As a footnote to how the Halabja atrocities (which will go down in history as "when Saddam gassed the Kurds") have been referred to, here and everywhere, in the discussions surrounding the rationale of the Iraq war, this article. "Footnote" because it's a little late to play the who did and said what, when game now, in terms of who took a stand on Halabja, back then, and who didn't; plus, the article's already almost a year old, as well. But considering how often it's come up, a worthwile enough footnote: a reporter's frustration about the belated outrage over "Halabja".
Halabja: whom does the truth hurt?
Fifteen years after the gassing of 5000 Kurdish civilians in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988, journalist Adel Darwish recalls how American and British governments, and a tame media, stonewalled those who tried to report the atrocity - and the truth it revealed about Saddam Hussein.
In his long reign of calculated cruelty Saddam has used every means available to him – from assassination, kidnapping and torture, to full-scale war, poison gas, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportation. But even by his standards, the gassing of civilians in Halabja on 16 March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, is an act with few parallels. It has also become the test case, repeatedly cited in recent months of build-up to another war, of how “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people”.
But there are a few outstanding questions regarding Halabja, and Saddam is not the only villain.
For years before this particular atrocity, only a handful of London-based reporters and regional specialists (including myself) condemned Saddam. Ours were lone and isolated voices. Most western media organisations lapped up the deliberately misleading agenda set by lobby briefings and the White House and State Department. In the words of Geoffrey Kemp, at the time the head of the Near & Middle East at the State Department - Saddam was “our son of a bitch”.
The Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, was relentlessly demonised by US government sources, and a steady stream of stories appeared about children who were sent to clear minefields armed only with plastic keys to the ‘pearly gate’ of martyrdom. Khomeini was the monster who had to be stopped by all means, even if it meant enlisting the support of neighbourhood gangster Saddam Hussein.
The first recorded use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war was in 1982, two years into the conflict. Both sides used them, but Saddam was the first, in response to Iran’s vast manpower that had begun to turn the tide on Iraq’s initial advances.
On more than one occasion, seasoned British foreign correspondents – very much the minority in the press corps - informed the British and American embassies in Baghdad of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. It was even discovered that some of Saddam’s mustard gas was delivered by British-made artillery shells (although there is no suggestion of British involvement in modifying their use).
British and American diplomats refused to act on anything other than material evidence. They never sought such proof themselves, and knew full well that it was near impossible for we reporters to secure it. One journalist who tried, Farzad Bazoft of The Observer, was caught at Baghdad airport in 1989 with soil samples that would have provided crucial evidence. He was jailed, tortured, forced to sign a confession of being a spy, and executed on 15 March 1990. [..]
Even after the war ended, Saddam continued to use chemical agents to settle scores with the Kurds. Beekeepers on the Turkish side of the border reported the death of their bees as the wind carried a whiff of poison gas that Saddam had sprayed miles away in Kurdistan. But official voices in Washington and London maintained their silence.
Now that Saddam is no longer the favoured ‘son of a bitch’ of Washington and London, the State Department and the Foreign Office make frequent reference to Halabja, trying to convince those of us who reported Saddam’s atrocities long before them, of what a monster the man is. These are some of the same people who tried to discredit us when we first reported his atrocities two decades ago. [..]