As American military planners consider ways to bring down Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds warn that the Iraqi leader will likely respond to any such attack by deploying weapons of mass destruction as he has done in the past.
The memory of every Iraqi Kurd is seared with vivid images of Baghdad's 1988 genocide against its own ethnic Kurds when troops loyal to the Iraqi strongman were under orders to kill every Kurdish male in northern Iraq between the ages of 18 and 55. During the Anfal campaign, rights groups say more than 100,000 men disappeared, 4,000 villages were destroyed, and 60 more villages were subject to chemical weapons attack.
Some 5,000 Kurds died during the gassing of Halabja alone. The photograph of a man shielding an infant with his body both killed by gas has become an icon of Kurdish suffering and of Iraqi war crimes.
The Kurds armed opponents of the Baghdad regime for decades could play a key role in US plans, and therefore be singled out again for retribution by Mr. Hussein. But Kurds say not only they are at risk: Anyone taking on Hussein's armies, as far away as Israel, could be targeted.
"There is no hesitation of the regime to use such weapons against any country, anywhere, against any army," says Fouad Baban, head of the Halabja Medical Institute. "[Saddam Hussein] doesn't keep weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent but to use them."
President Bush has made clear he wants to topple the regime. The Pentagon is considering military options possibly timed to begin early next year that would overthrow Hussein with a heavy US air campaign and a ground invasion.
Kurds in northern Iraq say that would serve justice for the man who has harmed them for decades. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch, after a three-year investigation of 18 tons of captured Iraqi documents, forensic examination of several mass graves, and hundreds of eyewitness accounts, concludes of the 1988 campaign: "The Iraqi regime committed the crime of genocide."
And survivors do have stories to tell that add up to war crimes.
Abdulsalam Khalil-Mohamed says he was one of six men who survived a mass shooting during the 1988 attack on the Kurdish village of Koreme. After they witnessed the gassing of a nearby village the helicopters dropping chemical munitions, survivors say they were surrounded by Iraqi troops. The 33 men were separated, Mr. Khalil-Mohamed recalls. Amid a chorus of wailing, Khalil-Mohamed's brother handed over his two-year-old son to his wife. Shortly after the women and children were marched away, he recalls, the men were forced into a crude line.
One Iraqi lieutenant called Mohamed told them to move closer together. "They told us: 'Don't be afraid. Soon you will be back with your families,' " Khalil-Mohamed says.
But then the soldiers opened fire. "The one next to me was shot in the head and fell on me," he recalls. Lying wounded amid the carnage, he was then shot in the back, as Iraqi soldiers moved in to finish the job. His brother was dead. But Khalil-Mohamed survived and learned a lesson that he says the US should heed.
"If the US is going to attack Saddam Hussein, and if Saddam has a chance to attack the Kurds with chemical or other weapons, he will not hesitate," the gray-mustachioed survivor says.
Any such reaction will be a key calculation by American military planners, as they weigh the risks of attempting to overthrow Hussein. While targeting Israel with Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, it is widely believed that Iraq did not use nonconventional warheads, because of explicit warnings of a possible US or Israeli nuclear response.
Today, Iraq's exact chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities remain unknown, since United Nations weapons inspectors were kicked out in 1998. While they made broad progress up to that point, few dispute that Iraq's programs and expertise were among the most sophisticated in the Middle East.
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.
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."
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."
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."