The Real Victims of the Iran-Iraq War

On 22 March 1988, the hitherto obscure Kurdish town of Halabja in the northeastern mountains of Iraq suddenly skyrocketed to prominence in the Western press as the site of the most recent and perhaps most grievous atrocity of the Iran-Iraq war. In a front-page story appearing in the London Times, Nicholas Beeston, one of a number of journalists flown into the town by the Iranians who had just captured it, relayed his observations:

Hundreds and possibly thousands of Iraqi Kurds have been killed in one of the worst chemical weapon attacks against non-combatants since the start of the Gulf war. According to Iranian authorities in the area 3,000 people were killed and 10,000 injured in the reprisal raid. The rest of the 40,000 civilians had been evacuated.

The Guardian's David Hirst was even more explicit: "No wounds, no blood, no traces of explosives can be found on the bodies - scores of men, women, children, livestock and pet animals - that litter the flat topped dwellings and crude earthen streets in this remote and neglected Kurdish town in Iranian occupied Iraq." The Daily Telegraph's Norman Kirkham provided grim details: "Halabja has been left ruined and deserted - an open grave...a father died in the dust trying to protect his child from the white cloud of cyanide vapour. A mother lies cradling her baby alongside a mini-bus."

New York Times coverage on the same day was relegated to a page 11 story captioned "Protest at UN on Chemical Arms." According to the report, "Iran's chief delegate accused Iraq today of killing 5,000 people and wounding 5,000 more since Wednesday in attacks against 'pro-Iranian Kurdish villagers.'" The article was almost completely overshadowed by the continuation of a front-page report on 54 Iranian seamen feared dead after an Iraqi attack on their ship in the Gulf.

On 23 March, the Washington Times characterized Halabja as "a modern Pompeii." And London Financial Times reporters Andrew Gower and Richard Johns wrote of "new depths of savagery in remote Kurdistan...The scene was appalling; hundreds of unwounded corpses strewn in the streets; hundreds more survivors writhing in agony in the hospitals and a once thriving settlement of 70,000 people or more reduced to a ghost town."

Major TV network news featured film footage of the carnage, as did ABC's "Nightline." On the following day, 24 March, the Washington Post carried a Reagan Administration condemnation of the attacks as a "grave violation" of international law. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters: "Everyone in the administration saw the same reports you saw last night. They were horrible, outrageous, disgusting and should serve as a reminder to all countries of why chemical warfare should be banned."

International concern was not dissimilar to that of the Reagan Administration. On 26 March, the New York Times reported that UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar had agreed to an Iranian demand to send a team of experts to investigate accusations that Iraq used chemical weapons against civilians, over the protests of several Security Council members that such an inquiry might impede any peace negotiations between the combatants.

The Times lead editorial of the same day reflected US and UN reactions. Wrote the editor, "Again, Iraq stands credibly accused of resorting to chemical weapons in its 7-year war with Iran...The deed is in every sense a war crime. It is compounded by Iraq's lame official denials and unofficial alibis for using a dastardly weapon." Noting that "the State Department properly denounced Iraq for its 'particularly grave violation' of the 1925 Geneva protocol outlawing use of gas weapons," the editorial suggested that Washington and Moscow send an immediate message to Baghdad to "Stop using these weapons or forfeit outside support." (In contrast to casualty figures appearing in other papers, and its own 22 March report citing Iranian estimates, the Times drastically reduced the number of Kurdish dead to "more than 100.")

Despite the impression created by media, the Iraqi attack on Halabja was not the first of its kind; it was simply the largest. It was, however, the first for which Iranian officials made an all-out effort to bring in the media to generate international condemnation of Iraq.

According to our files from Kurdish sources, most of the border towns between Iraq and Iran have been hit at least once by chemicals. The Iraqi air force deployed chemical weapons on 15 April 1987 in a series of attacks on the villages of Hellede, Bergaloo, Kanitoo, Servan, Awaze, Chinare and Kolbjika in the areas of Bookan and Serchinar in Sulaimaniya province. Three hundred and eighty-six Kurdish victims sought medical aid in Kurdish cities. But government authorities issued orders to hospitals that they were not to be treated unless they appeared on national television claiming that Iran was responsible for these attacks. The victims were rounded up, sent to secret prisons, then executed and buried in an effort to conceal the nature of their wounds. On 30 April 1987, two weeks after these attacks, the Kurdish Program received a copy of an urgent dispatch from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to the Secretary General of the United Nations and the International Red Cross pleading for gas masks and medicines.

On 26 February 1988, Iraqi planes chemically attacked Sergaloo, Mergepan, Helede, Chalawa, Gwezele and Chokhmakh in the Jafati valley and the Darbandikhan region. Again the Kurds made a desperate plea to international bodies for medicines, tents and gas masks, along with a request that observers be sent in to witness the destruction.

Now actively promoting condemnation of Iraq for its use of chemical weapons, Iran has well earned its characterization as "no slouch in the atrocity game." Though Iran's internal Kurdish problem captured headlines in the New York Times back in 1981, the warfare that continues even today between its forces and Kurdish guerrillas led by Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou has long been a dead issue in the press. In this chronic war, more than 25,000 indigenous Kurds have been driven from their villages, their homes burned and pillaged and Pasdaran (Iranian military) stationed to keep them from returning. Thousands of Kurds, including civilians, have been detained, tortured and executed.

A particularly grievous Iranian action was brought to our attention back in September 1983 through a report of the Federation of the Rights of Man in Paris. Failing to gain the consent of the Khomeini government to investigate allegations that some 59 Kurdish civilians had been executed at Urmiah, the organization mandated an observer to make a clandestine visit. When the observer arrived, 15 persons had just been executed in Mahabad prison. Between August 22 and 25 of that year another 48 civilians were killed; 19 were young girls. Prior to the executions their bodies had been drained of blood. The federation's observer came upon the following directive issued on 3 October 1982 by the Chief of the Revolutionary Procurers:

We have given a secret order that medical equipment be used to draw blood secretly from individuals condemned to death and whose punishment is to be carried out expeditiously. Blood will be put into containers to be sent to a dispensary as soon as possible for a bloodbank to benefit the wounded. This act is not in violation of Islamic principles because the Imam Khomeini has ordered it.

The federation raised the question: "Were 450 Kurdish civilians executed since the beginning of 1983 simply to make use of their blood?" In a space of 10 months between December 1982 and September 1983, the federation estimated the number of Kurdish fighters executed at 1,339 and the number of civilians at 1,500. The report quoted one Kurdish mother who lost two sons to execution: "Khomeini thinks all Kurds are fighters. Can anyone then not fear to become his victim?" Christian Rostoker, the federation's director, drew this conclusion: "There is no doubt that for a majority of the people executed, they are killed for one crime: being Kurdish in the Islamic Republic of Iran." That was five years ago; nothing has changed since then for the nearly 5 million Kurds in Iran.

Iraq's policy of victimizing civilians is not dissimilar to that of Iran. According to the Washington Post of 24 March, Iraq used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in Halabja "to punish the Kurdish population for complicity with Iranian forces in seizing control of the city." The New York Times of 2 April concurred with that assessment; the paper reported Iran's concern that the war might spread to cities "where pro-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas have been active...after Iranian troops overran the Iraqi town of Halabja and other villages with the help of the same Kurdish forces."

In reality, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), now described as "pro-Iranian," was forced into exile in Iran following the abrupt end of their revolution in Iraq in 1975. Since then, KDP efforts to fight their way back to their homeland, coupled with their need for assistance from wherever they can get it, has rendered them captive to Iranian ambitions and interests. Currently they are spearheading the Iranian drive into Iraq in a desperate effort to return home. The press often alludes to such Kurds as "pro-Iranian," but they are in fact neither pro-Iran nor pro-Iraq; they, like other Kurdish fighters against both regimes, are simply pro-Kurdish.

Over the past several years, what one Western analyst called "a demographic revolution" has been carried out by the Iraqi government against its indigenous Kurdish population. Under the pretext of clearing the war zone, more than 3,000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed and thousands of Kurdish civilians forcibly resettled from the mountains of their northern homeland to the deserts in the south of the country. In reality, the policy is designed to permanently fragment the Kurds, thus facilitating an official "Arabization" process.

Two years ago, 8,000 Barzani Kurds disappeared from government-controlled camps; their whereabouts are still unknown. According to Amnesty, more than 300 children were detained and tortured by Iraqi authorities in order to bring pressure on the Kurdish guerrillas. Several of the dead were returned to their families with their eyes gouged out, according to Amnesty. The international human rights organization also reported allegations of thalium and cyanide poisoning of Kurds by Iraqi agents. Given this history, it is not surprising that chemical weapons should be used to decimate Kurdish civilians. Moreover, nerve gas, mustard gas and cyanide are also cheaper and easier to produce than other conventional weapons.

Within a few days after stories of the atrocities against Kurdish civilians in Halabja broke in the press, Iran exported victims to hospitals in many major cities in Europe. Five Kurds were taken to St. John's Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, New York, under the care and control of an Iranian doctor approved by the regime. Interpreters for the medical staff were selected by the Iranians from KDP representation in the US. That this project has been orchestrated by Iran for publicity purposes is evidenced by the fact that even in New York neither the local Kurdish community nor Americans not sanctioned by the Iranians have been permitted to visit the victims.

The Kurdish Program contacted hospital authorities and managed to visit Kobra, Rezan and Javan, three little girls aged nine to 12, sharing a very pleasant and modern hospital room. Eyes swollen and tearing, exposed skin covered with the grey blotches produced by chemical burns, two sat quietly on a bed playing cards. Sad apparitions of another time and place, disoriented and traumatized, the little Kurdish girls are thrice victims - of the Iraqis, the Iranians and the acquiescence and indifference of the international community.

(As we prepared to leave the hospital room, we encountered the Iranian physician in charge. Visibly uncomfortable with our presence, he questioned a resident in Farsi and requested our identities. Dr. Atabegi informed us that neither our presence nor our offers of aid were needed.)

Jalal Talabani, Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, rightly characterizes the chronic destruction of the Kurds as part of a larger policy of genocide. Yet few but the Kurds see the issue on these terms. So his people continue to be victimized by two odious regimes that simultaneously aid Kurds on opposite sides of their wars while killing their own Kurdish citizens. Thanks to the vicissitudes of geopolitics and our own strange and sullied priorities, the long arms of their enemies extend in all directions to destroy them.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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