- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

HALABJA, Iraq On March 16, 1988, this Kurdish town in northern Iraq was overrun by Iranian troops and then attacked by chemical weapons dropped from Iraqi planes. More than 5,000 people died, but it was just the beginning of Halabja's misery.

The town's rates of cancers, respiratory diseases, infertility and mental health problems are three or four times higher than those of similar towns that weren't attacked with chemical weapons, and doctors say the chemical attack is to blame.

In recent months the town has come under a new threat: An Islamist group said to be affiliated with al Qaeda has menaced Halabja, planting mines on the roads and in the fields where people make their living raising wheat and barley.

Situated at the foot of mountains that separate Iraq from Iran, Halabja had been a busy market town of 80,000 even through the Iran-Iraq war, when it was on the front lines. The population has dropped to about 43,000.

All this has had a profound effect on the town's psyche, said Dr. Adil Karem, director of the Halabja Martyrs Hospital. "People are constantly afraid of the future," he said.

For most of the 1990s, while rival Kurdish factions battled for control of northern Iraq, Halabja was ruled by an Islamist party, albeit a more moderate one than Ansar al-Islam. In 1998, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) took the town. Today it provides the security, but the mayor is from the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK).

Ansar al-Islam is an offshoot of the IMK, whose leaders went to Afghanistan and reportedly came under the influence of a deputy of Osama bin Laden. In 1997 and 1998 they attacked bars and women's hairdressers in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and when the regional government arrested some members, the rest fled to Halabja.

The group is believed to have about 500 members and controls several villages in the mountains between Halabja and the Iranian border. Though some members are Kurds, many are thought to be Arabs from around the Middle East who trained in Afghanistan.

The group stepped up its activities this year. In the last month, Ansar al-Islam killed two young men on a road to Halabja and injured two government soldiers in a mine attack on another. In April, they attacked a PUK official in the regional capital, Sulaimaniya, just after he had met with a U.S. delegation.

They also attacked female U.N. staffers in the area who didn't cover their heads. The threat persuaded U.N. agencies to pull out of the area two months ago, and foreign humanitarian groups also withdrew, leaving one of the most needy areas in northern Iraq to fend for itself.

Some members of the Kurdish regional government say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein supports the group, but Interior Minister Karim Sinjari said that's unlikely.

"We have to be realistic," he said. "Right now the whole world is against Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. is looking for justification to attack him. I don't think he would give to the Americans a justification to attack him," he added, referring to supporting Ansar al-Islam.

The Kurdish regional government's negotiations with Ansar al-Islam recently broke down because the group demanded control of Halabja and the imposition of Islamic law there, said Fatah Mahmud, a member of the Halabja PUK ruling council.

But the regional government is optimistic the group won't gain a foothold. "People don't support them here," Mr. Mahmud said.

Omar Ali Mohammed, a farmer, said his family has been unable to work because of Ansar al-Islam. "We can't go to our orchards and beehives because they've mined the fields," Mr. Mohammed said.

Mr. Mohammed has skin cancer that will probably kill him in a few months. His wife has chronic eye problems, and one young nephew has an unexplained growth jutting an inch out of his neck.

In 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war was in its final stages, Iraqi jets dropped a variety of chemical weapons on the town. Although it has not been confirmed which agents were involved, Dr. Karem, head of Halabja Martyrs Hospital, said he believes they were mustard gas, sarin, VX and aflatoxin dissolved in tear gas.

Because many victims scattered to Iran or elsewhere and didn't die immediately, it is also not known how many people were killed by the attack, but the death toll is believed be from 5,000 to 7,000.

The effects of the chemical attack have been little studied because of Halabja's remote location, its instability and, Dr. Karem believes, because many of the weapons were manufactured in the West, and companies there could face legal claims if the results were well documented.

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