In his new book, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja, Joost Hiltermann explores the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s and the Iraqi government’s “Anfal Campaign” against its own Kurdish citizens. Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran during the war years and it carried out mass killings of Iraqi Kurds. The most deadly attack was on the town of Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March 1988.
Joost Hiltermann says his book developed out of a research project on the Anfal Campaign, which he conducted for Human Rights Watch, beginning in 2000. He describes being “stunned” by the lack of public attention to the genocide against the Kurds. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and with Omar Sheikhmous, chief of VOA’s Kurdish Service, Mr. Hiltermann says that the Iraqi government’s use of chemical weapons has “shaped the psychologies” of groups that are involved in Iraq’s current conflict.
According to Mr. Hiltermann, the use of chemical weapons was both integral to Iraq’s war strategy and was vital in ending the war with Iran. Of particular relevance is what he calls the “collusion” of the Reagan administration. He explains that the United States was so “spooked” by the idea of an Islamic revolution that the administration essentially gave Iraqis the “green light” to use chemical weaponry in the Iran-Iraq war.
Joost Hiltermann believes that the development of chemical and biological weapons by Iraq and Iran was the “direct result of international tolerance” during the Iran-Iraq war. He claims that the Kurds have an “overpowering fear” that something like the Anfal Campaign may be repeated and can no longer trust a central government in Iraq. And this explains why Kurdish leaders are so keen to gain autonomy and ultimately independence from the rest of Iraq, as evidenced by their commitment to the referendum in Kirkuk, an area with a mixed ethnic population. Mr. Hiltermann says there is still considerable denial in Iraq about the “legacy” of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And it will be difficult to convince people that what happened not only did happen but also was fundamentally “wrong” – both morally and strategically. He says that a general acceptance of guilt would greatly help the healing process, but he thinks “mismanagement by the United States” has instead had the opposite effect.
To ensure that such events are not repeated and that the threat of chemical weapons proliferation is kept under control, Mr. Hiltermann says the international community needs to look to the precedent set by the 1925 Geneva Convention, which banned the use of chemical weapons, and by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. International law, he argues, should ensure all countries that agree to these restrictions “don’t make reservations” as the United States did with Iraq during the 1980’s.
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