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The Legacy of Halabja Unites Iraqi Kurds

Many Kurds in northern Iraq favor separation from greater Iraq to create an independent state of Kurdistan. Why do they feel so strongly about this issue? As VOA's Brian Padden reports the answer can be summed up in one word: Halabja.

On the 16th of March 1988, three months before the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein rained death upon the town of Halabja. At the time it was occupied by Iranian troops but the targets were Kurds, not Iranians.

Chemical weapons containing mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent saran were dropped from Iraqi planes killing over 5,000 civilians, many of them women and children. By comparison approximately 3,000 died in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

Today a memorial stands in the town of Halabja. It is a public promise to never forget either the victims or the assailants. Outside stands a signs saying ‘No Baaths' Allowed’ -- an accusatory reference to the party of Saddam Hussein. Inside, that tragic day is recreated through displays of historical pictures and artwork submitted by 62 Kurdish artists.

Tour guide Nariman Ali, himself a survivor of the Halabja attack, explains why many of the paintings here include images of apples. "Chemical gas, mustard gas has the smell, just like the smell of apples. So, many people in Halabja hate apple because of its smell."

Today the town of Halabja is a symbol for the Kurds of past oppression. At the Halabja Secondary School for Girls, teacher Shadya Hamaseed says every year on March 16th students replay the events of that fateful day.

"On the 16th of March every pupil, even the teachers, remind them of the terrible condition that had happened to the city and to all of them, to their families."

Many Kurds cite the need for a strong and independent Kurdistan to prevent future atrocities. But there are dissenting voices.

Satar Fatah works at the Halabja Rehabilitation Center, which has treated over 1,000 land mine victims, fitting them with prosthetic legs and providing physical therapy. The mountains surrounding Halabja are still infested with land mines left over from the Iran-Iraq war. Satar Fatah says the lesson of Halabja is not the need for more conflict but for reconciliation.

"We'd like to be the new Iraq, which is all the parts like North, like South, like middle - all. We are going to live as a brother. We can say, 'No War. No Battle. No Problems.' Because we suffered too many years from those struggles, from those wars."

Whether the Kurds ultimately embrace independence or reconciliation, will be determined in large part by how they interpret the legacy of Halabja.