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The World | COLUMN ONE

A Stricken Land in the Cross Hairs

The town of Halabja, gassed by Hussein in '88, is a metaphor for Iraqi Kurds still at his mercy while facing a new peril: Islamic extremists.

January 13, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

HALABJA, Iraq — At the rim of the cotton fields below the foothills, the melting morning frost makes mud of the roads. Men with prayer beads in their hands and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders walk beside mass graves of past atrocities. Then they point to the mountains, where this town's newest threat lurks in crevices and bunkers beyond the snowline.

Halabja is a place of sorrow and peril. In 1988, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces dropped bombs of mustard gas, sarin and other poisons, killing 5,000 ethnic Kurds and leaving a legacy of birth defects and cancer. The town worries it will be struck again by a desperate Hussein seeking to turn the land of his Kurdish enemies into ashes during an American invasion.

"Hussein poured his anger out on a people he hated before," said Hushiyar Kareem Afrasyab, who lost 36 relatives in the attacks 15 years ago. "We expect it to happen again. We have nothing to save us. No gas masks. No chemicals suits. No medicines. We have only the experience of what happened the first time."

Now a new enemy faces Halabja -- and to a broader extent the United States -- from the heights above town. Between 500 and 700 guerrillas known as Ansar al-Islam are camped on the ridges with mortars and sniper rifles. The mostly Kurdish Islamic militants are battling pro-Western Kurdish fighters over the soul of northern Iraq, where religious fundamentalism seeps in from Iran and the U.S. is attempting to shape democracy in mountain hamlets controlled by tribes and clans.

"There is much at stake," said Baba Hama Hassan, a Halabja fireman who lost most of his family in the 1988 chemical attacks. "A deep religious Islamic thinking is trying to control the region. They are spending money on mosques to encourage their dominance. We are fighting this backward idea, but the Islamic militants are betting that the West won't help the Kurds in their dream of independence. They are saying, 'The West will abandon you, and then you'll come back to us.' That would be a big problem for the U.S."

Iraqi Kurdistan is the rugged northern territory controlled by two rival political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Home to about 3.5 million Kurds, the region is an autonomous statelet protected from the Iraqi army by a "no-fly" zone patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes. It's also a potential route for U.S. forces invading Iraq.

The Kurds enjoy 13% of Iraq's oil revenues under the U.N. "oil-for-food" program and have long sought independence. But under U.S. pressure, and fearing reprisals from Turkey and Iran if they form their own nation, Kurdish leaders have agreed to take part in an Iraqi federation government if the Hussein regime falls.

The troubled history and tenuous future of Halabja are in many ways a metaphor for Kurdistan. The town bustles with fruit sellers, butchers and tailors. Women in chadors billow through alleys flecked with the sparks of metal grinders and the wood smell of carpenters. Kids play marbles in the dirt. But it is also sullen, a place of monuments to biological and chemical attacks and a place to wait for and weather the dangers of tomorrow.

"I have seen the village change," said Dr. Fouad Baban, who moved from Halabja to the nearby Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. He treats hundreds of cases of blindness, cleft palates and cancers that have resulted from the 1988 attack. "I was born and schooled there. When I go back there now I see a different people. Their trust has changed. Their way of life has changed.

"The people see themselves as sacrificed for nothing," he added. "A Kurdish poet once said, 'If you have lost everything, you have nothing to do but pray.' "

Aras Abid Akram lost his parents, seven sisters and three brothers in the attacks. He found his loved ones in the scoop of a front-end loader hauling away bodies after Halabja was coated with chemicals and nerve agents, including VX and Tabun. Their bodies were blistered and swollen and "a smell I can't describe, like fumes, came out of their mouths," said Akram, director of Halabja's Save the Children chapter.

His office is cold, its walls covered with murals of death -- a child suffocated and lying in a road, a clump of bodies near a doorstep. A wiry man with a thin nose and a full mustache, Akram spoke of March 16, 1988. Hussein's forces, who were shelling the Iranian army near the border that day toward the end of an eight-year war, decided to test chemical weapons on Kurdish villages, including Halabja's population of about 50,000. Conventional bombs were dropped first to frighten people into their basements, where their breathing space would be limited. Then came the "damp sounds," said Akram, whose story lasted through three cups of tea.

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