Military Wiki
Halabja chemical attack
Part of Al-Anfal Campaign and Operation Zafar 7
(during the Iran-Iraq War)
File:Chemical weapons Halabja Iraq March 1988.jpg
Dead children in a street of Halabja after the attack
A photo by Iranian photographer Sayeed Janbozorgi (three more). Janbozorgi died in 2003 due to chemical injuries from the war.
DateMarch 16, 1988
Location35°11′N 45°59′E / 35.183°N 45.983°E / 35.183; 45.983 (Halabja Poison Gas Attack)Coordinates: 35°11′N 45°59′E / 35.183°N 45.983°E / 35.183; 45.983 (Halabja Poison Gas Attack)
Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan
Result Kurds and Iranian forces abandon Halabja, subsequent capture and demolition of the city by Iraqi forces
Iraq Ba'athist Iraq  Iran
 Iraqi Kurdistan
Commanders and leaders
Ali Hassan al-Majid
Casualties and losses
3,200-5,000 killed; 7,000-10,000 injured

The Halabja chemical attack (Kurdish: کیمیابارانی ھەڵەبجە Kîmyabarana Helebce), also known as the Halabja Massacre or Bloody Friday,[1] was a genocidal massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Southern Kurdistan. The attack was part of the Al-Anfal campaign in northern Iraq, as well as part of the Iraqi attempt to repel the Iranian Operation Zafar 7. It took place 48 hours after the fall of the town to the Iranian forces and Kurdish guerrillas.

The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians.[1][2] Thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack.[3] The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq,[4] was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.[5]

The Halabja attack has been recognized as a separate event from the Anfal Genocide that was also conducted against the Kurdish people by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein.[6] The Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the Halabja massacre as an act of genocide on March 1, 2010, a decision welcomed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The attack was also condemned as a crime against humanity by the Parliament of Canada.[7]


File:کودکان حلبچه.jpg

Local children posing with a defaced portrait of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein

Northern Iraq was an area of general unrest during the early stage of the brutal Iran-Iraq War, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan militias joining forces, with Iranian support, in 1982 and 1983, respectively. The Kurdish rebellion was largely put down by mid-1980s. From 1985, however, the Iraqi Ba'athist regime under Saddam Hussein decided to eradicate pockets of Kurdish resistance in the north and strike down the Peshmerga by all means possible, including large-scale punishment of civilians and the use of chemical weapons. The Halabja event was also part of Iraqi efforts to counter-attack Kurdish and Iranian forces in the final stages of Operation Zafar 7.

Chemical attack

The five-hour attack began in the evening of March 16, 1988, following a series of indiscriminate conventional (rocket and napalm) attacks. Iraqi MiG and Mirage aircraft began dropping chemical bombs on Halabja's residential areas, far from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town. According to regional Kurdish rebel commanders, Iraqi aircraft, coordinated by helicopters, conducted up to 14 bombings in sorties of seven to eight planes each. Eyewitnesses told of clouds of white, black and then yellow smoke billowing upward and rising as a column about 150 feet (46 m) in the air.[1]

"It was a beautiful spring day. As the clock approached 11:00 in the morning, I felt a strange sensation; my heart convulsed as if it were telling me that we were on the verge of a major calamity. Within minutes, artillery rounds began to explode in Halabja and planes began dropping bombs on the town. The bombing was concentrated on the northern neighborhoods, so we ran and hid in our basement. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, as the intensity of the bombing wound down, I carefully sneaked out of the basement to the kitchen and carried food to my family. When the bombing stopped, we began to hear noises that sounded like metal pieces falling on the ground. But I didn’t find an explanation.

I saw things that I won't forget for as long as I live. It started with a loud strange noise that sounded like bombs exploding, and a man came running into our house, shouting, 'Gas! Gas!' We hurried into our car and closed its windows. I think the car was rolling over the bodies of innocent people. I saw people lying on the ground, vomiting a green-colored liquid, while others became hysterical and began laughing loudly before falling motionless onto the ground. Later, I smelled an aroma that reminded me of apples and I lost consciousness. When I awoke, there were hundreds of bodies scattered around me. After that I took shelter again in a nearby basement and the area was engulfed by an ugly smell. It was similar to rotting garbage, but then it changed to a sweet smell similar to that of apples. Then I smelled something that was like eggs.

When you hear people shouting the words 'gas' or 'chemicals' -- and you hear those shouts spreading among the people -- that is when terror begins to take hold, especially among the children and the women. Your loved ones, your friends, you see them walking and then falling like leaves to the ground. It is a situation that cannot be described -- birds began falling from their nests; then other animals, then humans. It was total annihilation. Whoever was able to walk out of the town, left on foot. Whoever had a car, left by car. But whoever had too many children to carry on their shoulders, they stayed in the town and succumbed to the gas."[8]

Survivors said the gas at first smelled of sweet apples[9] and reported that people died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals. Some of the victims "just dropped dead" while others "died of laughing," while still others took a few minutes to die, first "burning and blistering" or coughing up green vomit.[10] Many were injured or perished in the panic that followed the attack, especially those who were blinded by the chemicals.[11] It is believed that Iraqi forces used multiple chemical agents during the attack, including sulfur mustard (mustard gas) and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX.[3] Some sources have also pointed to the blood agent hydrogen cyanide. Most of the wounded taken to hospitals in the Iranian capital Tehran were suffering from mustard gas exposure.[1]

Some consider the event as separate from the Operation Anfal (the 1986–1989 campaign conducted by Saddam's regime's in order to terrorize the Kurdish rural population and end the peshmerga rebellions by brutal means), as the Iranian troops allied to the rebels were also involved in the Halabja events. Nevertheless, the victims of the tragedy are often included in accounting the deaths attributable to the Anfal campaign, which was characterised by the widespread and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by Iraq. Prior to the Halabja incident there were at least 21 documented smaller-scale chemical attacks against Iraqi Kurds, none of which prompted any serious response from the international community.[12]


Discovery and response

File:حلبچه‌ها به سوی بالگرد ایرانی.jpg

Iranian helicopter evacuating survivors

The first images after the attack were taken by Iranian journalists who later spread the pictures in Iranian newspapers. Footage taken by a British ITN camera crew, airlifted by the Iranians,[13] was also shown worldwide via news programmes. Some of those first pictures were taken by Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan, who described the scene to Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times. He was about eight kilometres outside Halabja with a military helicopter when the Iraqi MiG-23 fighter-bombers flew in. He said "it was not as big as a nuclear mushroom cloud, but several smaller ones: thick smoke." Golestan was shocked by the scenes on his arrival in the town, though he had seen gas attacks before at the front lines:

"It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. (...) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl's mouth and she died in my arms."[14]

Saddam Hussein's government officially blamed Iran for the attack. Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz stated categorically: "There is no use of chemical weapons and no necessity of using them." The casualties were declared "chemical martyrs" by the Kurds.[12]

International response at the time was muted. The United States intelligence and government suggested that that Kurdish civilians were not a deliberate target, and even that Iran was indeed responsible.[13][15] A briefing paper by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated: "We believe it better to maintain a dialogue with others if we want to influence their actions. Punitive measures such as unilateral sanctions would not be effective in changing Iraq's behaviour over chemical weapons, and would damage British interests to no avail."[12]

Destruction and partial restoration of Halabja

An American officer patrolling a local cemetery for some 1,500 victims in 2003

Survivors assisted by peshmerga and Iranians hastily buried most of the dead in makeshift mass graves. After Halabja was retaken from Iranian and Kurdish rebel forces, Iraqi troops in NBC suits came to Halabja to study the effectiveness of their weapons and attacks. The town, still littered with unburied dead, was then systematically razed[11] by Iraqi forces using bulldozers and explosives. It was partially rebuilt by the returning Kurds later, even as chemical weapons contaminated the food and water supplies,[3] soil, and animal populations.[16] The Japanese government financed a $70 million project to provide access to safe drinking water.[17]

Medical and genetic consequences

Ten years later, in 1998, at least 700 people were still being treated for the severe aftereffects of the attack and 500 of them were judged to be critically ill, even as "the most severe cases may already have died."[12] In surveys by local doctors, a higher percentage of medical disorders, miscarriages (outnumbering live births[12] and 14 times higher than normal), colon cancer (10 times higher than normal), and heart diseases (quadrupled between 1990 and 1996[12]) were found in Halabja compared to Chamchamal. Additionally, "other cancers, respiratory ailments, skin and eye problems, fertility and reproductive disorders are measurably higher in Halabja and other areas caught in chemical attacks".[18] Some of those who survived the attack or were apparently injured only lightly at the time later developed medical problems doctors believe stemmed from the chemicals, and there are concerns that the attack may be having a lasting genetic impact on the Kurdish population, as preliminary surveys showed increased rates of birth defects.[18]

Trials of Saddam and 'Chemical Ali'

Saddam Hussein was not charged by the Iraqi Special Tribunal for crimes against humanity based on the events at Halabja. However, Iraqi prosecutors had "500 documented baskets of crimes during the Hussein regime" and Hussein was condemned to death based on just one case, the 1982 Dujail Massacre.[19] Among several documents revealed during the trial of Saddam Hussein, one was a 1987 memo from Iraq's military intelligence seeking permission from the president's office to use mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin against Kurds. A second document said in reply that Saddam had ordered military intelligence to study the possibility of a "sudden strike" using such weapons against Iranian and Kurdish forces. An internal memo written by military intelligence confirmed it had received approval from the president's office for a strike using "special ammunition" and emphasized that no strike would be launched without first informing the president. Saddam himself told the court: "In relation to Iran, if any military or civil official claims that Saddam gave orders to use either conventional or special ammunition, which as explained is chemical, I will take responsibility with honor. But I will discuss any act committed against our people and any Iraqi citizen, whether Arab or Kurdish. I don't accept any insult to my principles or to me personally."[20] Kurdish survivors had no doubt Saddam was personally responsible and were disappointed he was being tried only over the killings in Dujail.[21][22]

Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (who commanded Iraqi forces in northern Iraq during that period, which earned him a nickname of 'Chemical Ali') was condemned to death by hanging by an Iraqi court in January 2010, after being found guilty of orchestrating the Halabja massacre. Al-Majid was first sentenced to hang in 2007 for his role in a 1988 military campaign against ethnic Kurds, codenamed Anfal, and in 2008 he also twice received a death sentence for his crimes against the Iraqi Shia Muslims, in particular for his role in crushing the 1991 uprisings in southern Iraq and his involvement in the 1999 killings in the Sadr City district of Baghdad (then called Saddam City). Al-Majid did not express remorse at his trials, stating his actions were in the interests of Iraqi security. He was executed on January 25, 2010.[23]

International sources for technology and chemical precursors

The know-how and material for developing chemical weapons were obtained by Saddam's regime from foreign sources.[24] The largest suppliers of precursors for chemical weapons production were in Singapore (4,515 tons), the Netherlands (4,261 tons), Egypt (2,400 tons), India (2,343 tons), and West Germany (1,027 tons). One Indian company, Exomet Plastics, sent 2,292 tons of precursor chemicals to Iraq. The Singapore -based firm Kim Al-Khaleej, affiliated to the United Arab Emirates, supplied more than 4,500 tons of VX, sarin, and mustard gas precursors and production equipment to Iraq.[25] Dieter Backfisch, managing director of West German company Karl Kolb GmbH, was quoted by saying in 1989: "For people in Germany poison gas is something quite terrible, but this does not worry customers abroad."[24]

The 2002 International Crisis Group (ICG) no. 136 "Arming Saddam: The Yugoslav Connection" concludes it was "tacit approval" by many world governments that led to the Iraqi regime being armed with weapons of mass destruction, despite sanctions, because of the ongoing Iranian conflict.

On December 23, 2005, a Dutch court sentenced Frans van Anraat, a businessman who bought chemicals on the world market and sold them to Saddam's regime, to 15 years in prison. The court ruled that Saddam committed genocide against the people of Halabja;[26] this was the first time the Halabja attack was described as an act of genocide in a court ruling. In March 2008, the government of Iraq announced plans to take legal action against the suppliers of chemicals used in the poison gas attack.[27]

Among the chemical precursors provided to Iraq from American companies such as Alcolac International and Phillips was thiodiglycol, a substance needed to manufacture mustard gas, according to leaked portions of Iraq's "full, final and complete" disclosure of the sources for its weapons programs. The provision of chemical precursors from United States companies to Iraq was enabled by a Ronald Reagan Administration policy that removed Iraq from the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Alcolac was named as a defendant in the Aziz v. Iraq case presently pending in the United States District Court (Case No. 1:09-cv-00869-MJG). Both companies have since undergone reorganization. Phillips, once a subsidiary of Phillips Petroleum is now part of ConocoPhillips, an American oil and discount fossil fuel company. Alcolac International has since dissolved and reformed as Alcolac Inc.[28]


Allegations of Iranian involvement

An original bomb casing used as flower pot at the Halabja Memorial Monument in 2011

The U.S. State Department, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, took the official position that Iran was partly to blame.[15] A preliminary Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) study at the time reported that Iran was responsible for the attack, an assessment which was used subsequently by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for much of the early 1990s. The CIA's senior political analyst for the Iran-Iraq war, Stephen C. Pelletiere, co-authored an unclassified analysis of the war[29] which contained a brief summary of the DIA study's key points. The CIA altered its position radically in the late 1990s and cited Halabja frequently in its evidence of weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Pelletiere claimed that a fact that has not been successfully challenged is that Iraq was not known to have possessed the cyanide-based blood agents determined to have been responsible for the condition of the bodies that were examined,[30] and that blue discolorations around the mouths of the victims and in their extremities,[31] pointed to Iranian-used gas as the culprit. Leo Casey writing in Dissent Magazine argued that "none of the authors of these documents [...] had any expertise in medical and forensic sciences, and their speculation doesn't stand up to minimal scrutiny."[32]

Joost Hiltermann, who was the principal researcher for Human Rights Watch between 1992–1994, conducted a two-year study of the massacre, including a field investigation in northern Iraq. According to his analysis of thousands of captured Iraqi secret police documents and declassified U.S. government documents, as well as interviews with scores of Kurdish survivors, senior Iraqi defectors and retired U.S. intelligence officers, it is clear that Iraq carried out the attack on Halabja, and that the United States, fully aware of this, nevertheless accused Iran, Iraq's enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack.[15] This research concluded there were numerous other gas attacks, unquestionably perpetrated against the Kurds by the Iraqi armed forces. According to Hiltermann, the literature on the Iran-Iraq war reflects a number of allegations of chemical weapons use by Iran, but these are "marred by a lack of specificity as to time and place, and the failure to provide any sort of evidence." Hiltermann called these allegations "mere assertions" and added that "no persuasive evidence of the claim that Iran was the primary culprit was ever presented."[33] An investigation conducted by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, Project Leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, into responsibility for the Halabja massacre also concluded in 2007 that Iraq was the culprit, and not Iran.[34]

In August 2013, Foreign Policy charged, based on recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials, that the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. Saddam's military also received intelligence assistance from the CIA in 1987 prior to the Iraqis' early 1988 launch of sarin attacks to stop the potentially decisive Iranian offensive to capture the southern city of Basra, which would result in a collapse of Iraqi military and Iranian victory.[35]

2006 Halabja memorial riot

In March 2003, the Monument of Halabja Martyrs was built in the still largely ruined city. On March 16, 2006, a few thousand angry residents rioted at the site in protest of what they perceived as the neglect of the living and capitalizing on the tragedy by the Kurdish leadership. The memorial was set on fire, destroying most of its archives; one of the rioters was shot dead by the police and dozens of people were injured.[36][37] It was later rebuilt as the Halabja Memorial Monument, also known as Halabja Monument and Peace Museum.

In popular culture

  • The Industrial music band Skinny Puppy included a track "VX Gas Attack", based on the Halabja chemical attack, on their 1988 album VIVIsectVI. The backing video for this song used on their Too Dark Park album tour featured various video clips of the attack and its aftermath, including international news coverage.[38]
  • The character Sniper Wolf from the 1998 video game Metal Gear Solid is a Kurdish survivor of the attack, which forms part of her motivation for a revenge against the world.
  • The 2002 British post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later features a scene where the protagonist walks into a deserted diner and finds a dead mother clutching her dead child on the floor. The director's audio commentary reveals the scene was inspired by footage and pictures of the Halabja attack.
  • The 2006 documentary film Screamers about the Armenian American band System of a Down featured a significant segment on the Halabja gas attack.
  • In 2008, Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider released the album Silent City[39] in memory of the Halabja Massacre. As Kalhor has writes on the back cover, "The piece commemorates the Kurdish village of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is based on an altered Aminor scale and uses Kurdish themes to remember the Kurdish people." In 2011, Kayhan Kalhor, Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble performed Silent City at Sanders Theater. Silk Road Project released video of last part of the performance on YouTube.[40]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "BBC ON THIS DAY | 16 | 1988: Thousands die in Halabja gas attack". BBC News. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  2. "Halabja, the massacre the West tried to ignore". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Death Clouds: Saddam Hussein’s Chemical War Against the Kurds". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  4. 1988 Kurdish massacre labeled genocide, UPI, 8 March 2010
  5. "Chemical Weapons Programs - Iraq Special Weapons Facilities". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  6. "Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds? (Human Rights Watch Report, March 11, 1991)". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  7. "House adopts Karygiannis Motion on Halabja Gassing as a Crime Against Humanity". 2010-03-16. Retrieved 2010-03-19. 
  8. "Halabja: Survivors talk about horror of attack, continuing ordeal". 2008-03-15. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  9. "Birmingham - Your Community - The Smell of Apples". BBC. 2006-06-22. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  10. "Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds? (Human Rights Watch Report, March 11, 1991)". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 "'We blame Saddam for everything' | World news". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 "Saddam's secret weapon (Channel 4, 1988)". 1988-03-16. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Halabja: whom does the truth hurt?". openDemocracy. 2007-09-04. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  14. A committed defender of free expression[dead link]
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Hiltermann, Joost R. (2003-01-17). "Halabja - America didn't seem to mind poison gas". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  16. "Long term hazards of chemical weapon agents: Analysis of soil samples from Kurdistan". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  17. Revisiting Halabja, 20 years after chemical attack, town still bears scars, Kurd Net, 15.3.2008
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Middle East | Kurds look back with fear". BBC News. 2002-07-22. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  19. "Hussein executed with 'fear in his face'". 2006-12-30. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  20. "Saddam admits Iran gas attacks - Breaking News - World - Breaking News". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  21. Hawley, Caroline (2005-10-19). "Middle East | Halabja survivors seek justice". BBC News. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  22. "Halabja watches Hussein's trial and waits for Its day in court". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  23. "'Chemical Ali' executed in Iraq after Halabja ruling". BBC News. 2010-01-25. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Gesellschaft fuer bedrohte Voelker - Society for Threatened Peoples. "German and European firms were involved". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  25. "What Iraq Admitted About its Chemical Weapons Program". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  26. "Middle East | Saddam's 'Dutch link'". BBC News. 2005-12-23. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  27. Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Thomson Reuters Foundation | News, Information and Connections for Action". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  28. Jim Crogan (2003-03-20). "Made in the USA: A guide to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  29. "FMFRP 3-203 - Lessons Learned: Iran-Iraq War". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  30. "Iraq'S Chemical Warfare". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  31. "Iran Chemical Weapon Update - 1998". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  32. Casey, Leo (Summer 2003). "Questioning Halabja". Dissent Magazine. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  33. International Currency Review, Volume 34.
  34. "Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons: A Critical Analysis of Past Allegations | March 7, 2001 by Jean Pascal Zanders, SIPRI Chemical and Biological Warfare Project". Archived from the original on 2003-01-02. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  35. "Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran - By Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  36. "America Rebuilds II: Return to Ground Zero. Halabja Memorial". PBS. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  37. Cockburn, Patrick (2006-03-17). "Hundreds protest as Kurds remember Halabja gas attack - Middle East - World". The Independent. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  38. Skinny Puppy - VX Gas Attack
  39. "Silent City: Music". Retrieved 2013-08-28. 
  40. "The Silk Road Ensemble: Silent City". YouTube. 2011-08-25. Retrieved 2013-08-28. 


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