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Kurds say Iraq's attacks serve as a warning

As Bush considers toppling Saddam Hussein, victims of Hussein's 'gassing' tell of his tactics.

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Iraq has sought to upgrade all its weapons programs in the intervening years, and has most recently installed a top-notch Chinese air defense system.

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In recent weeks, Iraq reportedly rushed air defense assets into US and British-patrolled "no-fly zones" in the north and south of the country.

History with Hussein

Minority Kurds for decades have been considered "saboteurs" and "traitors," and fought Baghdad wherever possible. "No one knows Saddam Hussein like the Kurds," says Jawhar Namiq, a Kurdish leader. "We said Saddam was a dictator, a murderer, and we paid a very big price for that."

The Anfal campaign

Then came the Anfal campaign and the gassing of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Western and Kurdish health officials say that the fallout continues, in the form of increased rates of birth defects, cancers, respiratory problems, and infertility.

"That was the only time that I felt the Kurdish people could perish," says Sami Abdurahman, a senior leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two rival Kurdish groups who rule northern Iraq, which is protected by US air patrols. "This will never go from the memory of the Kurdish people, and of course it says everything about this regime."

That point was driven home before the Gulf War, when Hussein's right-hand man Izzat Ibrahim Duri traveled to the north to issue this warning: "If you have forgotten Halabja, I would like to remind you that we are ready to repeat that operation."

Expecting just that when a 1991 Kurdish uprising failed, 1.5 million Kurds left everything behind and fled northern Iraq. Today, those who crossed the border say it was the legacy of this town that drove their flight.

Halabja was targeted the day after Iranian forces occupied the town, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Kurdish rebels had fought with Iran, against Baghdad troops.

Qassem Hussein Mohamed, a 20-year veteran of Iraqi military intelligence, says he was on a hilltop overlooking Halabja that spring day in 1988.

Recently captured and interviewed in a Kurdish prison, Mr. Mohamed says he overheard two senior Iraqi military leaders give the order over a radio three times: "Gas. Gas. Gas."

That didn't surprise Mohamed. He says Iraqi troops had orders to kill Kurdish men from the all-powerful Iraqi governor of the north at the time – Ali Hassan al-Majid, the cousin of Hussein who is infamously known to Kurds as "Ali Chemical." Doctors were used to help determine men's ages – and therefore, who would live or die.

"They said many times they have different kinds of chemicals," says Mohamed, of the Halabja attack. "They gave the order for all Iraqi troops to wear a mask and [chemical] gear for 12 hours."

Survivors stories

The case of Halabja is full of the same emotive human tremors that emerge when survivors speak of the destruction of Koreme village. Tears flow when Younis Sharif Mohamed tells of hiding in his basement with 13 other members of his family.

The regular shelling lasted for several hours. "Then something new happened," Mr. Mohamed says. "The sound of the bombs was different – a flat, damp-sounding pop ... pop. We noticed a darkening of the sun, and then three special smells like apple, onion, and cucumber. After a moment, people began to scream."

Mohamed was out of the basement first, with his mother close behind. But he soon collapsed. When he came to, his eyes were in extreme pain. Ten other family members lay dead where they fell.

"I called out their names, but nobody answered me," Mohamed says. He realized it was pointless taking the bodies of his family to the local mosque for burial, since there was no one left alive who could bury them. He says he expects Hussein to unleash the same, fearsome destruction in any new war.

"Nothing has changed: It is the same regime, and the same power," Mohamed says. "Even if they don't do anything, Baghdad only has to say: 'We will go back to Kurdistan,' and the people will flee."