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The gassing of the Kurds at Halabja

Iraqi-Kurds visit a grave site in Halabja near the monument for victims of the Halabja gas massacre that killed some 5,000 people [SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images]
Iraqi-Kurds visit a grave site in Halabja near the monument for victims of the Halabja gas massacre that killed some 5,000 people [SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images]

Summary: 29 years ago today, thousands of Iraqi Kurds were killed when their village of Halabja was gassed in the closing months of the Iran-Iraq War.

What: Mass killing of Kurds in chemical weapon attack

When: 16 March 1988

Where: Halabja, northern Iraq

What happened?

When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980, Kurdish separatists accepted Iranian arms and money and began to attack Iraqi forces in areas across northern Iraq. Kurdish militants continued to attack the Iraqis throughout the war as the military struggled to push back the Iranians who had managed to invade Iraqi territory in 1982, representing a threat to their areas. In 1988, Kurdish militant factions began aiding the Iranians to enter Iraqi territory from the north as part of a last-ditch offensive that they hoped will allow them to carve out their own turf.

A Kurdish woman turns away as she looks at pictures of victims of a gas attack by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1988, at the memorial site of the attack in the Kurdish town on Halabja [ALI AL-SAADI/AFP via Getty Images]

A Kurdish woman turns away as she looks at pictures of victims of a gas attack by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1988, at the memorial site of the attack in the Kurdish town on Halabja [ALI AL-SAADI/AFP via Getty Images]

Seeing the threat forming inside their northern territory, then-President Saddam Hussein decided to take action, and began using chemical weapons against Iranian military formations who also possessed chemical weapons. In the ensuing violence, the village of Halabja, occupied by Iranian forces who began to withdraw in the face of Iraqi counterattacks, was subjected to a chemical weapon attack involving cyanide gas (a chemical agent in the Iranian arsenal). Over 3,000 Kurdish civilians died as a result.

What happened next?

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the US government said that Iran was to blame and was responsible for the attack. Researchers and academics remained conflicted about who held ultimate responsibility, particularly as Washington later changed its mind and blamed the Iraqi Ba'athist regime as part of its campaign to rally public support against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein prior to the US military offensive to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Video footage from the time also appeared to show an F-4 Phantom, used by the Iranian regime, flying over Halabja.

However, whether the Iranians or the Iraqis were responsible, following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam's regime, senior Ba'ath regime official Ali Hassan Al-Majid, nicknamed "Chemical Ali", was condemned to death by an Iraqi court in 2010 for the Halabja massacre. He was hanged on 25 January 2010, but Saddam himself was never charged with the offence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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Asia & AmericasIranIraqMiddle EastOn this dayOpinionUS
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