WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representation in Washington marked the 31st of the chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja on Wednesday, with a public seminar at George Washington University.
Nasrin Abdulqadir Mohammed addressed the seminar, as she explained that she was just sixteen years old, when the Iraqi regime assaulted her city on March 16, 1988. Among the 5,000 people who died in that attack was her entire family: mother, father, and siblings.
Mohammed was temporarily blinded by the mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents that Saddam Hussein’s air force dropped on Halabja’s unsuspecting population. Even now, her lungs do not function properly, and she has only regained partial sight.
As this courageous survivor of genocide related her terrible ordeal, she also put the story in a somewhat surprising perspective. She concluded by stating that it had been Saddam’s intention to eradicate the Kurds—but, instead, it is he who no longer exists. The audience, applauding her spirit, rose to their feet.
Ms. Nuxsha Nasih, the mayor of Halabja, was the event’s keynote speaker and explained that the chemical attack was preceded by other crimes committed by the Baathist regime, including public executions and forced displacements. In the face of the silence of the international community, those crimes culminated in the chemical assault.
But such horrors did not end with Halabja, she stated. Indeed, it would be a great folly to imagine that such atrocities are a thing of the past, and Nasih likened the Islamic State’s attacks on the Yezidis to Saddam’s chemical attack.
Mayor of Halabja @nuxshanasih met with @StateDept Iraq Director Robert Waller. They discussed the tragic history and aspirations of the people of Halabja, and the need for assistance in the numerous challenges facing survivors of chemical weapons pic.twitter.com/5iBh7HVeOF— KRG-USA (@KRG_USA) March 20, 2019
Halabja “must remain a lesson to the world,” akin to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nasih affirmed, as she explained that the survivors are still in need of medical assistance, an issue she also raised at the State Department.
One Kurdish observer in the audience noted the tremendous change over the past two decades. In 2001, Ansar al-Islam controlled Halabja. Today, the mayor of the city is an unveiled, fashionably dressed, and extremely eloquent woman.
The event ended with remarks by Dr. Seth Carus, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy at National Defense University, and he spoke with Kurdistan 24 afterwards.
The chemical attack on Halabja was “a unique event in history,” Carus explained. “In the history of chemical warfare,” there was no single day in which more people died than on March 16, 1988.
“In fact, as many people died that day in Halabja as died in the whole of the Iran-Iraq war,” which lasted for eight years and in which Iraq regularly used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, Carus said.
Chemical weapons first appeared in 1914, during World War I, when they were used as a weapon of war. Since World War II, however—for the past seventy years—“the real targets of chemical weapons,” he said, “have almost always been civilians.” Soldiers generally have protection, but civilians do not, and so they are “totally vulnerable.”
“Every time I hear somebody say chemicals are not a weapon of mass destruction, I point to Halabja, where in such a short period of time, thousands of people died,” he said.
In fact, Carus explained how the attack on Halabja had profoundly influenced him personally.
“It actually affected my entire life,” he said, “in that I devoted most of the subsequent 30 years” to the study of chemical and biological weapons.
“In retrospect, I think I felt a tremendous sense of guilt, because I’d known the Iraqis were using chemical weapons,” as I was “following the Iran-Iraq war professionally in the 1980s.”
“But I never really did anything to ensure that the use came to an end,” Carus continued. “So like many of my colleagues in Washington, I was stunned, when what had been a battlefield weapon was suddenly turned on civilians in such a catastrophic way.”
In Halabja, the attack was carried out overtly. It was obvious that Saddam’s regime was responsible. But what about the covert use of chemical or biological agents against civilian populations? As the famous Chinese strategist of war, Sun Tzu, wrote, “The nature of war is constant change.”
“It’s one of the things that you can’t predict,” Carus replied, noting “there have been terrorist groups that have been interested in chemical and biological weapons and occasionally a group will get its act together and use them in ways that are quite frightening,” Carus stated, citing Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway.
Asked whether biological agents might be more deadly than chemical, “That’s actually unknowable, because we don’t know what agent they would use, and how they would use it,” he replied.
By some accounts they would be. Testifying before Congress in 2016, Lt. Gen. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, citing technological developments in genetic engineering, put biological agents in the same category as nuclear weapons.
The most lethal biological agent that western scientists have ever seen appeared in the US in October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. It is not easy to weaponize anthrax, as it must be a small and specific size: 1-5 microns, so the anthrax spores are breathed into the lungs, but not breathed out.
Moreover, the spores cannot clump together, as they are prone to do in their natural state. As Dr. Dick Spertzel, who worked with the UN weapons inspectors on Iraq’s biological weapons program, told this author some years ago, the anthrax spores that appeared after 9/11 had to be coated with a special material to prevent them sticking together.
Indeed, as Spertzel pointed out, the FBI (which was in charge of the investigation), spent nearly two years trying to replicate the lethal qualities of that material, but failed to do so.
President George W. Bush wrote in his memoirs, Decision Points, “The biggest question during the anthrax attack was where it was coming from.”
“One of the best intelligence services in Europe told us that it suspected Iraq,” Bush continued.
Carus also stressed the importance of what is called “attribution,” as he explained, “unless you can tell who’s responsible, you can’t really take effective response measures.”