 1988, the U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that Iraq appeared to have used chemical weapons. Not only this, Redman added “There are indications that Iran may also have used chemical artillery shells in this fighting.” The truth had already become politicized for geopolitical reasons.

Soon, a joint Dutch-Belgian team of ‘Doctors Without Borders’ visited Halabja on March 24- 27, 1988, as the first foreign medical organization. The team did note in the report it released that “people seemed to be killed by surprise during their daily activities (driving, eating, water collecting).” People severely injured were taken to Iran for treatment, so the joint team visited people admitted to hospitals in Iran. Many were also sent to Europe for care. The evidence that the injured had been subjected to chemical weapons was beyond doubt.

In the aftermath of the attack, Iraqi troops returned to Halabja to assess the effectiveness of their weapons. In order to conceal traces of the crime, Halabja was then razed to the ground by the Iraqi military. Cynically, “New Halabja” was built by Iraqi authorities 70 kilometers to the south and any survivors were relocated to the new town.

Halabja’s attack is a multifaceted one. Whether being part of the genocidal Anfal Campaign or considered an isolated case, the attack against Halabja is a crime against humanity since the victims were all civilians. Because of the scorched earth policy, the town population had already been reduced from 70,000 to 30,000 even before the attack, or else the death count would have been much higher.

Halabja marked the culmination of the Arabization and extermination policy adopted by Chemical Ali. The message Halabja sent was clear and the following month on April 17, “Operation Blessed Ramadan” was mounted. The Iraqi Army eventually pushed Iranian forces out of Iraqi territories, and the use of chemical weapons was an integral part of Baghdad’s strategy throughout the Spring.

Delayed Western Outrage

On May 9, 1988, the UN Security Council passed Res (612) condemning the use of chemical weapons in the war, noting that respect must be paid to the Geneva Protocol of 1925. However, the resolution failed (allegedly due to US and French pressure) to specify Iraq as the perpetrator of the chemical attack against Halabja. Most importantly, the West decided to openly side with Iraq up to the last moment, because they believed the losses he was inflicting against Iran were beneficial to their strategic interests.

Based on satellite images, the United States had prior knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. Even though the administration of President Ronald Reagan did know that Iraq had been using chemical gases, it did not disclose the issue hoping that it would tilt the balance on the ground to Iraq’s advantage (which it ultimately did). Later, Retired Air Force Colonel Rick Francona who was in a military attaché in Baghdad when the attack occurred, revealed that the Iraqis did not have to tell the Americans they carried out the attack, as they already knew.

Among many others, Francona revealed that U.S. knowledge and evidence of chemical attacks during the war dated back to 1983. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the war was also widely reported in the international press. In February 1984, Iran’s Foreign Minister said Iran had clear evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons intensively.

From 1984 until 1988, Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat purchased large quantities of thiodiglycol – a key component in the manufacture of mustard gas – from the United States and Japan. This chemical was then sold, through a number of different companies located in different countries, to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. After 1984, Van Anraat was Iraq’s sole supplier of the chemical agent. By 1985, some 150 German companies had also opened offices in the Iraqi capital. They too played an essential role in aiding and abetting the Iraqi regime in obtaining and developing the chemical warfare arsenal.

UN Fact-Finding teams gathered evidence that chemical gases were used on many occasions. Although the UN Security Council “deplored” in February 1986 (Res. 582) the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, no action was taken. That seems to have emboldened Iraqi military leadership to perpetrate even more chemical war crimes. To their credit, the UN stated that “on many occasions” Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces. However, there was no international attention given to matter in the UN Security Council. It seems that Saddam’s regime (shielded by the West) operated with impunity.

Awaiting Justice

Years later, in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi officials and military commanders were prosecuted by the Iraqi Supreme Criminal Tribunal which was formed after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and run by a chief judge from Halabja (Rauf Rashid Abdul Rahman). Saddam Hussein was later captured and hanged to death on December 30, 2006, a small consolation for all of his countless Kurdish victims. The appointment of Rauf as chief judge signified how history can often come full circle.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands, in 2007 a Dutch court sentenced Van Anraat to 17 years in prison over his role in delivering chemical weapons to Baghdad in the 1980s. Van Anraat was found guilty of complicity in war crimes. However, he was ultimately acquitted on the charge of genocide since the prosecution failed to prove that he had knowledge of Hussein’s genocidal intent.

On January 17, 2010, among other officials, Ali Hassan al-Majid was sentenced to death by hanging. Eight days later, (January 25) “Chemical Ali” was executed. Prior to his death, during his trial, the aforementioned photographer Ramazan Öztürk was summoned to testify as a witness, with him describing the moment as the following:

“I have always wanted to look at the perpetrators of that massacre in the face. In the courtroom I presented and showed 47 photographs that I had taken in Halabja. While the judges and the relatives of murdered people were crying, Ali was looking at me in the eyes and at one point he asked me what I was doing that day in Halabja. I told him that I was there as a photographer, to document the kind of atrocities a human being was capable of doing to fellow human beings.”

After the fall of the Saddam regime, the Graveyard for Halabja Martyrs was erected in memory of those who died. Symbolically, Halabja was granted the status of governorate in the Kurdish Region.

Yet, the long-term effects introduced by the gassing cannot be erased or dispersed, as most survivors still suffer from severe and long-lasting respiratory conditions, as well as long-term psychological consequences of the poisonous attack. Showing the long-term effects, on March 18, 2021, Mohamed Aziz Halabjayi, aged 57, died of injuries sustained in the chemical attack in 1988. Aziz survived the poisonous attack, but had lung damage all his life.

Moreover, thousands of others suffered long-term life effects including blindness and cancer. Children born to parents who survived the attack have been plagued with various disabilities and infertility rates for survivors are very high. Birth defects from survivors include harelips, cleft palates, spina bifida, and congenital heart diseases, among others.

Recently carried out research in Halabja revealed that as a result of the 1988 attack, high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress were found among current Halabja University students. Another study revealed Halabja’s present population is 10 percent smaller than it would have been had the attack never taken place, because of the greater incidence of infertility and miscarriage.

In 2015, 27 years after the Massacre, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces were again subject to chemical attacks, this time by fighters of ISIS, many of whom were former Iraqi Ba’athist military officers. ISIS also used chemical gas against the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) near the Rojava city of Hasaka (Hesîçe) in 2015. Later investigations carried out by the United States and Germany showed the potential use of mustard gas against Kurdish forces in the Bashur town of Makhmour (Mexmûr) as well.

Most recently, over the last few years, there are also reports of the Turkish military using chemical weapons hundreds of times against Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Southern Kurdistan, as Turkey pushes ever inward into the same mountains that Kurds once fled to in order to flee from Saddam. In these instances the same ‘hysterical’ laughing (like in Halabja) has been videoed coming from the victims before they died. Showing that the one common denominator the states occupying Kurdistan can always agree on is trying to exterminate Kurds.

Today, Halabja survivors call on the international community to recognize the attack as genocide and to impose sanctions on the foreign companies that provided chemical substances and components to the Iraqi regime during the war. Exactly 35 years after the diabolical assault, the Halabja Massacre remains an open wound and a blot on the face of the world’s democracies. Unrecognized, the stench of genocide still pervades Halabja, as Kurds await a free Kurdistan where they might be able to guarantee that no other dictator will ever drop chemical gas on them again.


  • Lazghine Ya’qoube

    Lazghine Ya’qoube is a Rojava-based translator, author, and researcher on the modern history of Mesopotamia with a special focus on Kurdish, Yazidi and Assyrian affairs around World War I. He has written extensively on topics related to the current Syrian Crises.

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