Why Halabja? – The First Anfal


“…On the still night of February 23rd 1988, artillery was volleyed across the mountains blasting the village-lined Jaffati valley, signalling the beginning of the al-Anfal campaign.

The anti-aircraft missiles, gifted by Iran to the peshmerga, were stationed all across the mountain range and heavily utilized against the Iraqi offensive. The Iranians helped many of the Kurdish peshmerga groups as they served as multiple thorns in Saddam’s side whilst Iran and Iraq traded blows. They had provided weapons, ammunition and gas masks to the KDP, KSP-I and PUK, as well as injections of atropine to help combat the effects of the chemical weapons.

There were 30 villages nestled within the valleys of the surrounding region. The huge 700 PUK peshmerga force were charged with their protection, dotted also with KSP-I peshmerga, they soon became overstretched as Iraq attacked from both flanks in a sandwich manoeuvre.

Spearheading the Iraqi offensive were Commando and Special Forces teams bolstered by: infantry regiments, heavy artillery divisions, air force regiments and obviously, serving as cannon-fodder, the Kurdish National Defence battalions (Jash). It was also, notably, one of the few times that Saddam’s elite Republican Guard participated in Anfal. This was Saddam’s personal force; highly trained and answerable only to the palace- they were brought in for operations where they’d face considerable defiance. In the late 1980’s the PUK peshmerga fighters were unarguably the most formidable force in the region- Saddam and al-Majid’s acknowledgement of this is clear, their decision to begin Anfal by attacking the PUK fortress was an effort to ‘cut the head off the snake’. It is also clear that whilst Anfal was a genocidal campaign, it was equally a military operation; Anfal spanned from mid-February to early September, 6 months would be dedicated on exterminating the PUK resistance and 2 weeks on the KDP-held territory. Tens of thousands of dark green uniforms started to ram the 40 mile peshmerga frontline; to their surprise, they struggled to penetrate the defenses- with all the odds stacked against them, the peshmerga forces were holding the battle line. Whilst they kept the Iraqi forces occupied with fighting; they established a small pocket of escape for thousands of families in the east of the valley. This allowed the villagers, accompanied by peshmerga, to escape into Iran. This was no easy task as evident in the many villagers that died in the harsh conditions and crossing Iraq’s no-man’s land with Iran which was freckled with Italian manufactured landmines.

The Iraqi army began systematically using chemical weapons on the mountains and villages in their offensive making them impossible to defend. As they would drop the bombs, the remaining villagers and peshmerga would desperately flee, the Iraqi troops and tank regiments would then pour in to gain the ground.This is how they made advances. They also began dropped chemical weapons on the fleeing villagers in camps at the Iran-Iraq border.

By the second week of the attack, the Iraq unceasingly pounded peshmerga positions and with increasing low supplies of the line of defence began to falter; resistance was flailing as some peshmerga had opted to shoot themselves with their last remaining bullet rather than be captured.

The peshmerga knew they couldn’t win this battle. Guerrilla teams started to leak out of the area, positioning themselves elsewhere to mount distracting attacks, most were told to flee south to the PUK’s 1st Malband in the Qaradagh mountains, some went northwards to the Balisan valley and the Qandil mountains.

The heroic peshmerga that remained in the Jaffayati valley desperately needed some respite; they needed to guide the large ground troops of the amassed Iraqi army away from the valleys. PUK conspired with the Iranians; they planned to open a new front against the Iraqi’s by taking control of a large Iraqi town.

The chosen town was Halabja.

Halabja was a Kurdish town that lay on the Iraq-Iran border; it was agriculturally strong and the resting place of Lady Adila Khanim. Iranian influence had already created simmering Islamic movements here, and although Halabja was never in the initial blueprint of the Anfal campaign- it would become the single most merciless act ever committed against the Kurdish people.

Iraqi intelligence was wise to this plan. Documents captured from the Iraqi army in 1991 show that they knew about the amassed Iranian troops and 500-strong PUK force led by Shawkati Haji Mushir, but yet they didn’t decide to reinforce their troops in Halabja. So when the peshmerga and Iranian pasdaran descended on the town on March 13th, it was taken relatively easily- the joint strength of the forces chasing the Iraqi’s away.

A jubilant air swept across Halabja with people chanting and cheering in the streets. They were now ‘free’. Free from Saddam. Free to live how they wanted. Free to die. In an eerie calm, an Iraqi Amn cable was sent to the town, ordering all public service employees in the Halabja area to evacuate.

It wasn’t until three days later, on March the 16th 1988, when in mid-morning, conventional Iraqi artillery and airstrikes were launched on the town.

The civilians hid in their homes, or purpose built basement bunkers and shelters- shielding them from the worst of the explosions. They thought they were relatively safe…until it changed.

People could hear the aircraft flying over, but now the explosions were muffled. They were no longer large bangs but awkward thuds. They sat in their shelters with their children cradled in their arms when a smell penetrated the gaps in the doors and windows, stinging their noses as it wafted into their homes.

Some argue that it smells like rotten garlic, others say it is more like sweet apples- whatever the smell, panic swept over the people once they had the sickly realisation of what it was. There was to be an almighty vengeance for defying the Iraqi’s and openly working with the Iranians just as there had been against the Barzani’s in ’83.

They had heard of these bombs; it was these same bombs that had dropped previously in the ‘prohibited areas’; these bombs that had worked to such crippling effect on the Iranian ‘Basij’ waves. In a desperate attempt to escape, they poured out of their shelters onto the streets. Many didn’t make it that far, choking to death in their homes and doorways. Those that did, collapsed in the courtyards of their homes or stiff on the streets of Halabja – the expressions of horror stomped on their faces. A few managed to make it into their large trucks and pick-ups, fleeing as fast as they could- but as effects of the chemicals began to take deep effect, one by one they would lose consciousness and die. In the next few hours. Iranian Pasdaran walked amongst the chaos in gas masks, seeing the roads strewn with dead, as those blinded by the chemicals clawed at the earth and morbid laughter rang out as people died in hysterical giggling fits.

Doctors lay in wait on the Iranian border to administer drops of atropine for those that managed to flee.

Nobody could have known the Iraqi’s would respond like this. Talabani received the call; ‘They are all dead’ the voice on the phone uttered. The people were stunned, the peshmerga despondent, the Iranian’s sympathetic. They ferried in foreign journalists to help wage their propaganda war. Staggeringly, the US and other governments dismissed claims this was committed by the Iraqi’s; citing there was ‘no proof’.

5000 were killed on that day in Halabja. Several thousand followed in the coming months and years. 10 thousand were injured and new scars appear in the form of birth defects and disabilities.

Halabja was abandoned; the Iraqi’s returned four months later to find rotting bodies still on the streets. Halabja was levelled.

The message from Iraq, ‘Chemical Ali’ and Saddam was clear; they no longer cared- it was time for the Kurds to die.

“I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them. Even if the war with Iran stops and the Iranians withdraw from all occupied lands, I will not negotiate with him [Talabani]…” -A recording of ‘Chemical Ali’ declares plainly his villainous intent. Dated May 26, 1988,

Kurdish morale hit an all-time low. The peshmerga defence of Sergalou collapsed three days after Halabja- the day after; Bergalou followed.

The first Anfal had taken the Iraqi army three weeks to overrun the PUK headquarters, destroying all the villages in the region also- in the same time, the world had watched them annihilate Halabja. Thousands of civilians had perished and over 300 peshmerga had been killed.

In a haunting communiqué to the Kurdish people; the Iraqi army announced their victory.

“Our forces attacked the headquarters of the rebellion led by traitor Jalal Talabani, the agent to the Iranian regime, the enemy of the Arabs and Kurds, in the Sergalou, Bergalou and Zewa areas and in the rough mountainous areas in Suleimaniyeh. At 1300 today, after a brave and avenging battle with the traitors, the headquarters of the rebellion was occupied…Many were killed and others escaped in shame.

This is unique bravery and faithfulness. This is a struggle admired by the entire world, the struggle of leader Saddam Hussein’s people, Arabs and Kurds, who placed themselves in the service of the homeland and gave their love and faithfulness to their great leader, the symbol of their victory and title of their prosperity.

Praise be to God for His victory. Shame to the ignominious.”

[signed] The Armed Forces General Command, 19 March 1988

A dreadful feeling widened the eyes of the Kurds; the climax had arrived.

This was to be the Kurdish Apocalypse.”

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