De Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British chemical and biological counter-terrorism forces who now runs a company called SecureBio. Photo by Sharmila Devi
LONDON - The full clean-up and decontamination of Halabja is feasible and would take around two years, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who was asked by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to study the issue, told Rudaw.
De Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British chemical and biological counter-terrorism forces who now runs a company called SecureBio, has visited Halabja around a half dozen times and has drawn parallels between the 1988 chemical attack there and that on Ghouta in Syria last August.
He has been advising civilians in Syria on behalf of non-governmental organizations, after the sarin attack that was blamed on President Bashar Assad, as well as working for the KRG.
The results of his team’s toxicology work in Halabja town remain confidential, under an agreement with the KRG. But he was confident political hurdles would be overcome, including the formation of a new cabinet, which could then sign-off on the Halabja clean-up project.
Mustard gas derivatives that can be highly carcinogenic have been found in Halabja. “We’ve come up with a protocol, a two-year project to completely decontaminate the area,” he said. “We can start the day the cabinet signs-off.”
He has been speaking out against chemical weapons at events and interviews marking the 26th anniversary of the attack on Halabja. The March 16, 1988 bombardment was the largest chemical weapons attack ever directed against a civilian population, killing around 5,000 people. But the death toll could reach 12,000, De Bretton-Gordon said.
The initial death toll of 1,400 in Ghouta could rise to 4,000, said the expert, who has called both attacks “state-sponsored genocide.”
“The chemicals are very persistent and will be around until something is done to clean it up,” he said. “I recently heard about a farmer in Halabja who wants to grow pomegranate trees, the area used to be famous for them. But obviously, no one will want them if they’re grown in toxic soil.”
His company uses the latest nano-technology to detect the smallest particles of toxic matter. “We took some sophisticated equipment for an oil company that has the rights to a bloc in Halabja to ensure oil workers don’t dig up munitions or dig in contaminated soil,” he said. “We plan to do a very detailed survey in the old town, and in the hamlets and towns to the south and east, towards Iran.
ears and we would train people on the ground because a lot of other towns around Kurdistan have contaminated mass graves.”
He said the project’s costs would not be “hugely expensive,” and could be paid for by an oil company as part of its legacy project in the area. “I’m sure that’s what (the KRG and oil companies) have been looking at, and the only issue is timing,” he said. “Low-level radiation is fine for a few days, but not 26 years, so the sooner it’s got rid of, the better.”
The results of the work could also be used potentially to track down which companies provided the chemicals to Saddam, and then as evidence in any legal action to claim compensation.
Legal cases on behalf of Halabja victims and their families are being pursued by law firms in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Some German members of parliament were keen to find out more because of speculation surrounding a German pharmaceutical company, he said.
“In theory, we can trace back the chemical precursors to the companies that supplied them. It’s technically possible,” he said. “The KRG is my client and at the moment we are just working on decontamination.”
De Bretton-Gordon also condemned the international community’s inertia and lack of action in Syria. While it concentrated on dismantling the country’s chemical stockpile, Assad had had a free hand to kill tens of thousands of civilians since last August, he said.
Meanwhile, some Syrian opposition members said they wanted to keep the stockpile of chemical precursors “to keep their traditional enemies at bay” after Assad was gone.
De Bretton-Gordon’s clients across the Middle East -- including Israel and Saudi Arabia -- had expressed much concern to him about the risk of proliferation since last August’s attacks.
Although there was no definitive intelligence, there had been much “chatter” about whether some of Assad’s rockets came into Syria from Iraq around the time of the 2003 US-led invasion. Some may have then returned to Iraq after the chemical attack in Syria on 21 August.
“Had the world dropped a ton of cruise missiles on 22 August, would things be different now? If we had acted against Saddam Hussein in 1988, would people like me have fought in the first and second Gulf Wars? Eventually, the UK set up the no-fly zone which saved the Kurdish nation and it might not be a bad idea in Syria as well.
“World politics is in a tricky place, but the more the truth about chemical weapons is publicized, the better,” he said. “There’s nothing new, just lessons that we forget.”