Survivors of Iraqi government chemical attacks on Kurdish cities in the 1980's are concerned about the safety of Kurdish populations in northern Iraq. Testimony by Kurdish exiles on Capitol Hill came amid reports of Iraqi Kurds fleeing farther into northern areas to escape possible retribution by troops loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The chemical weapon attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988, and similar attacks elsewhere in northern Iraq, are a significant part of the case put forward by President Bush for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Halabja is a small city in Iraq's northern province of Sulaymaniya, about 260 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. Some five-thousand people are thought to have been killed there, with another 10,000 injured.
Survivors of the chemical attacks still suffer from the memories and in many cases, the physical effects such as cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects and miscarriages.
"On June 5, 1987, at 7:30 PM, we were shelled with chemical weapons mustard and cyanide gases," said Katrin Michael, a former Kurdish resistance fighter in northern Iraq when the Baghdad government launched what was called the Anfal campaign. "Those who were near the bomb started vomiting, and emptying their stomachs, a mere 30 minutes after the raid. The situation on the site was horrible and awful."
She was among a number of witnesses at an event sponsored by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to commemorate the 15th anniversary (on March 16) of the Halabja chemical weapons attack.
"Kurds always seem to be the victims in the Middle East, and we would hope that now, that time is changing, and that there will be a better life for the people of northern Iraq, as well as Kurds everywhere, as the Middle East changes," said Illinois Republican Congressman Mark Kirk.
Also appearing were a number of other Kurdish exiles concerned that Iraqi Kurds may again be subject to retribution by Baghdad government troops as a U.S.-led invasion looms.
Najmaldin Karim heads the Washington Kurdish Institute. He says Kurds in northern Iraq remain wholly unprepared for another possible campaign against them. "Sanctions have prevented them from importing monitoring and detection equipment. Medical supplies and adequate training have been non-existent," he said. "Despite repeated requests from visiting Kurdish officials and American Kurds, the Kurds have yet to receive an iota of assistance from Western countries."
Echoing concern for the Kurds is a former U.S. ambassador, Peter Galbraith, who has been deeply involved in documenting Iraqi government war crimes. While events in Halabja are often referred to as "Saddam Hussein gassing his own people," he says, they were part of a larger agenda by the Iraqi leader to eliminate Kurds as a non-Arab group.
As for international support for Iraqi Kurds, Mr. Galbraith says the United States and other countries need to examine what he calls a "painful history." "It is worth mentioning because we are faced with this issue again," he says. "The world has had a tradition of dealing with the Kurds, and I'm afraid that is true of the United States, of being sympathetic, of using them, and then when larger economic or strategic interests intervene, of sacrificing them and Halabja is a legacy of that."
Another voice was that of Qubad Talabani, representing the Patriotic Union of Kuridstan, one of two main groups in the Kurdish region of Iraq. He says a world concerned about weapons of mass destruction should not forget the lesson of Halabja, and he had this message for opponents of a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq. "As the world today seeks a smoking gun for Iraq's crimes, we must remind them that Halabja is that smoking gun," he said. "We call on those around the world who oppose this war in the name of peace, to come to Kuridstan and ask the people of Halabja about the character of the regime that they are holding vigils for."
The Kurdish exiles appearing at the hearing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, as well as former Ambassador Galbraith, warned against the United States allowing Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq.
Six members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter to President Bush in which they say that allowing what they call "foreign forces" to enter the north could lead to popular unrest and undermine U.S. objectives to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity.