A plume of earth and dust rises high into the air as an Iraqi artillery shell explodes in a field to the north. The Iranian pilot points to it, then banks his helicopter hard right for a sweeping view of the valley below. More plumes suddenly rise above the nearby town of Dojaila. The helicopter circles back out of artillery range and flies low over Halabja. From the air the sprawling village appears a ghost town, its narrow streets empty except for debris blasted into the street by bombs dropped from Iraqi jets weeks earlier.
The bodies have long since been carried away and buried. Few residents of the Kurdish city remain in their homes. Most who survived Iraq's bombing and chemical attacks here on March 16-18 have fled to northern Iraq or refugee camps in Iran. Many others have been taken to hospitals in Iran for treatment.
The helicopter pilot deposits a group of reporters, gas masks slung over their shoulders, on a green pasture west of the village. Suddenly Halabja comes alive with an array of armed men.
Today, Halabja is a garrison town for units of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Kurdish guerrillas who helped push Iraqi forces back in the mid-March campaign. The capture of the town and surrounding areas marks the most significant advance of Iranian forces into Iraqi territory since the occupation of the strategic Faw Peninsula in southern Iraq in 1986.
But as much as any strategic gain, Iran views the battle at Halabja as having important symbolic value. It is believed to be the first time Iraq has used chemical weapons against a significant concentration of civilians, and Iran is hoping the incident will lead to international efforts to condemn and punish Iraq. (Interview with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Page 11.)
That is why, nearly three weeks after Iraq's chemical attacks, Iran is flying helicopter loads of journalists to Halabja to document what Iranian officials maintain are Iraqi war crimes.
The Iranians say that more than 5,000 persons died in the chemical attacks. The figure is described as a rough estimate by Iranian military officers. There has been no opportunity to verify independently the number killed or wounded.
In the meantime, Iran says it gained strategic artillery positions on heights near the eastern shore of Lake Darbandikhan. Iranian forces are reported to be close to capturing the dam with electricity generating turbines at the southern end of the lake. Iranian officials stress that a more important objective is the ability of Iranian artillery to disrupt troop and supply movements along the key road from the Iraqi stronghold at Sulaymaniyah to Kalar and other cities to the south.
``Any kind of movement Iraq has, they see it, and they hit it,'' says Sadiq Sadiq, an officer with the Revolutionary Guards stationed in the region. Iranian military officials note that the only other major supply road to Sulaymaniyah runs through areas where Kurdish guerrillas are active.
Farther north in the valley northwest of Halabja, Iranian forces are reported to be just outside the town of Sayyid Sadiq. Iranian officials are predicting the town will fall soon. The Iraqis have heavily bombed the town.
The Iranians say they will continue their push until they capture the provincial capital, Sulaymaniyah. The city is separated by about 50 miles of very mountainous terrain from Iraq's important Kirkuk oil fields. But an Iranian official who had been on the Halabja campaign suggested a broader Iranian strategy.
He said that in Iran's view there are three doors leading to an invasion and eventual fall of Iraq: one at Sulaymaniyah, one at Basra, and one at the central warfront east of Baghdad. The official said that at present all three doors are closed, meaning that Iraq has substantial forces at each area to hold off the numerically superior Iranians.
But if Iran was able to make a significant breakthrough (such as the threatened capture of Sulaymaniyah), triggering an emergency shift of Iraqi forces from other areas, a door somewhere else would open as reinforcements and equipment were moved north from the central warfront or Basra. He suggested that Iran would capitalize on any significant shift in Iraqi force strength by launching counterattacks in the weaker areas.
Under such circumstances the Iraqis are thought by military analysts to be likely to once again resort to the use of chemical weapons to halt an Iranian invasion. This is one reason Iran is pushing for international condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons. They are hoping that condemnation of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against civilians will help prevent Iraq's future use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers. That would help, in Iran's view, to clear the way for an all-out invasion of Iraq.
In the meantime, a debate has begun about whether Iran, too, has used chemical weapons on the warfront. Iraq maintains that Iran has used such weapons and has produced injured Iraqi soldiers as proof.
Iran says that Iraq may have mistakenly bombed its own troops.
``We have absolutely refrained from the use of chemical weapons in spite of the fact that we have the capability to produce and deploy them,'' Kamal Kharrazi, head of Iran's War Information Headquarters, said last week.
But he added, ``You have to know our patience has limits. We are now waiting for international bodies to do something to prevent the continued use of chemical weapons by our enemy. At this stage it doesn't mean we aren't going to use chemical weapons.''
Since the Halabja attacks, Iran has accused Iraq of continuing to carry out chemical weapons attacks. From March 21-26, Iran says, Iraq chemically bombed five Kurdish villages in the vicinity of Qara Dagh, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq. And on April 2 and 3, Iran says, Iraq dropped chemical weapons on three villages near Paveh in Iran, injuring 15 civilians. The reports could not be independently verified. Requests last week to visit Paveh were denied by Iranian officials.
An Iraqi pilot shot down and captured by Iran on March 17 in a region south of Halabja said he was surprised when he was shown the Iranian video tape showing that Kurdish civilians had remained in the city with the advancing Iranian forces. He said Iraqi pilots assumed that the Iraqi Kurds of Halabja had fled before the Iranian soldiers arrived in the city.
The pilot, Maj. Ahmad Shaker of Iraq's 44th Squadron, is now a prisoner of war held in Tehran. He agreed to speak to reporters and said he had not been forced by Iran to hold the press conference.
Major Shaker said that pilots were aware that Iraq from time to time used chemical weapons against Iranian troops if they were threatening to break through Iraqi defensive positions in Iraq. He estimated that 20 to 25 jets, each carrying three or four, ``special bombs'' took part in the chemical attacks in and around Halabja in mid-March.
The pilot denied that he dropped any ``special bombs'' near Halabja. He admitted, however, that he had dropped chemical weapons on marshy areas outside Basra on the southern warfront in 1983.
Shaker, who has a wife and three children in Baghdad, said he didn't consider himself guilty for his involvement in dropping chemical bombs. ``We are under orders. We are officers. We have to fly when the orders come,'' Shaker said.
He said that Iraq had two types of chemical weapons, as he put it ``one is very dangerous and the other is soft.''
Iranian officials say Shaker was referring to cyanide bombs, which kill within 10 seconds, and mustard gas, which is slower acting and remains in the air for up to 20 minutes.
The Iraqi pilot said, ``God will ask us, all of us, about this bad method of killing.''
And he added, ``I ask all nations in the world to put this war in their mind and work and work and work in order to bring an end to the war.''