Halabja poison gas attack

From Academic Kids

The Halabja poison gas attack was an incident on 15 March-19 March 1988 during a major battle in the Iran-Iraq war when chemical weapons were used, allegedly by Iraqi government forces, to kill a number of people in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja (population 80,000). Estimates of casualties range from several hundred to 5,000 people. Halabja is located about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad and 8-10 miles from the Iranian border.

Missing image
Photo said to have been taken in the aftermath of the attack.

Most current accounts of the incident regard Iraq as the party responsible for the gas attack, which occurred during the Iran-Iraq War. The war between Iran and Iraq was in its eighth year when, on March 16 and 17, 1988, Iraq dropped poison gas on the Kurdish city of Halabja, then held by Iranian troops and Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas allied with Tehran; throughout the war, Iran had supplied the Iraqi Kurdish rebels with safe haven and other military support. For example, the TerrorismCentral ( web site states, "The poison gas attack on the Iraqi town of Halabja was the largest-scale chemical weapons (CW) attack against a civilian population in modern times. ...The CW attack began early in the evening of March 16th, when a group of eight aircraft began dropping chemical bombs, and the chemical bombardment continued all night. ... The Halabja attack involved multiple chemical agents, including mustard gas, and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX." Some sources have also pointed to the blood agent Hydrogen Cyanide.

The massacre at Halabja did not raise protests by the international community in March 1988. At the time, it was admitted that the civilians had been killed "collaterally" due to an error in handling the combat gas. Two years later, when the Iran-Iraq War was finished and the Western powers stopped supporting Saddam Hussein, the massacre of Halabja was attributed to the Iraqis.

Some debate continues, however, over the question of whether Iraq was really the responsible party, stemming from the fact that the United States supplied chemical weapons which may have been responsible for Halabja to Iraq. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the U.S. State Department, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, instructed its diplomats to say that Iran was partly to blame.

A preliminary Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) study at the time concluded, apparently by determining the chemicals used by looking at images of the victims, that it was in fact Iran that was responsible for the attack, an assessment which was used subsequently by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for much of the early 1990's. The CIA's senior political analyst for the Iran-Iraq war, Stephen C. Pelletiere, co-authored an unclassified analysis of the war [1] ( which contained a brief summary of the DIA study's key points. In a January 31, 2003 New York Times [2] ( opinion piece, Pelletiere summarized the DIA's findings and noted that because of the DIA's conclusion there was not sufficient evidence to definitively determine whether Iraq or Iran was responsible. Pelletiere also felt that the administration of George W. Bush was not being forthright when squarely placing blame on Iraq, since it contradicted the conclusion of the DIA study. However the DIA's final position on the attack was in fact much less certain than this preliminary report suggests, with its final conclusions, in June 2003, asserting just that there was insufficient evidence, but concluding that "Iraq ..used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in 1988" [3] ( The CIA altered its position radically in the late 1990s and cited Halabja frequently in its evidence of WMD before the 2003 invasion [4] (

Another extensive analysis of the incident is contained in a post [5] ( to the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq listserv by Cambridge political theorist Glen Rangwala. Rangwala describes how the attack followed the occupation of the city by Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, leading to the conclusion that the gassing was an attack on these forces by the Iraqis. Rangwala also cites studies done by non-governmental organizations that concluded different chemicals were used than the ones cited in the DIA study, although a 1991 DIA report stated that Iraq did also posses Hydrogen Cyanide gas supplied by the US. Rangwala's analysis effectively sums up the current prevailing view of the event, that Iraq was indeed responsible for the attack on Halabja, and that the DIA analysis is in error. This evidence backed up by extensive witness testimony gathered by organisations like Human Rights Watch[6] ( and Indict (, has, more recently, added to the growing evidence that the initial DIA appraisal of the events was mistaken. The most categorical proof is the many further well-documented incidents of deliberate attacks on Kurdish civilians occurring at the same time throughout Kurdish northern Iraq also perpetrated without doubt by Iraqi forces (Al-Anfal Campaign).

Thus, while some facts surrounding the incident remain murky, most evidence and analyses indicate that the gas attack was an Iraqi attack on Iranian forces, pro-Iranian Kurdish forces and Halabja's citizens during one of the major battles of the Iran-Iraq War. The attack likely served a dual-purpose, as both a military act and a part of the Al-Anfal campaign.

Both Saddam Hussein and Ali Hasan al-Majid (who commanded Iraqi forces in northern Iraq in that period) have had charges relating to the events at Halabja included within the charges for which they are appearing before the Iraqi Special Tribunal for alleged crimes against humanity. Hussein has repeatedly denied the Tribunal's legitimacy (claiming it to be a "play" of American "theatre"), and refused to sign documents reflecting the charges against him during his first public court appearance.

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