In March 1988, Saddam Hussein unleashed the worst ever chemical weapons attack perpetrated on civilians. It took place in Halabja, a Kurdish town on the Iraq-Iran boarder, under the command of Ali Hussein Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali". It is estimated that 5,000 men, women and children died in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but this remains an estimate as many of them were buried in mass graves that remain contaminated by mustard gas.
Twenty-five years later, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) have now launched the Halabja Project to finally uncover the truth behind the horrific chemical attacks.
In this article, Hana Salama of the Every Casualty programme looks at the ongoing effort to reveal what has happened and to identify the victims of the attacks and bury them with dignity.
Thousands of deaths were caused by mustard gas, nerve gas and other chemical weapons, which were used indiscriminately against the people of Halabja. Known as the Anfal Campaign, the attacks were purportedly launched as retribution against the Kurds, who welcomed Iranian troops towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
Mustard gas is deadly and its effects still linger, with many people being hospitalised or even dying when coming into contact with it years later. Identifying victims or even getting a sense of who and how many were killed in the chemical weapons attacks is extremely difficult because of the fear of contamination by residual chemicals. Twenty-five years later, the families of many victims still don't know exactly what happened to their loved ones nor have had the opportunity to provide them with a proper burial.
The memory of the attacks is ever present in the town. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is still decontaminating the town, and recently, along with SecureBio, a British company, specialising in chemical, biological, radiological and DNA analysis, the KRG have launched the Halabja Project. This project intends to identify and facilitate the personal burial of the victims of the attack, as well as decontaminate cellars and sites in the town. SecureBio is still in discussion with the KRG about details of the project, particularly the exhumation of bodies found in mass graves, which the government has yet to approve, although decontamination of cellars and other sites have begun.
Along with forensic identification of human remains, the company’s CEO and ex-UK military commander, Hamish Bretton-Gordon, is also planning to identify the origins of the chemicals that were sold to the Saddam Hussein's regime and were used in the deadly attacks.
According to Mr Bretton-Gordon:
"We expect to find samples of mustard gas in the mass graves, as we have done in the cellars, and if we can break it down to its base molecule components, we will be able to see what its signature is, and then we can match it against a sample.”
He believes that it is technically possible to work out which country, even which factory, supplied the original chemicals for the mustard gas. Although many of the shells found in Halabja were of Soviet origin, according to some experts, it is believed that the original chemicals had been sold by western companies. Particularly West German chemical companies have been implicated, which had been supposedly exempt from the extensive international agreements that prohibited the sale of chemical weapons and certain chemicals, as well as French, British and US suppliers.
There is a sense, even though small, that international justice is possible even 25 years later.
"I think we owe it to ourselves, to the victims, to really take a more in-depth look at what happened, how it happened", said Qubad Talabani, a senior Minister in the KRG.
This reinforces the importance of such detailed forensic identification work, not only for victims and their families, but as a way to find out exactly what happened and to learn from the past.
And it appears we have yet to learn as an international community, as news of the Syrian regime threating to use their own chemical weapons have made headlines. Although, according to US intelligence, the threat from chemical weapons from Syria has levelled-off, other experts stress that the regime seems to have a formidable supply of chemical weapons.