On March 16, 1988, 5,000 residents of Halabja, a Kurdish city in eastern Iraq, were killed and 10,000 injured when Saddam Hussein’s army attacked with chemical weapons — perhaps the largest-scale use of such weapons against a civilian population in modern times. That morning, Iraqi Air Force planes bombed the city with a lethal chemical cocktail of mustard gas and sarin, tabun and VX nerve agents. Two days ago, the man accused of overseeing the attack, Gen. Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, appeared before a judicial tribunal in Baghdad. He is likely to go on trial next year for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with Halabja and a series of other atrocities allegedly carried out by forces under his command.
In Halabja on that terrible day, families hiding in their basements (the safest place to be when Iraqi troops launched conventional artillery attacks) began vomiting and died of suffocation as a result of the chemical weapons attack. As the gas spread, birds began dropping out of trees, cows collapsed and women and children attempting to flee the city went blind. As children fell, their panic-stricken parents abandoned them by the side of the roads leading out of town. Dr. Christine Gosden, a professor of medical genetics at the University of Liverpool in Great Britain, who has visited Halabja to study the effects of chemical weapons, reported that long-term effects of their use include eye and respiratory problems, severe skin problems, mental difficulties, miscarriages and infant deaths.
“Many of the people in Halabja have two or more major problems,” she told two Senate committees during April 22, 1998 testimony. “Thus, someone may be blind as a result of the attack, still have serious skin burns and have respiratory problems. Their difficulties may continue too because of the increased risks of cancers of all types, including leukemias and lymphomas, which are very common. The occurrences of genetic mutations and carcinogenesis in this population appear comparable with those who were one to two kilometers from ground zero in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Later, addressing members of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, al-Majid spoke about the Kurds on a tape obtained by Human Rights Watch: “I will kill them all with chemical weapons…Who is going to say anything? The international community? F– them!”
The Halabja massacre is just one of the crimes that al-Majid is alleged to have committed. Others include the killings of more than 60 people during a 1979 purge ordered by Saddam; atrocities which occurred during the 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait; and the savage repression directed at Iraqi Shi’ites after their unsuccessful 1991 uprising against the regime. Much as the Nuremberg Trials did following World War II, the trials of Chemical Ali and his associates will remind the world of the positive role that American power can play in bringing war criminals to justice.