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Re: Halabja

Dear Glen,

Your research, as always, is remarkable. I must say you've settled any 
(extremely slight) doubts I had on Halabja. What relevance the controversy 
had to the question of Saddam's crimes I never understood, since it is in 
any case undisputed that he was responsible for the near-genocidal killing 
of Kurds across the North in the Anfal campaign (the numbers I've seen 
range from 100,000 to 182,000).

But I have a question over the parenthesis in your description of 
Pelletiere -- (also claims Iran was behind the 1991 intifada in southern 
Iraq). My impression, drawn from numerous sources I believe are more 
credible than Pelletiere, is that, while the intifada was started by 
soldiers returning from Kuwait and quickly grew to include large numbers of 
Sunnis as well as Shias, there was a point when Iran sent large numbers of 
militants from SCIRI and other sources into the south. They often bore 
before them huge banners of Khomeini. Many sources say that this was a huge 
tactical mistake, since it turned off even many Iraqi Shias who wanted to 
overthrow Saddam but had fought Iran and were not interested in creating an 
Islamic state.

Does this differ from your impression?

In solidarity,

Rahul Mahajan

>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
> >
> > --
> > -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> > This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq
> > For removal from list, email
> > CASI's website - - includes an archive of all postings.
> >
>Glen Rangwala
>Faculty of Social and Political Sciences
>Free School Lane
>CB2 3RQ
>Tel: 44 (0)7930 627944
>Fax: 44 (0)7092 330826
>This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq
>For removal from list, email
>CASI's website - - includes an archive of all postings.

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