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Re: Halabja

Dear Mark

I've refrained from posting to the list before on this issue, out of
concern that it will provoke a more substantial (and to my mind,
fruitless) discussion. No doubt someone will come back at this with
further, tortuous explications in an attempt to demonstrate that it
really was the Iranians that did it. But nevertheless, since you ask, and
in an attempt to correct some of the misinterpretations put around
previously, here goes.

The source for most of these "exposes" of Halabja was a report entitled
'Iraqi power and US security in the Middle East' by Stephen Pelletiere
(trained in politics, also claims Iran was behind the 1991 intifada in
Southern Iraq), ret. Colonel Douglas V. Johnson (trained in strategic
studies) and Leif Rosenberger (trained in economics). It was published by
the US Army War College - not usually a source that campaigners take as
providing the gospel truth. I mention the authors' academic background
only in order to point out that none of them (to my knowledge) are
trained in chemistry or medical diagnostics. As far as I'm aware, the IHT
piece of 1990 was just referring to this study (though I haven't seen
that article directly).

Contrary to the claim made in one of the authors cited by Ghazwan it
cannot be said that this book "examined very closely the behaviour of the
Iraqi army during the hostilities with Iran". Indeed, it only makes brief
mention of Halabja, and then only assertively (no evidence is offered). On
page 52 of the book it is simply written:

"In March 1988, the Kurds at Halabjah were bombarded with chemical
weapons, producing a great many deaths. Photographs of the Kurdish victims
were widely disseminated in the international media. Iraq was blamed for
the Halabjah attack, even though it was subsequently brought out that Iran
too had used chemicals in this operation, and it seemed likely that it was
the Iranian bombardment that had actually killed the Kurds."

That's it, the basis of much of the claims that have been circulating on
casi-discuss for the last few years.

So why did these authors take this line? Well, the focus of their study
is not on Halabja, human rights in Iraq or international welfare, but is
indicated by the title of the study, "US security in the Middle East".
Straight after making their claim on Halabja, the authors detail what
they mean by "US security in the Middle East":

"As a result of the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq is now the most
powerful state in the Persian Gulf, an area in which we have vital
interests. To maintain an uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf to the
West, we need to develop good working relations with all of the Gulf
states, and particularly with Iraq, the strongest." (p.53)

This is two sentences after their take on Halabja. Human rights
organisations' attempts to penalise Iraq are "without sufficient thought
for the adverse diplomatic effects" (p.53). Again, p.57: "under pressure
from the Iraqis, all the Arab states of the Gulf - with the possible
exception of Oman - would tacitly support a move to withdraw US
privilieges in the Gulf" - and so Iraq needs to be kept on side, lest "US
privileges" be withdrawn.

OK, that's the ad hominem attack as such. Turning to the actual arguments
themselves, Douglas Johnson has explained them in a little more detail in
personal correspondence with a colleague of mine. The sole evidential
material provided is that the photos of Kurdish victims showed blue
discoloration of extremities, and this was an indication of use of a
cyanide compound, most probably hydrogen cyanide or its derivatives
("blood gas"); since it was claimed that Iraq did not make use of
hydrogen cyanide, someone else must have done it. Therefore (the argument
goes), it must have been Iran. This is coupled with a claim that since
Halabja was only recently captured by the Iranian-backed Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan, there was probably an Iranian mix-up and the Iranians ended
up bombing their own side.

The problems with this argument are numerous. Most obviously, why on earth
would Iran bomb a town so extensively whose inhabitants were among the
core supporters of their ally, the PUK? The argument of "fog of war" fails
to hold, even if the Iranian air force had thought that Iraqi troops were
still present in Halabja.

Even that seems unlikely: the PUK captured Halabja on 15 March 1988. They
were accompanied by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who
coordinated PUK actions. The town was fully under PUK/Iranian control 4
hours after they entered the town. The eyewitness testimony collected by
Physicians for Human Rights and by British filmmaker Gwynne Roberts, who
was in Halabja & captured the attack and aftermath on film, confirms this:
the PUK controlled all exits to the town, and were preventing civilians
from leaving as they thought that the Iraqis would not spread their
artillery bombardment of surrounding areas to the centre of the town if
it was fully inhabited (human shields). I find it hard to believe that
with Iranian troops in the town for 36 hours before the chemical
weapons attacks, the field commanders still thought that Iraqi forces
were still in possession of the town.

The actual attack began at nightfall on the 16th, when 8 aircraft dropped
chemical bombs; they were followed throughout the night by 14 aircraft
sorties, with 7 to 8 planes in each group. Intermittent bombardment
continued until the 18th (some reports say the morning of the 19th). If
the Johnson et al argument is to be believed, Iranians were bombing their
own elite units and key supporters for 48 hours, even though news reports
were already circulating about the defeat of Iraqi troops on the 15th.

Regarding the nature of the CWs used - the crucial element in Johnson's
analysis - the most detail survey of the medical effects was done by
Professor Christine Gosden, a medical geneticist from Liverpool Uni, who
has (I think) done the only survey into the long-term effects of the CW
attack (obvious access problems until recently). From looking at the
health problems of those who were victims of the attacks on Halabja, her
results show that mustard gas, sarin, tabun and VX were used in the

Prior UN investigations had catalogued Iraqi use of Tabun and mustard gas
from 1983, but ongoing into the later stages of the war (see in particular
the specialist report of the UN Sec-Gen of 26/3/84, and the UN expert
commission report on use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war doc no.
S/18852 of 1988). Iraqi use of sarin and VX has been widely
asserted (the former, by the Physicians for Human Rights in soil sampling
from Birjinni: So it
seems quite clear that all the chemical agents that Gosden traces the use
of at Halabja had been used previously by Iraq.

By contrast, I have seen no reliable analysis of Iranian use of either
Tabun or Hydrogen Cyanide - Dr Johnson doesn't tell us that he has any
such evidence either: all he says is that there was no previous use of
cyanide from the Iraqi side, and infers from this that it must have been
the Iranians. By contrast, the presence of cyanide which Dr Johnson claims
(but is still disputed; the claim stems primarily from Iranian autopsies
on victims I believe, but are not independently confirmed) is perfectly
explicable in terms of Iraqi use of Tabun. Gosden says:

"The Halabja attack involved multiple chemical agents -- including mustard
gas, and the nerve agents SARIN, TABUN and VX. Some sources report that
cyanide was also used. It may be that an impure form of TABUN, which has a
cyanide residue, released the cyanide compound."
(; reposted in
a better format at:

The only credible report that Johnson himself cites in his defence, a PhD
from Syracuse University in 1993 - rather than supporting Johnson's case -
shows that the decomposition of the chemical agent, Tabun (which Iraq did
use) produces a cyanide compound. Iraq didn't need to use hydrogen cyanide
directly in order to produce blue discoloration around mouths. Its
established repertoire of chemicals did that as well.

This interpretation has also been supported by the Jean Pascal
Zanders, Project Leader of the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute's Chemical and Biological Warfare Project, who conducted
interviews with victims of Halabja brought to Brussels for treatment.
Zanders argues that direct use of hydrogen cyanide at Halabja was
unlikely. Hydrogen cyanide is itself highly volatile. It must be
delivered on the target in huge quantities to be effective and its effects
are gone in a matter of seconds. The heat in Halabja would have rendered
this even more problematic. Furthermore, the flashpoint of hydrogen
cyanide is very low which means that it easily explodes. So at least some
bombs or containers with the agent, if that was the method of delivery,
would have exploded upon impact. There are no reports of any such
explosions (unlike the many accounts of French drums filled with hydrogen
cyanide exploding in mid-air or upon impact when lobbed towards the German
trenches in WWI).

Finally, there is no evidence of Iranian use of hydrogen cyanide either.
Iran has submitted its declarations on past CW programmes to the
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international
body overseeing the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
International inspectors have verified these declarations, including those
regarding former CW production facilities. Zanders mentions that Iran
only had pilot plant-scale CW production facilities towards the end of and
just after the war. He argues that Iran does not in retrospect appear to
have had the capability to mount a major CW attack. This is consistent
with UN reports of the time (including the 1988 report referred to above)
which found no evidence of large scale Iranian use (it is probable,
though, that there were small trial uses by Iran in 1987).

So, in summary, either the atrocity at Halabja was carried out by the
Iraqi military against their enemies - with a set of chemical
warfare agents that they had a record of use prior to Halabja, and with
a proven reputation for using chemical weapons in large amounts against
civilians (the mustard gas attacks on Majnun island in September 1984 are
estimated to have killed 40,000 people) - or by the Iranians, against
their own allies and soldiers in an attack using chemicals that there's no
evidence that they ever have had. If you still choose to believe the
latter, you should be aware that the only original report I know of that
supports your position is primarily concerned with maintaining friendly
relations with Iraq for oil and geostrategic reasons, and shows little
understanding of the nature of the chemical agents used in the war.

I hope this is useful.

Best regards

On Mon, 7 Jan 2002 wrote:

> At the time, the Kurds and human rights groups said that it was
> Iraq. The UK & US governments were directly and indirectly
> blaming Iran and shifting the blame away from Iraq. Again at the
> time, I took this to be 'proof' of Iraq's guilt as the US/UK were
> strongly supporting SH.
> It would be interesting to know the truth rather than the US/UK spin
> and misinformation from the time.
> Mark Parkinson
> Bodmin
> Cornwall
> --
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Glen Rangwala

Faculty of Social and Political Sciences
Free School Lane
Tel: 44 (0)7930 627944
Fax: 44 (0)7092 330826

This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq
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