After 7½ years of brutal war between Iran and Iraq, many observers have become inured to the horrors of the conflict. But foreign correspondents allowed a rare visit to one of the battlefronts last week were ill-prepared for the scenes awaiting them in Halabja, an Iranian-held Kurdish border town in northeastern Iraq. There, scattered about the streets and inside houses—at dinner tables, in their beds and in doorways—lay hundreds of bloated corpses in grotesque postures of sudden death. Most of the victims—mainly infants, women and old people—were unmarked, except for a waxy appearance consistent with cyanide poisoning. And according to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—who escorted Western journalists to the site by helicopter—the Iraqi forces were responsible for the attack on their own citizens. Said Guards spokesman Ali
Shafii: “The Iraqis, using planes and artillery equipped with chemical weapons releasing mustard gas, cyanide and other types, caused 5,000 innocent people of Halabja and the area to die.”
In the past, despite Iraqi denials, the United Nations and other independent bodies have alleged that Iraq has sporadically used mustard and nerve gases against Iranian troops over the past three years. But the attack on Halabja—confirmed by Kurdish survivors on the spot and by others flown to Tehran for treatment of serious chemical burns and lung damage—was an unprecedented use of chemical agents against civilians. Last week Iraq denied responsibility for the gas attack. But as the evidence mounted, the prospect of an escalating chemical war presented a new and ominous turn in the already vicious conflict.
Iranian authorities claimed that Iraqi air and ground forces attacked
Halabja with conventional and gas bombs on March 16—some 24 hours after Iranian troops captured the town, which is situated in a region where Kurdish rebels have long been seeking independence from Iraq. The Iranians said that their own troops survived by wearing gas masks. Said one middle-aged Kurdish survivor who lives on the outskirts of Halabja: “The Iranians came here and we welcomed them. Then about noontime the [Iraqi] bombardment came. Everybody was killed. I saw a cloud. I saw gas.”
Indeed, Iran’s chief of war information alleged that Iraq may have unleashed the attack to punish the fiercely independent Kurds—Sunni Moslems who are historically opposed to the Baghdad regime. Declared Kamal Kharazi: “This blind revenge has been taken against the people of Halabja because they were against the government of Iraq and because last May they refused to leave.” Baghdad has been carrying out the forced relocation of Kurds who live near sensitive border areas with Iran.
Meanwhile in London, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party charged that the Iraqi military dropped chemical bombs on the northern villages of Seyo and Senan on March 24, killing more than 50 people. In New York City,
UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar condemned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons.
But Iranian authorities said that they might boycott a new round of UN-sponsored peace talks scheduled this week unless Pérez de Cuéllar sent a fact-finding mission to northern Iraq.
The chemical attack drew condemnation from Ottawa and Washington. Although he did not accuse Iraq, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that he was appalled at the “atrocious and inhuman attacks” against the Kurds, and he pledged that Ottawa would promote a worldwide embargo on all arms sales to Iraq and Iran. U.S. state department spokesman Charles Redman did blame Iraq and called on the UN Security Council to mount an international protest. Declared
Redman: “This incident appears to be a particularly grave violation of the 1925 Geneva protocol against chemical warfare.” Without giving details, Redman also said that Iran may have fired chemical artillery shells against Iraq.
The prospect of escalating chemical warfare between Iran and Iraq loomed
menacingly last week as a so-called war of the cities continued unabated. On March 24 the Iraqis fired six longrange missiles at Tehran in six minutes. The official Iranian news agency reported that at least 10 people were killed and 100 others wounded when the Iraqi missiles struck hospitals, schools and mosques. In a retaliatory attack, an Iraqi spokesman said, Iranian missiles hit a children’s hospital and nearby houses in Baghdad, killing nine and wounding 59 others.
Since Feb. 29, dozens of Iranian and Iraqi cities have been hit by missiles, bombs and shellfire, causing hundreds of civilian casualties on both sides. So far, most of the bombs and missiles have carried payloads of conventional explosives. But last week Iran’s parliament Speaker, Hashemi Rafsanjani, declared, “We have the technology to produce chemical weapons and, although we have not exploited this yet, we will not remain idle forever.” With no prospects of imminent peace, the Iran-Iraq war clearly seemed poised to enter a deadly new phase.
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