What Happened at Halabja?
Jude Wanniski
April 23, 2002


Memo To: David Remnick, editor, The New Yorker
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Did Saddam Hussein Gas the Kurds at Halabja?

Yes, David, I know you are ticked at me for saying the article you ran last month about Saddam Hussein gassing the Kurds at Halabja, back in 1988, was pure propaganda by your new writer Jeffrey Goldberg. You also seem most distressed that I said you should have told your readers that Jeffrey has dual citizenship with Israel and served in the Israeli defence forces a few years back. I'm not pursuing this to rub it in, but because I am really worried that President George W. Bush read Goldberg's story and that it helped persuade him that it would be a good thing for him to do to eliminate Saddam. He did cite the story at a press conference, practically inviting the world to read it. Good for circulation, but in the long run a bad deal for civilization, if the story is bogus, as I believe it is. I'm not saying Goldberg "made it up," David. I'm only saying he was waltzed down a garden path toward false conclusions. It does not help to run several photographs of people whose skin seems to be coming off in chunks, I'm afraid. There is general agreement that several hundred people died by gassing at Halabja, a Kurdish town of 30,000 or so inside Iraq near the Iranian border, five months before the end of the eight-year Iran/Iraq war. Because your magazine said these ugly photos were of Iraqi Kurds inflicted harm by the Iraqi armed forces, your readers believed you, including Mr. Bush. Here are some thoughts I have on what happened at Halabja, based on all the work I've done over several years in trying to figure it out. I'll append a letter I got from an Iraqi expatriate, a doctor who lives in the UK, whose brother was at Halabja as an army colonel and is now retired. The doctor, Mohammed Obeidi, is not a fan of Saddam, but is not happy with the thought that his people could be falsely accused of genocide, killing their own citizens for some evil purpose.

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First of all, remember the Iran/Iraq war began at the end of 1980. By March 16, 1988, several hundred thousand soldiers had died in the conflict. Iran, with 60 million people, was supposed to be able to defeat Iraq, with 20 million. But Saddam Hussein proved to be superior to the Ayatollah Khomeni in organizing resources. Historians now agree that by the end of 1987, the advantage had shifted to Iraq. The Iranians had in desperation thrown "human waves" of soldiers against Iraq, and Iraq had used mustard gas to turn that tide. They have acknowledged this use. In early 1988, Iraq was using Scud missiles to hit Teheran, and the Iranian government was reeling.

It was at this point that Halabja broke into the news. A relatively small unit of the Iranian army broke into the town from a point only a few miles from the border. They overwhelmed the Iraqi garrison. Two days later they were driven out as Iraqi reinforcements arrived from other points in the vicinity. At issue, David, is what happened between the rock and the hard place. As far as Jeffrey Goldberg is concerned, having interviewed citizens 14 years later, the Iraqis bombed this Iraqi town with poison gas in order to drive out these few Iranians. Now I might believe this, because I can believe almost anything that occurs in wartime, but in order for Goldberg to make the story hang together, he has to say the Iraqi Air Force dropped chemical bombs on Halabja in order to conduct medical experiments on their own citizens, as there were no reports from the Iranians that they had suffered casualties by poison gas. More on this later.

From day one, the Iraqi government insisted it had nothing to do with any poison gas being used on its own nationals, not even accidentally in attacks on the Iranian adversaries. The defense ministry said it would be ridiculous for them to use poison gas in the town when their forces were going in the direction of the Iranian retreat. The Army War College did conduct an inquiry soon thereafter and in April 1990 concluded that both Iran and Iraq had used gas in their warring exchanges, but that the horrible deaths at Halabja were almost certainly the result of gas in the Iranian inventory, gas not available to the Iraqis. You must admit, David, that Jeffrey Goldberg never even mentioned this report. The War College report had been widely reported in April 1990 and the principal author, Dr. Stephen Pelletiere, to this day insists that if there were citizens killed by Iraqi gas at Halabja, it was collateral in the Iraqi engagement with the Iranian army. His report says Iraq used gas, but he says he got this from the Defense Intelligence Administration and it may or may not be true.

I was contacted last month by an Iraqi expatriate, a doctor who lives in the UK. He informed me his brother, who had just retired as a general in the Iraqi army, was a colonel in 1988 when his regiment was sent to Halabja on the news that it had been occupied by the Iranians. I asked him for his brothers recollections and here is what Dr. Mohammed Obaidi e-mailed me last week:

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Dear Jude,

Let me start this report by telling a little bit about the attitude and behaviour of the Ba'ath regime when it comes to defending themselves against a mistake they have committed or were about to commit. They initially prepare all their media by injecting them with false information regarding any particular act they did or were about to do, and once they committed that action, they release their media to defend the regime. In addition, all party members will be served with strict information of how to deny the action that took place and how to convince the people that the Iraqi regime DID NOT committed that mistake or error or anything else. In other words, the party members plus the media are ready.

What surprised the Iraqi people after gassing the Kurds in Halabja was that the Iraqi regime was not prepared at all to defend itself against the allegations that they were behind these gassings at a time when they were able to do so. It seems that they were taken by a surprise as the only thing they could do was to show on the national TV the result of that failed offence by the Iranians in Halabja. This was also confirmed to me by lot of people who were in Iraq at that time. However, the opposition to the Iraqi regime in Iraq, and particularly the Shiite (supported and supplied by Iran) turned the story to be as an act by the Iraqi regime against the Kurds.

As you will see from the map that I sent you, my brother was in Mosul, which is more than 100 kilometers from Halabja, when he received an order to move to Halabja a day before the attack by the Iranians. Although the distance was relatively short, but preparing a full regiment to move to a different area, it took them about two days to arrive to Halabja. The reason for the order to my brother's regiment to move to that area was based on military information that the Iranians were preparing to launch an attack from that particular region possibly with the help of fighters from one of the Kurd parties.

In that area, Iraq had two infantry regiments and one artillery battalion scattered on the hills surrounding Halabja. They were over 3000 soldiers.

On the other hand, however, it was well known even to the simple Iraqi's that during each attack by the Iranians, they usually send first the "revolutionary guards" to open the way for the military units by detonating the mines (if any) and also to absorb the first reaction from the Iraqi Army. For this reason, innocent Iranian civilians were killed in hundreds if not in thousands during each attack by the Iranian Army. My brother could not confirm the number of Iranians entered into the Iraqi territory at Halabja. But he thinks that after they bombarded Halabja with that kind of "gas" and entered the town, they were shocked to see what happened to the Kurds, and because of the heavy resistance by the Iraqi Army in the area who was in control (by being on the hillsides of the town), the Iranian and the Kurds (if any) were defeated within a few hours.

My brother could not add any more to what I have told you before. But what he told me today is that when his regiment arrived to the area, everything had finished and the Iraqis were back in control. By briefing from other Iraqi commanders who were already there, he learnt that no Iraqi aircraft or any other Iraqi military machines or units had started the fire before the Iranians attacked them. He also mentioned that the day his regiment arrived to Halabja, General Nezar Al-Khazraji, who then was deputy chief of staff, was in the area and had a meeting with all the commanders, where he was also very shocked and surprised of what happened to the Kurds.

My brother also mentioned to me that the allegation against Iraq must be untrue, as he believes if Iraq had used any sort of gas against the Kurds, they should have used it first against the invading Iranians, particularly when Iraq knew that they are about to launch an attack on that area, and second, Iraq should have used these "gases" against the Iranians when they occupied Um Kasr, the Iraqi harbour. (Legitimate questions with no answers!!!!!!)

My brother told me that one has to ask TWO VERY BIG questions, that is (A) since Iraq always knew from where the Iranians are about to launch an attack, why did the Iraqi Army not use its chemical weapons to stop the Iranians before they launch their attack? He thinks that the answer to this question is: (1) Either Iraq did not possess this kind of weapon at that time to use it against the Iranians, or (2) Iraq had these weapons but could not use them fearing a retaliation by the Iranians of using their own chemical weapons against the Iraqis. In all cases this means that Iran had definitely the chemical weapons before Iraq, which they have used in Halabja; and (B) Iraq lost during the war hundreds of thousands of soldiers, a large percent of them were University graduates, the brains of the country, and since Saddam's aim was to bring Iran to its knees, therefore, he could have used his chemical weapons to achieve his goal, similar to what the U.S. did to Japan when they used the atomic bombs. So, why did he not use it against the Iranians, but instead, if it was true, he used it against the Kurds?

It seems to me that the above questions are very logical ones; however, the answers to them will be left to those who think that Iraq had used chemical weapons against the Kurds.

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If you would take the trouble to read Pelletiere's 2001 report on why oil played such an important role in the Gulf War, you would find he covers other specious information that Goldberg had spoon fed to him by the Kurd rebels, who have a vested interest in keeping alive the story that Saddam had slaughtered as many as 100,000 Kurds at the end of the war with Iran. It was our Secretary of State, George Shultz, who leveled this charge at Iraq as soon as the Iran/Iraq war was over, as it was convenient for our government to join Israel in making Iraq an enemy. In his book, Pelletiere says this was a "hoax, a non-event," as no bodies were ever discovered. In his March 25 report, David, Goldberg does go with the updated version of this hoax, peddled by Human Rights Watch, which is that Iraq actually used conventional weapons, i.e., bullets, to kill 100,000 Kurds, men and boys, and then bury them "in mass graves." Goldberg also notes the graves have never been found. Surely you must have raised an eyebrow in editing this material. There are only 4 million Iraqi Kurds, half of them women, another quarter youngsters or seniors. To wipe out 10% of the remainder in a few days with weapons and burials in mass graves should at least have produced some witnesses who escaped, or soldiers with remorse at slaughtering their fellow Iraqis in this fashion. Here is an account of Milton Viorst, a Washington Post reporter, who went to Kurdistan a few days after Shultz made his charge:

From what I saw, I would conclude that if lethal gas was used, it was not used genocidally -- that is, for mass killing. The Kurds compose a fifth of the Iraqi population, and they are a tightly knit community. If there had been large-scale killing, it is likely they would know and tell the world. But neither I nor any Westerner I encountered heard such allegations.

Nor did Kurdish society show discernible signs of tension. The northern cities, where the men wear Kurdish turbans and baggy pants, were as bustling as I had ever seen them. I talked to armed Kurds near the border, members of Iraqi military unites mobilized against the rebels.

On the other hand, Iraq probably used gas of some kind in air attacks on rebel positions. Journalists visiting the Turkish camps saw refugees with blistered skin and irritated eyes, symptoms of gassing. But doctors sent by France, the United Nations and the Red Cross have said these symptoms could have been produced by a powerful, but non-lethal tear gas.

Citing national security, Mr. Shultz has declined to submit the U.S. data to scrutiny, even by America's NATO allies, though State Department sources say it is the sort of information that the United States routinely shares with them. American officials acknowledge that Mr. Shultz's evidence, chiefly radio intercepts, may be subject to conflicting interpretations.

I hope you begin to see why you should not be ticked off at me for questioning the accuracy of the Goldberg piece. I actually could write several other pages of criticism of the piece, where it seems obvious he allowed himself to be managed by those in our government and in Israel who are eager to have a "regime change" in Baghdad as soon as possible. If I were you, I would conduct an independent inquiry, and if necessary alert your audience that they were misled. They were.