A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja

September 19, 2007

After Saddam Hussein’s warplanes dropped poison gas on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in March, 1988 a cameraman found among the dead the bodies of a mother and her small son, “her arm outstretched as if to beg for help.” He had “a strong desire to lie down next to her and not get up again.” The tragedy of Halabja, and the larger story of Iraqi use of the gas weapon against both Iranians and Kurds in the eighties, leaves the reader with just such a sense of desolation. Joost Hiltermann tells the story without recourse to condemnatory prose, all the more effectively for that.

Through study of documents, including those newly available after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and interviews with former Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish and American officers, politicians, soldiers, and others, he has put together the most  complete reconstruction of Halabja, and the events around it we are likely to get. He also explores consequences still with us today.

Iraqi gas use could have been stopped, or at least minimised, if the United States had come down hard against it. But preventing an Iranian victory was the American priority, and other Western countries mostly followed suit. When they had to condemn gas use, they did so in terms which falsely implied that both sides were guilty. Worse, there was no protest when the Iraqi regime moved from using gas on the battlefield “a tactic for which desperation might provide some shreds of justification” to employing it in a genocidal campaign against the Kurds. As the war wound down, and after it had ended, the Iraqis staged gas attacks to flush out Kurds from their villages. Men and boys, and in some cases women and children, were then trucked to desert areas, killed and buried in mass graves.

Halabja was the critical point in a process which began with the occasional use of mustard gas by the Iraqis to blunt Iranian offensives, continued and expanded with the use of deadlier agents and ended in the execution pits of the western desert. To say it ended even there is perhaps misleading, for the use of gas gave new intensity to the region’s interlocked insecurities. Had there been no use of gas, Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction might be less determined and its antagonism toward America less strong. Without gas, Kurdish insistence on extreme autonomy might not be so marked. Without gas, the relations of Iraqi Sunnis with the other communities might be less bitter. Without gas, the gates of proliferation in the region might not be half open in the way they unhappily are. Iraqi gas helped poison the region’s never overflowing well of trust. Let us hope not completely.

Reviewer: Martin Woollacott, the Guardian’s  former  foreign editor, is a foreign affairs columnist.