Iraq has marked the 20th anniversary of Saddam Hussein's chemical bombing and gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the northeast city of Halabja. At least 5,000 Kurdish men, women, and children were killed in one day of bombings. Daniel Schearf reports for VOA from Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraq ordered traffic stopped for one minute of silence Sunday in honor of the victims of the Halabja attack.
Thousands were killed in 1988 when Iraqi forces bombed the city with mustard gas and nerve agents.
Saddam Hussein's government said the attack was needed to put down insurgents hiding in the city during the bloody Iran-Iraq war. But, evidence emerged that almost all the victims were civilians, most of them women and children.
Iraqi national television broadcast live coverage Sunday of a ceremony in Halabja marking the atrocity.
Community leaders spoke of the pain and suffering caused by the attack and the need to compensate victims still suffering from the effects of the poison gas.
The bombing of Halabja was part of a wider campaign of attacks on Iraqi Kurds known as Anfal.
Iraqi Kurdistan Deputy Prime Minister Omar Fatah spoke at the ceremony. He criticized the international community for staying silent at the time of the attack in order to keep their good relations with Saddam Hussein's government.
He says their silence gave the dictator government of Baghdad more power to continue the Anfal operations. He says Saddam's government killed 182,000 Kurds after the Halabja attacks and if the world had stopped them, perhaps the Anfal campaign would not have continued
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds were displaced and deported during the Anfal campaign and 4,000 villages were destroyed.
Saneia Sallah, a 42-year-old Kurd who was forced from her village of Neow Showan in 1988, says some like her escaped, but most were arrested, including women, kids, and old men. She says her aunt with two young girls, her husband, her brother, and cousins were taken and have never been heard from again. She says the army and Kurdish militias with helicopters and tanks burned everything, even her baby as it was sleeping in its cradle.
Many Kurds are still suffering respiratory and vision problems from the effects of chemical bombs.
Residents of Halabja complain they have received little support from the government and in 2006 held large-scale demonstrations and set fire to a museum in the city.
Deputy Prime Minister Fatah says the government has pledged millions of dollars for new projects, including a $12 million hospital for treating chemical diseases and a research center on the biological effects of chemical weapons.
This weekend Baghdad announced it would spend $6 million for reconstruction in Halabja and would file legal actions against companies who sold chemicals used in the attacks.
A court in The Hague in 2005 sentenced a Dutch trader to 15 years in prison for selling chemicals used in the attacks. The court also declared the Anfal and Halabja attacks an act of genocide.
Dr. Rebwar Fatah is chairman of the Anfal and Halabja Working Group, an organization of Kurdish professionals in Britain who are lobbying the European Union and United Nations to recognize the attacks as genocide.
"If you can bring these crimes on the surface," said Fatah. "I think that will bring not only stability for Kurdistan or for Iraq, I think it will help us as an international community to move forward. Without recognizing that, it will be very difficult for the wounds to heal."
The Iraqi government approved the execution this month of Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali for his role in the gassing of Kurds.
But Iraq's prime minister and presidency council are arguing over whether or not two other former Saddam officials should be executed with him.
Ali al-Dabbagh is spokesman for the Iraqi government.
"[Un]til we solve, [un]til the presidency council and the prime minister solve this different views, different legal views, Ali Hassan al-Majid is not going to be executed in the near future."
The U.S. military has custody of al-Majid and the two other former officials, military director Hussein Rashid Mohammed and former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie. The military says it will turn them over to the Iraq's government after the Iraqi leaders come to an agreement.