Friday March 16 marks the 19th anniversary of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja. For the first time, Iraq's central government has marked the occasion by calling for a minute of silence to remember the victims. But VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Irbil that many of the victims continue to suffer and some blame the government for not doing enough to help them.
On this day in 1988, Iraqi military forces attacked the mainly Kurdish village of Halabja, using bombs, mustard gas and other chemical weapons to kill some 5,000 people. The attack was part of a much larger plan called "Anfal," meaning "Spoils of War," that sought to dominate Iraq's Kurd majority-north - where the people had long resisted central government control.
The punishing military campaign and forced relocations drove tens-of-thousands of Kurds from their homes, but the attack on Halabja remains one of the most notorious acts committed by Saddam Hussein's military.
Locals in Iraq's Kurdistan region Friday marked the bomb attack with five minutes of silence. And, for the first time, Iraq's central government announced it too would memorialize the attack with a minute of silence.
Falah Bakir is director of the office of foreign relations of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, or KRG.
"This is a clear sign that there has been a change in Iraq and the days of the old dictatorial regime are over now, and it's a new system in Iraq," he said.
But while the attack on Halabja is gaining wider recognition, some victims are blaming the government for not doing enough to help them. Thousands of people still grapple with the health consequences of the chemical attacks. Birth defects and miscarriages are high in Halabja. Some fear the soil remains contaminated.
In recent months, many Halabja residents have denounced Kurdistan's regional government, saying officials remember the victims on the anniversary, but do little to help them the rest of the year.
Falah Bakir acknowledges the government needs to do more to help the victims.
"We understand the needs of the people of Halabja. We understand that their cause has been recognized internationally, but still Halabja has not been rebuilt," he said. "Therefore, the KRG has determined in the coming year or two to put more focus on Halabja and other affected areas, so that we can do something at least to change the difficult lifestyle that they have in order to work for a better future."
Falah Bakir says Kurdish officials hope, in the future, the Halabja attack will be remembered less as a symbol of Saddam Hussein's oppression, and more as an event that helped unify the Iraqi people.