ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - The chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 brought a major and negative turnaround in the Kurdish struggle against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It destroyed the morale of the Kurdish parties fighting for Kurdish rights, says Joost Hiltermann, the Chief Operating Officer of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Belgium.
Yearly on March 16, the Kurdish people take five minutes of silence to remember the estimated 5,000 people who died in Halabja in 1988.
Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq who has visited the country regularly for the ICG, was one of the first researchers to show the world the extent of the Anfal operation against the Kurds. For Human Rights Watch, he reported on the campaign that Saddam unleashed in the 1980s, during which some 180,000 Kurds were killed and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed.
Halabja is often presented as part of that campaign, but incorrectly so, Hiltermann explained in his book about the Anfal, “A Poisonous Affair,” which was published in 2007.
From his home in Brussels he points out why: “Anfal was targeting the rural areas of Kurdistan, not the towns. But more importantly, Anfal was a military campaign with different phases that were carefully described. Halabja was not there.”
At the time Halabja was gassed, the first phase of Anfal was already being played out with attacks on the headquarters of the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which were hidden in the mountain villages of Sergalu and Bergalu.
In contrast, Hiltermann sees the attack on Halabja as part of the war between Iran and Iraq, that had then been going on for almost eight years. The Iranians had invaded the area of Halabja in order to create a second front, and to occupy the Iraqi army in such a way that the fighting in the south would diminish.
Together with the Kurds the Iranians took over Halabja; the Kurdish Peshmarga (fighters) were in the town, and the Iranian military right outside.
“Halabja was the Iraqi revenge for the occupation of Halabja by the Iranians and the Kurds,” says Hiltermann. “It was the military answer to the Iranian presence, and to the fear that the Iranians would use the dam of the Darbandikhan Lake to unleash its water on Baghdad.”
The Kurds hoped the cooperation with the Iranians would lead to a new foothold, away from their mountain hideout. “They wanted to have a town, to show that they had a chance to free Kurdistan.”
At the same time, the Iraqi attacks on Sergalu-Bergalu had gone on for days. “The PUK wanted to decrease the pressure on its headquarters by forcing Saddam to focus on the new front, but it turned against them.”
And badly so. The use of chemical weapons against the civilians of Halabja completely destroyed the morale of the Kurds, says Hiltermann. “They understood they could not fight against this, that the people would panic, that they could not protect them and that the people would flee, as happened.”
Within days, the PUK headquarters collapsed, scattering the civilians from the villages and the Peshmarga to other areas, mainly to the south, to Garmiyan and Qaradash. “Soon after, the Iraqi army started the second phase of Anfal, on Qaradagh. The army knew it had to move fast to catch the Peshmarga, and to cut off their local support.”
To make optimal use of the fear instilled by what happened in Halabja and to create panic, the army used chemical weapons on the first day of that campaign, too, Hiltermann says. “And that worked exactly as planned.”
This is why Hiltermann calls Halabja a major turn in events. “Even though it was not part of it, without Halabja Anfal would never have succeeded. The Kurds were used to being attacked, even with chemical weapons. But the scare of Halabja made the change. It was enormously important for its psychological effect.”
Hiltermann is respected greatly by Kurdish leaders for his book and the attention he brought to the Kurdish fate -- even though the book is more about what happened to PUK than to the bigger Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as he points out. “Anfal was targeting PUK more than KDP, because the PUK was the active force in most of the areas involved. The KDP did not pose the same threat as the PUK.”
The effect of Halabja lingers on. The fear that was instilled then still plays a role in the minds of Kurdish politicians, Hiltermann agrees. “The threat of chemical weapons always plays a role.”
In that sense the quick rejection by the Americans and most of the world when Syria became the next regime to use chemical weapons against its civilians, could ease that fear.
While the Americans looked on during Anfal, and at first chose to blame Iran for Halabja, they immediately strongly dismissed the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian civilians. “Precedents have been created there that could protect the Kurds,” Hiltermann concludes.
Two days after the remembrance of the Halabja attack of March 16, Hiltermann’s book about the Anfal operation will be published in Iran. Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish translations have preceded it.