ERBIL, IRAQ — This week, Kurds in northern Iraq commemorate the 25th anniversary of one of the most barbaric war crimes since WWII: the mass murder of civilians using chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein.
Within months of the March 16 attack, the United States Senate determined that the chemical attack against the city of Halabja by the Iraqi Air Force was a “genocide,” after a fact-finding team dispatched to interview refugees along the Turkey-Iraq border pieced together eyewitness accounts to reconstruct an accurate account of the events.
The Halabja chemical weapons attack killed somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians, according to eyewitness accounts. It came midway through a two-year-long campaign that Saddam Hussein and his henchmen called the “Anfal,” a Koranic term meaning “spoils of war,” which was designed to eradicate the Kurds from northern Iraq.
In all, some 4,000 Kurdish villages were bulldozed, bombed, or otherwise destroyed by the Iraqis during the Anfal, along with 106 Assyrian Christian villages targeted because their inhabitants were believed to have supported the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, told a conference here on Thursday that of the 182,000 Kurds who disappeared during the Anfal, so far researchers and families have only discovered the remains of 3,000. The others are believed to be “lying in the deserts of Southern Iraq,” Barzani said.
“The people of Kurdistan need to be compensated, especially by many of the companies and the countries that helped the regime of Saddam Hussein to build these chemical weapons,” he added.
Just three years after the Halabja attack, I identified more than 400 Western and Third World companies that had delivered equipment, built factories, or otherwise contributed to Saddam Hussein’s vast WMD infrastructure. I published many of the names of these companies in “The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq” in 1992.
But the overwhelming majority of the technical expertise, know-how, and design information for Saddam’s chemical weapons plants came from German companies. And yet, with a few notable exceptions, none of these companies or individuals have paid any price for their role in the Kurdish genocide.
Post-World War II German governments have paid reparations to Israel for the genocide of the Jews carried out by Nazi Germany. And in 1992, the German government again chose to acknowledge guilt toward the state of Israel when it offered to provide, free of charge, two Dolphin-class diesel-powered submarines, worth around $650 million, to compensate Israel for Iraqi attacks using SCUD missiles that had been modified and improved by German companies.
A similar arrangement appears to be brewing today.
In February, the German minister of transport, building and urban development led a delegation of German businessmen to Kurdistan to seek expanded commercial ties. According to Kurdish officials, he said that Germany had “missed an opportunity” to make amends to the Kurds for German involvement in Saddam’s chemical weapons programs by not taking part in the 2003 war to liberate Iraq.
And on Thursday night, just as the Kurdish government was holding a conference in Erbil to commemorate the genocide, the German parliament held a special session in Berlin to discuss the massacre and the possibility of providing special assistance to survivors and to families of the victims.
The horror of the Halabja attack was first revealed to the world by Iranian photographer Ahmed Nateghi, who had been embedded with an Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit fighting on the front lines with Iraq.
Several days before the chemical weapons strike, the Iranians had “liberated” Halabja, which is near the Iranian border, and had paraded through the city streets in uniform accompanied by Iraqi civilians.
Nateghi and a few colleagues prepared to enter Halabja on a victory tour on the afternoon of March 16. But as they approached the city, they noticed aircraft dropping bombs, and further along, they came across abandoned houses and dead animals.
And then, they stumbled upon the corpses: men and women slumped over children whose bodies they had been trying to protect, seemingly struck down by some monstrous scourge that had sucked the life out of them.
A few days later, the Iranian regime brought in photographers and TV crews from around the world to document the killing. Because of those photographs, the world now knows what happened at Halabja.
The nerve gas used by Saddam’s Air Force in Halabja was produced in German-built factories in Samarra and Fallujah. It was delivered for the most part in Spanish-made bombs, from Russian, French, and Swiss-built aircraft.
Gavi Mairone, a human rights lawyer working with the Global Justice Group, has spoken with more than 1,000 survivors and relatives of victims of the Halabja and other chemical weapons attacks. He announced on Thursday in Erbil a strategy to get justice for the victims and their families.
“The victims want to return hatred and death with compassion,” he said. “They want to give the companies involved in building Saddam’s chemical weapons factories an opportunity to make amends at a truth, reconciliation, and reparations conference on October 1-3 in The Hague. If they decline, we are prepared to file lawsuits against 20 companies, nine in Germany, two French, two Dutch, two Spanish, one Indian, one Japanese, and one American.”
Mairone’s firm, MM-Law of Chicago, has been working on the case for three years and has assembled more than 10,000 documents. Most of the companies have been identified in declassified documents from the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Adalat Omar, 43, is a Kurdish researcher who has spent much of the past 13 years documenting the genocide of the Kurds.
One of the tools she used was the official Iraqi government census. “I compared the list of villages in Kurdish areas from 1977, to 1987, and then to 1997, and found more than 4,000 villages that were erased from the map during the genocide.”
She also found the orders signed by Saddam Hussein to use “special weapons” against the Kurds, starting as early as 1983. Many of her documents were used in the trial of Saddam Hussein by the Iraqi court that ultimately sentenced him to death in 2006.
“We want to make sure that the companies who profited from building chemical weapons in Iraq are never able to do this again,” said Mairone. “We’re looking for an end to impunity.”
Kenneth R. Timmerman is the founder and president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran. He is working as a consultant to the Global Justice Group in the Halabja case.