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Gassed once, Kurds fear reprise

Iraq killed 5,000 people in Halabja with chemical weapons in 1988. Locals still lack masks, and no nations have offered help.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2003


When Roukhosh Arif climbed out of her basement, past the metal door draped with a wet towel that had kept out the gases, the light of a chilly, cloudless dusk was tinted yellow.

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Covering the mouth of her 1-year-old daughter, Ms. Arif and her husband rushed through the streets of this small city in northeastern Iraq. The poisoned air, smelling of onions and apples, crept into their eyes and nostrils.

They saw its effects everywhere. Bodies lay on the street. People sat down, unable to run. A neighbor shouted prayers mixed with nonsense.

These are Arif's memories of March 16, 1988. The Iraqi military, waging a genocidal campaign against this country's ethnic Kurds, killed 5,000 people in Halabja that day, according to human rights organizations.

Today, she and other Kurds fear that Iraq may use chemicals against them again if the US leads a war against the regime of President Saddam Hussein. But Kurds are no more ready to protect themselves against such an attack than they were 15 years ago.

While Israelis, Kuwaitis, and even some Americans acquire gas masks, stock up on plastic sheeting, and learn when to inject an antidote, Kurds are left to rely on wet towels. They say their appeals to US and European governments for the means to protect themselves from chemical or biological attack have yielded sympathy, but not action.

Many Kurds worry that Mr. Hussein might strike at them again to provoke an exodus of refugees to Turkey - as occurred in 1991 - that could complicate a US war effort. But although the US and Britain say that disarming Iraq of its chemical and biological weapons is a moral necessity, they have not made efforts to protect the Kurdish victims of such weapons from future attack.

Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two parties that administer the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, says US and European officials have responded with "positive answers" to Kurdish requests for protective material. He also concedes that nothing has happened.

Invoking an Iranian expression, he says that Kurds must practice "revolutionary patience."

Abdel Qadir Faraidoon, the PUK interior minister, concludes that there is a lack of American and European resolve to help protect Kurdish civilians. "They didn't want to or they would have done it," he says. He adds that US officials could turn another mass killing of Kurds into political advantage - "so they can point to the world [and say] that they were right that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction."

"It's terrible," adds Hoshyar Zebari, foreign-policy adviser to Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), referring to Kurdish vulnerability. The KDP controls the western half of northern Iraq; the PUK is responsible for the east, which includes Halabja. He, too, says that US and European governments have not fulfilled promises of aid.

At the same time, Kurdish officials do not seem too shocked that their requests have gone unfulfilled. That may be because Kurds - a stateless ethnic group spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria - have a long history of being trampled upon by neighbors and great powers alike.

Spokespeople for the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency said they were unable to comment on the situation in northern Iraq.