Death Clouds


Saddam Hussein’s Chemical War Against the Kurds

January 1991

Dlawer Abdul Aziz Ala'Aldeen


The Gulf war between Iraq and the United States-led coalition forces has highlighted, as never before, the potentially appalling destructive capability of a regime armed with chemical and biological weapons. Military commentators and the media have speculated endlessly on whether Saddam Hussein would use his massive arsenal of chemical weapons. Yet the reality is that Saddarn's Ba'thist regime has already unleashed these terrible weapons time and time again and with massive loss of life. The victims were the Kurdish people ofIraq - who have long fought for their plight to be recognised internationally and for the monstrous use of chemical weapons to be ended forever.

Modern Iraq emerged from the Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia following Britain's military dominance of the region after the First World War. The British drew up the borders of the modern Iraqi state by annexing Kurdish lands to the north and, in the process, denying the Kurdish people any right to an independent Kurdish state. Since the 1920s, the Kurds in Iraq have suffered political dominance by a succession of Arab regimes based in the capital Baghdad. After the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy in 1958, Britain finally lost influence as an imperial power within Iraq and the fate of the Kurds was left entirely in the hands of a series of undemocratic, Arab nationalist governments. Without exception, these regimes refused to acknowledge the Kurds' right to full citizenship, far less the Kurdish demand for self-determination. In recent decades, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have campaigned for political rights and have been forced to resort to armed struggle against the Baghdad government to secure civil rights. Their cause has contributed to the political instability of the Middle East and so, the Kurds would argue, must also be accommodated in any solution of the region's problems.

Governments from East and West, including the two major superpowers, have consistently refused to address the Kurdish issue, in part because stability in the region has not always been in their political or economic interests. During the Cold War era, both sides were heavily engaged in supporting powerful, yet often dictatorial regimes in the region, particularly in strategically important countries such as Iraq. The driving motive of business and trade led the major powers to ride roughshod over fundamental principles of civil rights and to turn a blind eye to clear violations of human rights by their Middle Eastern trade partners. Moreover, companies trading with Iraq chose to violate international agreements by supplying plant and raw materials that enabled a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to be accumulated.

This neglect by industrial nations has allowed the proliferation of chemical weapons and the production of these weapons across the globe. It is the urgent task of the United Nations to put an end, once and for all, to the production, proliferation and use of chemical and biological weapons. It would be made clear that the international community will not suffer arsenal of chemical weapons to be used against states or, indeed, against the minority populations of a particular nation.

In the Gulf war between Iraq and the US-led coalition forces, such an arsenal of chemical weapons was targeted against the Western powers who were Saddam Hussein's former allies. The old Cold War order had broken down and both antagonists seemed to have misunderstood the emerging order. Saddam over-reached himself and perhaps misjudged his former allies by invading Kuwait and the Western powers seemed suddenly to have rediscovered their long-forgotten allegiance to the principles of nationhood and autonomy in their defense of Kuwait - a moral cloak, cynics would say, for defending their economic interests. But a new political and economic imperative is sure to emerge from the ashes of war - the necessity for a stable Middle East that will not be vulnerable to the whims of dictatorship or the economic dictates of powerful nations outside the region. If such harmony is to be achieved, then it will surely be on the basis of independent, democratic states who have firmly grasped the ideal of self-determination and who have finally secured that right, perhaps at the expense, of the West's industrial / military superpowers. Moreover, if the establishment of democracy in the nation states of the Middle East is to be the foundation of further peace and prosperity, then the fundamental issue of democratic and civil rights for the Kurdish people will also have to be confronted. There can be no negotiated, democratic settlement of the region 's problems unless the democratic aspirations of the Kurds are fulfilled. Any international conference on the region must include the legitimate representatives of the Kurdish people if it is, in any way, to herald a new democratic and peaceful order for all the peoples of the Middle East.


Iraq is not the only country to have used chemical weapons and the Kurds are not the first victims of Iraq's poison gases. However, it s the first time in history that these weapons of mass-destruction have been used by a state against its own civilians to suppress internal democratic opposition, or as weapons of genocide to eradicate an ethnic minority.

The recent history of the Kurds in Iraq consists of a long series of tragedies, of which only the major ones have gained world public awareness and generated varying degrees of international concern. Only the holocausts of Halabja (March, 1988) and Bahdinan (August, 1988) became well publicised, but these are just two episodes in a long saga of tragedy. There have been numerous other chemical attacks which were not publicised or investigated by the international community despite consistent allegations and appeals by the Kurds. This report will focus on these less publicised but equally significant occasions when the Iraqi Government used various chemical weapons in Kurdistan against the Kurds between April, 1987 and October, 1988.

The record of the current Iraqi Ba'thist Party, which seized power through a coup d'etat in 1968 [1], reveals a long history of ruthlessness towards its opponents and national minorities. This includes physical and psychological harassment of people; unlawful extermination of individuals and members of the Kurdish and non-Kurdish pro-democracy opposition; violent suppression of mass unrest and, in the case of armed insurgency, bloody and exhaustive warfare on a massive scale regardless of cost.

when crowded schools, education centres and other public buildings were targeted on April 24th 1974 [7]. During the four years of negotiation that preceded this war, the Ba'thist government made several failed attempts to assassinate the powerful Kurdish leader, Mala Mustafa Barzani. One of these attempts, in 1972, involved offering Barzani and his colleagues oranges that had been injected with deadly poisons.


Rumours began to emerge in the early eighties about Iraq's development of a poison weapon capability. I remember when organophosphorus pesticides started to disappear from Iraqi shops at this time, supporting fears that chemical weapons were being produced. Concern grew that such a capability might enable the Government to gain the upper hand in its war against the Kurds as well as in the Gulf war against Iran. We had no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein would hesitate to use any weapons at his disposal to suppress the "trouble-making" Kurds, and once a chemical weapons capability was ready then it would be only a matter of time before the Kurds were experimented on. However, many still believed that despite his previous record, Saddam Hussein would probably not go as far as using these internationally-banned and indiscriminate mass-destruction weapons against his own civilians. This probably played some part, in addition to financial and political difficulties, in people's lack of preparations for defence against chemical weapons.

Although chemical weapons were not used against them until April, 1987, the Kurds had witnessed these weapons being used on Kurdish soil in Iranian Kurdistan in January, 1982, and against Iranian troops in the fierce battles of Haji Omaran and Grdamand in Arbil province, late in 1983 [8]. Initially, suspicion that Saddam intended to use poison gases against the Kurdish democratic opposition was based on rumour, and speculation on the Iraqi military psychology. Suspicions were subsequently confirmed when taped communications, captured high-ranking military officers [9] and military documents revealed the Ba'thists' terrible plans.

Documents I and II, shown below, were captured by Peshmargas (freedom fighters) of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and clearly demonstrate the Iraqi military preparations for the use of chemical and biological weapons long before their eventual use. It is important to note that document I refers to the distribution and stocking of biological materials in addition to chemical ones. This was a further evidence thatIraq had developed biological weapons early in the eighties and that it most probably had the means to deploy them. This evidence of biological weapons did not gain international publicity until late in 1988 when news of the use in Kurdistan of biological agents like Typhoid and other infectious micro-organisms were reported [10, 11].


It is important to look at the events prior to the use of chemical weapons in Kurdistan to enable the formation of a comprehensive picture of their deployment Therefore, a number of relevant historical events will be mentioned before presenting the available data concerning actual attacks.

Kurds in Iraq had been fighting to win basic human and political rights from successive central governments inIraq for many decades, and for more than twenty years against the current Ba'thist government [1, 12]. Since 1975, the Ba'thists had never publicly admitted the existence of the unsolved Kurdish question or the presence of a significant Kurdish opposition, internally or externally. Suddenly, at the end of 1983, Saddam Hussein officially recognised the cause for which the Kurds had been fighting. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major Kurdish political organisations in Iraqi-Kurdistan, was approached for negotiations on a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue. This was probably a result of several factors, including Saddam's intention to use the PUK with its armed forces and followers to aid his efforts in the Gulf war. The PUK leaders, desperate for a respite after long years of hardship, struggle and isolation, welcomed the offer despite their awareness of the government's intentions and despite the lack of trust between the two sides. Thus, 13-month-long bilateral negotiations towards a mutual understanding began in December, 1983.

The PUK saw a number of possible long-term achievements to be gained in these negotiations. For the first time since 1975, the Ba'thists officially recognised the Kurdish movement; they implicitly recognised the right of the Kurds to fight for their rights and confirmed that no genuine autonomy had been granted to them. In private, Saddam Hussein went as far as making a number of concessions to Talabani, the leader of PUK, promising a number of changes in Kurdistan toward a long lasting peace [13]. This political game ended in January 1985, and lead eventually to renewed fighting between the two sides. Once the PUK resumed fighting, it managed to inflict severe blows on government forces and exert more effective and crippling military pressure on the Iraqi army in the north than ever before, not only in the countryside but also in the government controlled big towns and major cities. Liberated areas were expanding everyday and more than one quarter of Iraq's entire army was tied up again in the north to face the Kurds [12]. The moral, political and military strength of the Kurdish forces was boosted a great deal with the rapprochement of the PUK, KDP and the other main Kurdish political groups and parties with the subsequent formation of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front. The latter was formed under the slogan of "the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a democratic Iraq and autonomous Kurdistan" [14].

Iran, the natural beneficiary of this renewed fighting, approached the PUK for new relations to combine forces against Saddam. Indeed, joint operations were undertaken with small numbers of Pasdars (Iranian Revolutionary guards) joined the Peshmargas in attacks on military targets inside Kurdish cities like Kirkuk. This was, naturally, unacceptable to Saddam Hussein. By spring 1987, the Kurds had become the only powerful and influential internal opposition, controlling massive liberated territories. The PUK alone had a firm grip over a land bigger than the Kuwaiti emirate, including the Arbil and Sulaymania provinces. The KDP had a similar grip over the Bahdinan area in the Duhok and Mousil provinces. There were, of course, grey areas where control over villages and towns alternated, with the government in control in the day and the Peshmargas at night The Peshmargas threat to the major Kurdish cities of Arbil,

Sulaymania, Duhok and Kirkuk and the half-Kurdish city of Mousil was growing. This was in addition to the ever-increasing pressure on Saddam from the South with the lack of any hope of a foreseeable truce with, or victory over, Iran. Saddam Hussein was growing impatient every day and was convinced that he could not eradicate, or even suppress, the ever-growing Kurdish movement by the use of "conventional" measures. Therefore, he did not hesitate to grant his powerful cousin, Ali Hassan Al-Majid, Governor of Northern Iraq [15], full access to Iraq's military capabilities, including chemical weapons, in order to eradicate the Kurdish movement. This former soldier of the Iraqi army was the very Al-Majid who recently earned international opprobrium when he was appointed as Governor of Kuwait in August 1990 [16], following Iraq's invasion. Al-Majid's prime responsibility in Kurdistan was to ensure a total and permanent suppression of the Kurds and complete Arabisation of the important Kurdish towns and cities regardless of costs or methods used. One example of the methods he applied in Kurdistan is the horrific revenge killings in retaliation for Kurdish military operations. People were forced to watch the public execution of young Kurds (aged between 14-35) on the high streets of Arbil, Sulaymania and Kirkuk as retaliation for the killing of Ba'thist security agents by the Peshmargas [20]. Al-Majid's other tactics to regain control over the liberated territories were:

  1. to remove and deport all the people from the "grey" areas where the government retained only partial control, raze their villages to the ground and prohibit re-building or any other activity (see document LII below).

  2. to impose a total economic blockade on defined "prohibition zones" where shoot-to-kill policies were applied and no moving creature was allowed to survive (see documents III and IV below).

  3. to bum down crops, farms, bushes, trees and other plants and to spoil the water supply.

  4. and finally, to launch systematic, and highly organised attacks on liberated areas at several stages (the Anfal operations, see below) on different fronts, in order to regain control over these areas.

Steps 1, 2 and 3 were all preparations for 4 in order to minimise the support to Kurdish fighters before the final attacks and to impose a total blockade on the whole region including the vast number of civilians and peasants who inhabited the area. It became evident that the target was not merely the Peshmargas but the whole population of Kurdistan. Thus, over 4,000 villages were demolished [15] and half a million people deported and scattered all over Iraq [12], even to desert part of the Arab south where they were forced to live in "Protected Camps", comparable to the Nazi concentration camps. Villagers, who were not even warned or made aware of the Government's plans for them, faced the same treatment as the Peshmargas.


On April 15th, 1987, four planes flew very low over Helladen, Bergallu, Kanitu, Sirwan, Awazic, Noljika and Chinara, all in Sulaymania province [15], and dropped very unusual bombs in each of these small towns and villages. The people were unfamiliar with the strange sound of the bombs, the unusual colour of the smoke, the absence of the normal rocket attacks and the peculiar tin-like bomb shells that actually fell. It was long feared that the Iraqi Government might seek to use chemical weapons in battles with the Peshmarga. However, it did not occur to the villagers that these odd-looking shells were poison weapons, being dropped without any prior fighting or provocation in the area [20]. In Bargalu, five men went to the scene of the bombing after the planes had left and began close examination of the shells and craters. Puzzled by their findings, some (like Mr. Rawaz) went as far as touching the peculiar shells, carrying them to the town centre. It was past midnight before examiners of the bombs, one of whom (Hakem Omar Aziz) now lives in London, started developing puffy and watery eyes, dry throats and harsh coughs. They suffered skin bums and developed blistered armpits and groins during the following days. Describing his injuries, Hakem Omar said that it took two weeks before he could see again and at least a month before his skin lesions healed. In another village, a young shepherd had attempted to dismantle an unexploded bomb in order to use the contents for making fishing bombs, not knowing that this time it contained not TNT but a deadly poison.

As a result of this first attack there were tens of serious casualties. In Bargalu, almost all the inhabitants suffered from severe headaches, weakness and other mild symptoms which took several days to disappear. Those who were exposed to heavy doses of the gas, because they were close to the attack area or were downwind, suffered extensive eye, skin and lung injuries. Infection of the wounds often led to complications and many died as a result. Those who survived tended to be disfigured by scars, developed various eye problems or had chronic breathing disorders [17]. Doctors stressed that lack of proper advice on protective measures and ignorance played a significant role in worsening the effects of these bombs. There were no laboratory means of identifying the chemical used. However, from the symptoms and injuries the doctors concluded that a powerful vesicant poison, like Mustard gas, was the agent used in these raids.

On the very next day, April 16th, Arbil province was attacked by Iraqi planes and several villages were bombed with similar poisonous gases. These villages were Sheikh Wassanan, Totma, Zeni, Ballokawa, Alana, Darash and the whole of the valley of Balisan. In Sheilch Wassanan, a village in Rawanduz district - Arbil province consisting of 150 houses and a population of approximately 500 people, 12 aircraft attacked at 7.00 am for nearly 15 minutes using conventional and chemical weapons [18]. Everybody was poisoned to some extent in this village and 121 civilians were killed instantly, including 76 children aged between one day and eight years, with the rest injured [15]. 286 of the injured civilians hurried towards the city of Arbil to seek medical attention. The victims managed to enter the city's main hospital (Arbil Teaching Hospital) where they were initially admitted. The authorities soon approached them, demanding their signature on a declaration in which Iran was named as the "perpetrator" of the attack. The victims refused to sign the declaration and so the authorities rounded them up and took them prisoner. The fate of these victims was not known for a long time. Only late that year it became known that they were being kept in a military prison in Arbil (near the exit which leads to Mousil) for a few days where they were deprived of all kinds of facilities [19]. The authorities asked them again to sign the declaration and appear on Iraqi television to incriminate Iran for this chemical attack on their village but these victims refused to do so. In this prison, 202 of the victims died over a short period as a result of their untreated skin bums, lung damage, infections and other injuries caused by exposure to the mustard gas. The remaining 84 relatively healthy adults and children were taken to a secret spot near Rashkin village, not far from Arbil military base where they were killed and buried in mass graves [19]. A military medical doctor, who witnessed the tragic scene and later defected to Iran and then to the West, revealed that the bodies were burnt before they were buried. It became known that even the bodies of those who died in Arbil prison were taken away by the security forces (Istikhbarat) led by Mamand Qishqayee and destroyed [19]. The horror of this mass-murder shocked the people of Kurdistan. Relatives of the victims were prevented from speaking about or mourning their missing family in public.

From our contacts with doctors and paramedics in the Kurdish cities, we learnt that all the staff were ordered not to treat or in any way assist victims and were ordered to inform the authorities about the presence of any patient bearing wounds from chemical weapons. Failure to do so, or any moves to publicise the occurrence of such injuries, would be subjected to the severest punishment possible. My mother was severely injured in one of these attacks and was subsequently taken to Arbil for proper medical treatment. There she consulted one of my old medical colleagues in Arbil Teaching Hospital who was shocked and terrified by their meeting. He refused to examine my mother and his only advice to her was to go back to where she came from as soon as possible, or else she would be caught by the authorities like those in Sheikh Wassanan and would not be seen again.

The attacks of April 15th and 16th were followed by daily attacks on villages and Peshmarga strongholds in Arbil and Sulaymania provinces for at least six days (as shown in the table below), causing death and injury to hundreds of people. On May Day, 1987, the people in the liberated areas of Duhok, another province in Iraqi Kurdistan, witnessed their first raids by chemical weapons in which two people died and tens were injured. The major Kurdish province of Kirkuk, the richest oil province in Iraq, suffered poison attacks for the first time on May 23rd, 1987, when Tomar, Gargan and Qamargan villages were bombarded and tens of victims, including seven children died.

By mid 1987 chemical attacks on the Kurds had become a daily reality and it was clear that the Government would no longer hesitate to use these weapons in spite of the indiscriminate nature of poison gas attack. Unlike the war with Iran, where chemical weapon attacks were almost always preceded by fierce fighting and concern over military defeat, most attacks in Kurdistan were completely unprovoked and were not preceded by military activities by the Peshmarga in those areas. On the contrary, the government used chemical weapons as a preliminary step to terrify people and generate panic before waging organised military offensives. Furthemore, in many instances aircraft were witnessed dropping bombs on uninhabited land and farms far from villages for no apparent military reason other than the poisoning of the environment [20].


Mustard gas at first remained the predominant chemical weapon used and it was not until the Government launched the "Anfal Operations" that the more toxic nerve gases were used on a wide scale in Kurdistan. "Anfal" is an ancient Islamic term, which originally denoted the plunder and slaves seized in the cause of a Jihad or holy war. Termed Anfal by the Ba'thists, these operations in 1988 consisted of carefully-planned and highly-organised massive multi-stage offensives on Peshmarga strongholds directly supervised by Saddam Hussein who was based in Sulaymania [13,15]. The attacks started with Sulaymania's Jaffaty valley in early February, 1988 (Anfal-I). Anfal-I lasted till late March. Anfal-II focused on the Garmian area and was waged during April, 1988. Anfal-Ill concentrated on the liberated areas of Arbil province in May, and Anfal-IV on Duhok and Mousil provinces in late August and early September, 1988. All these Anfal operations were preceded and synchronised with systematic waves of poison gas attacks that killed people instantly without leaving any apparent injuries.

Escaping death became more difficult. The conventional methods of protection were no longer useful as the gases (odourless and lighter than mustard gas) seeped through the wet breathing-turbans, damaging the respiratory system of the victim. People were seen gasping and struggling for breath and helplessly lying on the ground jerking with convulsions. Mr. K. Bakhtiar, 27, a victim and eye witness recalled his experience when his village was attacked by the fast killing nerve gas. He said: "We all knew it was a gas attack and tried to follow the usual steps of protection. But this time it was different. First, I saw people behaving strangely and so were the animals, acting as if they were struggling. Some were lying on the ground. I saw birds falling off the trees. Every thing was mad. I knew that the situation was very dangerous and I was frightened and did not know what to do but to run away towards the hill. I felt like I was weak, unable to run or fully control my movements. My mouth was full, I could not see properly, but worst of all, I could not breath normally. I did not know what I was doing and realised that I must be dying. I can not remember any more and I must have lost concience. Doctors tell me that it is a true miracle that I am alive and I believe so too. This is my second life and I am trying to enjoy the most of it."

The numbers of deaths increased considerably. In Halabja, 5,000 died and over 9,000 were injured [15]. It is important to clarify events before the holocaust of Halabja and to stress a very important historical fact, as I have noticed that the world media, press and public have been mislead so far. Halabja was not occupied by Iranian troops before the Iraqi planes bombarded the town with chemical weapons. Halabja was liberated from government control by the Kurdish Peshmargas, mainly from the PUK who were partially assisted by the other Kurdish organisations [21]. Mr Shawkat Haji Mushir, a member of the leadership committee of the PUK, led 500 Peshmarga and fought his way towards Halabja while government forces were busy carrying out the Anfal-I operation in Jafaty valley. The people of Halabja, desperate for freedom, welcomed the native Peshmargas, including their leader who was himself from the town of Halabja. Except for a cameraman and two unarmed individuals, no Iranians participated in this operation. Saddam Hussein, astonished by the people's loyalty to the Peshmarga, tried publicly to link the battle for Halabja to the Iraq-Iran war, despite the fact that no battle front with Iran had been opened in that area and no Iranian official had entered the town. Iraqi planes then bombarded the town with poison gas. Only after that, the Iranians came to the rescue of the victims and entered Halabja. Their humanitarian efforts were much appreciated by all in the town, however, the authorities in Iran attempted to take advantage of the tragic scenes there for political propaganda. They obtained the film, which was taken earlier while the town being freed by the Peshmarga, and combined it with footage taken after the bombardment [21, 22]. The way events were presented in their film indicated that the whole operation was an Iranian victory over Iraqis and that the people of Halabja had welcomed the Iranian occupiers. The Kurds later paled a heavy price for this mispresentation of events - for which, the Iranians expressed their regrets.

In Dashti Koya, and the Valley of Smaguli and Balisan over 200 died and over 1,200 were injured in one day on March 27th, 1988. On the same day, Qaradagh district, including the heavily inhabited town and the near-by villages, were heavily bombarded. In this attack, of the hundreds of casualties, 412 injured civilians headed towards Sulaymania seeking medical treatment, but failed in the attempt. The same story of Sheikhwassanan was repeated the military forces in Tanjaro rounded up the victims and stopped them from reaching Sulaymannia. They were never seen again.


Chemical attacks became increasingly intense and widespread all over Kurdistan. However, during the first year, before February 1988, the effects of the attacks grew relatively less and less disastrous. People were building up experience and gathering information on how to protect themselves from the poisons so as to avoid unnecessarily extensive injuries. Some obtained old gas masks and others learned how to breath through wet cloths containing charcoal. People were told that mustard gas is heavier than air and during attacks they learnt to rush to the top of the mountains and to sit around a big fire and not to scurry to the traditional refuge in the caves as they have done through out history unless they built a fire at the cave mouth, drank plenty of water and took thorough showers as soon as possible [20]. The efficacy of these measures became evident in the following months when recorded casualties decreased relatively in terms of numbers and severity despite the greater intensity and widening scale of the attacks.

The available data, see the table below, consists of reported victims with chemical injuries only [15, 17, 20, 21, 23, 28]. It was not easy to maintain a proper record of the casualties in these areas due to the far from ideal circumstances of collecting information. Not registered were those who suffered mild injuries, those who did not come forward for treatment and those who were outside the attack areas and received injuries as a result of breathing-in poison blown by the wind. The latter casualties were much higher than all initial estimates, due to the massive scale of the attacks. An eye witness, Mrs N. Khidir, 49, spoke about her experience in Bargalu when she, and many others, woke up in the morning with headaches, tight chests and a general feeling of weakness. At first she thought her symptoms were due to a bout of flu, but it soon became known that they had been breathing in poison gas which had traveled on the wind from Sargalu, a village few miles away, which was bombarded late the previous night with artillery shells loaded with chemical weapons.

Panic would fill the minds of the people in risk areas with each air raid or artillery bombardment. The whole population would run in panic, screaming "Kimiawy, Kimiawy". Children ran in fear looking for parents, parents wandered in panic trying to account for members of their family. Some would rush to their homes to grab breathing cloths (or old gas masks for the few lucky ones) and then dash to higher altitudes. Mr. F. Karim, 29, an eye witness, said that on one occasion "as soon as the cloud from smoke of the bombs started to spread we went climbing the mountain. Only after reaching the top I realised that I was running with one bare foot and had dropped a fruit sack which I was carrying at the time. I was shaking and we were all looking down at the village in the valley watching the other villagers, including women, children and even animals, running in all directions and we could hear them crying. I suddenly realised that my handicapped cousin was left behind. I wanted to go back and rescue him, but friends stopped me and said 'if you go down you will never come back and we will lose you both. The only thing you could do is to sit down and pray for him'. Mr Karim added "He is martyred, and I still feel guilty because I forgot him at the time of panic, I should have behaved like a brave man and should have saved him despite the risks".

Soon after the planes had gone, people would head towards the areas attacked to assist the injured and bury the dead. The injured were usually taken to local health centres, where young Peshmarga doctors or paramedics were based. For the doctors, the difficulties were endless. In most areas they could not offer any treatment. In most centres, no oxygen or life-support machines were at their disposal to support victims with severe lung or bone marrow damages. They were only able to offer first aid, advice and some symptom- relieving agents like pain killers or eye drops. They used to clean the wounds with antiseptics and protect them from infection. "The severely affected either died before us or were sent across the border to Iran" said one doctor [17]. Doctors and paramedics and their health centres were also occasionally victims of the bombardments. Mr Abdul Aziz, 59, told me about an attack on Bargalu on September 3rd, 1987, when he and his wife were severely injured along with several others. The whole area was covered in clouds smelling of rotten onions and people were hurrying to climb the nearby Sekanian hill, seeking a higher altitude. Some people with physical injuries rushed to the local health centre, but the centre itself was cloaked in smoke from the chemical bombs and could offer no help not only during the attack, but for some time after.


Also not included in the available data is the amount of damage inflicted by the chemical weapons on the environment and wild life. Mr Omer, 28, injured in March, 1988, and currently being treated in Germany for disfiguring scars and other long-term effects of mustard gas, told us that he and 200 others were in Shanakhsy when Iraqi planes dropped their bombs one afternoon. People evacuated the village in panic, but by late that night the majority of the people had returned to their homes. They re- inhabited the poisoned environment and started drinking water, eating food (particularly fruit) and used contaminated furniture and beds only to wake up after midnight suffering from symptoms identical to those suffered by the people they had assisted earlier in the day. Furthermore, after the attack many people from neighbouring villages came to the assistance of the victims without taking protective measures, handling the victims and contaminated materials. They too subsequently became victims of mustard poisoning.

Kurdistan is the most fertile part of Iraq, which is normally self-sufficient in wheat, barley, oats, vegetables, timber, dairy products, meat and poultry [6]. The inhabitants of the attacked areas are mainly peasants who rely on agriculture and domestic animals for their living. The environment was rendered completely uninhabitable for long periods after each attack. Depending on the distance from the bombarded spots, plants and trees suffered varying degrees of damage [20]. In general, the whole area, including the land and green plants turned yellow. Nothing new grew in the heavily contaminated areas near the attack spots for more than one or two years despite heavy rains during winter. The grass and low-growing plants died within a short time with no hope of recovery. Higher growing plants and trees turned yellow and lost leaves but recovered later. The damage was progressively milder further from the centre of the attack. Water sources were contaminated and rendered undrinkable.

Animals like birds, chickens, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, cats, guard dogs and even insects like bees were not spared [20]. Animals suffered in various ways. Some were directly affected just like the humans and killed instantly or suffered from watery eyes, burnt skin, damaged lungs and ill health. Others were indirectly affected either through eating contaminated grass and wild plants or drinking contaminated water. Many starved due to lack of healthy pet food and were therefore put down by their owners. Some of the sick animals and even the more healthy ones were sold at very cheap prices (one tenth or even one twentieth of normal). Owners of these animals had tremendous problems in selling diary products like milk, yoghurt and cheese and even meat because people in the cities refused to buy potentially contaminated animal products. This also forced owners to destroy their animals. It goes without saying that the local wild life all suffered a great deal. There were scenes of snakes lying dead on the ground; falcons lying dead as a result of feeding on the carcasses of poisoned animals; frogs and tortoises lying dead at the lakesides and fish floating dead in the water, dead flies, cockroaches and earthworms were everywhere.


By the end of May, 1988 the area looked like a different planet. The land had become uninhabitable and the people, including the Peshmargas, had to retreat from the Sulaymania area and parts of Arbil province in the face of massive poison attacks. Elsewhere, the Kurds were still able to maintain liberated areas and Peshmargas were able to repulse Government forces in fierce battles, inflicting heavy losses on the government. The situation remained unstable throughout this period until Iraq signed the truce with Iran and the subsequent arrival of United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observatory Groups (UNIIMOG) at the border between the two countries. The UNIIMOG troops were refused access to the Kurdish areas by Iraq despite requests. The Government transferred more troops from the south to Kurdistan and built up a large army ready for offensives. Towards the middle of August, a few days after the truce with Iran became effective, the count down started for Saddam to make good his promise made to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia when the latter suggested an achievable solution for the Kurdish problem in Iraq [24]. Saddam's reply to the King was that he would deal with the Kurds "once and for all". Thus, the period from August 25th to September 1st (the Bahdinan holocaust) became another tragic watershed in the Kurdish struggle for human rights and self-determination and in Kurdish relations with the central government and the Arab people of Iraq. Within a few days, thousands were gassed to death; tens of thousands were made refugees and thousands more were captured to face life in a heavily guarded camp as prisoners of war. The captives were dumped in a camp on open land to suffer the most appalling conditions and the harsh winter of Hoshtirmil near the city of Arbil. They were deprived of food and shelter. Over 70 children died within the first few weeks as did several elderly and pregnant women.

The lucky ones who managed to cross the border into Turkey were accepted as "guests" and kept in three camps, Diyarbakir, Mardin and Mus. There, in exile, the Iraqi Kurds suffered fear, abuse and neglect [25]. One year after their arrival in Mardin, 2070 of the refugees were poisoned [26]. The symptoms suggested use of some form of neuro toxic agent. Blood samples from victims were tested in United Kingdom laboratories, including the National Poison Unit of Guy's Hospital [27]. The toxicologists concluded that an unusually potent organophosphorus nerve poison must have been the cause. They also suggested that the poison was most probably of the kind used by the Iraqi Government as a chemical weapon. All the circumstantial and scientific evidence pointed to deliberate poisoning.

The Bahdinan tragedy gained international publicity and aroused public concern world wide. But the governments of the major world powers and of the Middle Eastern countries failed to condemn Saddam for this inhuman attack on his own citizens. The Soviet Union failed to comment on the tragedy in its own internal media and went as far as condemning the Western media for publicising the gas attacks calling it "American propaganda" against sovereign Iraq based on "no evidence" [29]. Some Western countries even rewarded Saddam by increasing his credit for buying military hardware [30]. Most of the Arab states failed to express any humanitarian concern and some of them, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt went as far as strongly defending Saddam before the United Nation's Security Council members. Mr Ghazy Al-Rayes, Sheikh Nasser Almanquor respectively the ambassadors for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia joined with Sadiq Al-Mashat, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Kingdom (now to the United States) on a visit to Mr. William Waldegrave, then United Kingdom Foreign Minister, in condemning the British media coverage and "Britain's campaign against Iraq", encouraging the British Government to disbelieve Kurdish claims about the use of chemical weapons [31].

The impotence of the international community and the lack of condemnation from individual governments in the face of Saddam's clear violation of human rights allowed this regime to continue with its genocidal war. Indeed, some expert media commentators suggested that western impotence acted as an incentive to Saddam to continue these monstrous attacks [32]. Chemical bombardment of Sheikh Bizeni and Hamea in Kirkuk province and Chami Razan in Sulaymania province in mid October, 1988, only a few weeks after the Bahdinan holocaust, showed that Saddam was swift to realise the opportunity that this lack of opposition offered him.


  1. Saddam's Iraq, Revolution or Reaction. CARDRI. 1989. Zed Books. London. UK.

  2. Amnesty International "A l-Nashra Al-I khbaria". (Arabic). March, 1988.

  3. Amnesty International news release. Al Index: MDE 14.1 .1988. Distr. SCIPO. International Embargo. 13.1 .1 988.

  4. Hazhir Teimourian. The Times. 13. 1. 1988.

  5. Index on Censorship. March 1988. Vol. 17. P39.

  6. Anthony McDermott. In: The Kurds. The Minority Rights Group. Report No. 23. May 1981.

  7. David Hurst. The Guardian. 7.5.1974.

  8. Use of Chemical Warfare by the Iraqi Regime. November 1986. Published by: War Information Headquarters, Supreme Defence Council. Tehran-Iran.

  9. Gwynne Roberts. Winds of Death. A film shown on "Dispatches"- channel 4. United Kingdom. 23.11.1988.

  10. Dlawer Ala'Aldeen. New Scientist. 22.9 .1988.

  11. Sunday Telegraph. 25. 9.1988.

  12. David McDowall. The Kurds. The Minority Rights Group. Report No. 23. March, 1989.

  13. Personal communications with Jalal Talabani, Dr. K. Hawrami and Dr. F Masum.

  14. Iraqi Kurdistan Front declaration. July, 1987. Published in: Al-Sharara No. 7. (Arabic) July, 1987 and Gal No. 26. (Arabic) August, 1987.

  15. The Kurdish Focus. Issue No.1. January, 1989. Published by the PUK.

  16. Newsweek 1 .10.1990.

  17. Personal interviews with Kurdish doctors with first hand experience.

  18. Parang. (Kurdish), 1988. Issue No. 1. Page 4.

  19. A Hor,jfic Butchery in Arbil Prison. (Arabic) 1988. Published by the Kurdistan Popular Democratic Party, Branch of Europe.

  20. A series of personal interviews with Kurdish victims and eye witnesses. 1989 and 1990.

  21. A personal interview with Mr Shawkat Haji Mushir, member of the leadership committee of the PUK.London. November, 1990.

  22. The Catastrophe of the Century. Halabja, another Nightmare. Film (on video) produced and distributed byIran.

  23. Materials supplied by Mr. Hoshiar Zebari, member of the executi e committee of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. 1988.

  24. Halga Graham. Observer. 28.8. 1988.

  25. Ekram Maie. The Kurdish Observer. 1990. Issue No.6.

  26. Tim Kelsey. The Independent. 12. 6 .1 989.

  27. Dlawer Ala'Aldeen et al. The Lancet. 32.1990. Vol. 33S. P287-8.

  28. Memorandum of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front. Published by the IKF, 1990.

  29. Pravda. 11.9 .1 988.

  30. Tim Kelsey. The Independent. 5 .10.1988.

  31. John Bulloch. The Independent. 12.10.1 988.

  32. James Adams, Defence Correspondent of the Sunday Times. In: Amnesty International advertisment. Published in various newspapers, including The Independent of 17.11.1990 and 1 .12.1 990.

Document I: Translated from ArabicIn the Name of God the Compassionate the Merciful"Victory is Ours" Highly Confidential and PersonalHeadquartersThe Command of Arbil District"Operations"NO-H1277Date - 3/8/1986To: All units of the District (24th Battalion)Subject: Control over distribution of biological and chemical materials[With reference to] the letter of the Interior Ministry personal and highly confidential 288 on 18/5/1986, and the letter of the Defence Ministry personal and highly confidential 10/35 on 25/6/1986 which was sent to the training office by Ref 36 on 27/5/1986 and based on the original letter of the Special Bureau of the Army Chief of Staff personal and highly confidential 5801 on 26/5/1986 which was sent to us through the command of the Fifth Army Corp personal and highly confidential 1530 on 21/6/1986 which referred to the sub-committee letter on the control over the distribution of Biological and Chemical Materials- personal and highly confidential 32 on 23/6/1986 which was sent to us accompanied by the letter of the command of the Light National Defence Forces /15 personal and highly confidential 2/2 on 2417/1986. It is required to carry out a half-yearly stock-take for all materials at the disposal of units. Please note that the stock- take lists must be submitted (by all the command bodies) to us by 6/8/1986, and we should be informed in due course.Signature: Gen. De'ah Abdul Waliab EzzatCommander of Arbil District.
(DOCUMENT II, Translated from Arabic)"Telegram" Urgent and SecretFrom: Zakho DistrictTo: Commander (A)Ref: AS/3/4181Time and Date Received2116 K/3/161722/6(.) [With reference to] letter of the command of the command of the 38th Force Secret and Urgenr 14665 on 20/6 (.) we have learned the following (.) 4000 gas masks arrived at the First Branch of the descendent of treason to guard themselves against poison gas and the saboteurs will wear them when we use chemical meterials to attack their concentrations. (.) Please check the accuracy of these information and take all necessary measures.Signature: Major Sa'di Mahmoud HusseinCommander of Zakho DistrictIraqi terminology usedThe 38the Forces = 38th division based in ZakhoFirst branch = KDPDescendent of treason = KDP HQ in BahdinanSaboteurs = Peshmargas