Tuesday, September 16, 2003

HALABJA, Iraq — The slowly settling cloud, local residents told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday, had a sweetish, sugary odor, like overripe fruit.

But when the gaseous load from Iraqi military planes descended on this Kurdish town in the foothills of Iraq’s Hawraman Mountains on a clear March afternoon 15 years ago, lungs seized up, eyes went dark, and thousands of men, women and children began to die.

With Mr. Powell and U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer in attendance, Kurdish leaders and hundreds of simply dressed Halabja residents yesterday dedicated a new museum and ceremonial grave site to the victims of the chemical gas attack.

The ceremony, conducted under a fierce sun, provided a symbolic and political boost to the struggling U.S. program for the reconstruction of Iraq on the second and last day of Mr. Powell’s first visit to Iraq since the spring war.

The attack, part of a systematic campaign of chemical warfare against restive Kurdish centers by Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein’s notorious military adviser known as “Chemical Ali,” provided all the moral evidence needed to justify the U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam, said Barham Salih, a top official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties.

“Halabja is a reminder of what indifference to tyranny means,” said Mr. Salih, at his back a stylized, alabaster-white figure of a grieving woman dominating a field of 1,076 small white tombstones — one for each area family who lost at least one relative in the 1988 attack.

“Here is the proof; Halabja is the proof of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

Massoud Barzani, head of the rival Kurdish Democratic Party, told the crowd of about 150: “For those who doubt the legitimacy [of the war], let them come and see Halabja.”

For U.S. officials, Halabja provided a useful reinforcement for their argument that the war had removed a cruel and murderous tyrant from the region, even if the Bush administration’s claims about more recent Iraqi weapons programs face sharp doubts around the globe.

Mr. Powell pushed the point in his own remarks, saying he would not presume to tell the victims of the chemical attack of their suffering, of the nature of the ousted regime, or of their struggle in the face of slow international reaction to the attack.

“What I can tell you is that what happened in 1988 is never going to happen again,” he said. “Chemical Ali is in jail. Saddam is running and hiding and he is going to keep running and hiding until we catch him or he dies.

“Beyond that,” he said, “the system that spawned them … is smashed and will never return.”

Mr. Powell said later the crowd would have been much bigger, but local authorities limited attendance out of security and organizational concerns.

The Powell visit produced some political dividends as well, as PUK leader Jalal Talabani gave a strong endorsement of the U.S. blueprint for the return of political sovereignty to a new Iraqi government.

A U.S. draft resolution before the U.N. Security Council has met with opposition from France and other leading powers, who are pushing for a faster handover of power to the Iraqi Governing Council and a smaller role for Mr. Bremer’s civilian authority.

Mr. Talabani said he agreed with Mr. Powell that France’s six-month timetable to sovereignty was much too fast, given the economic and political chores facing the country.

“We can’t be in a hurry to make the steps for democracy,” Mr. Talabani said. “We need a mature plan and we fully agree with the U.S. timetable.”

But Mr. Powell admitted that Kurdish officials are deeply wary about any new Turkish troops in Iraq as part of the international peacekeeping mission. Turkey worries that growing autonomy for Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish minority will fuel separatist feelings across the border.

There are “serious sensitivities associated with Turkish troops” among Kurdish leaders here, Mr. Powell said, adding that the United States would continue to work the issue.

Support for the United States was near-universal on the streets of Halabja, a far cry from the tightly scripted, security-heavy visit Mr. Powell made the day before in Baghdad.

“Thank you President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for our freedom,” read large banners outside the soaring pavilion housing the museum.

A woman shrouded in a full-length black chador displayed a small printed sign in English reading: “We love America. Thank you.”

Mr. Powell mingled with Halabja residents after his grave-site remarks, receiving flowers from children and inspecting framed portraits of those killed in the 1988 attack.

Halabja and surrounding villages are still dealing with the aftershocks of the attack, which killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds, according to Sandy Hodgkinson, a human rights official in the coalition authority who is investigating war crimes and other human rights violations by the Saddam regime.

Inside the museum, Mr. Powell lit a candle to the victims, escorted by a young man who still has difficulty breathing and an elderly woman who remains sightless since that March afternoon.

The woman, Suhayba Abdul Rahman, suffered losses typical of many in the close-knit town: Her husband and five children all died in the attack.

The museum features artwork dedicated to the victims as well as walls filled with photos of the dead and dying, slumped where they fell on city street corners or piled onto the back of flatbed trucks on eerily deserted streets.

A room-sized tableau depicted an extended family lying in the rocky soil beside a large cooking pot, husbands and wives, mothers and babies, even pets, birds and farm animals stretched out on the floor in a smoky haze.

Mr. Powell also met with Kuwaiti officials briefly before returning home yesterday evening.

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