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Powell Visits Site of '88 Chemical Attack in Iraq

Kurds of Halabja cheer the secretary of State, who vows that the world won't forget them.

September 16, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

HALABJA, Iraq — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday visited the site of Saddam Hussein's most infamous atrocity, the use of poison gas to kill 5,000 people that made this town eager for the U.S. intervention that toppled the Iraqi regime.

Powell's stop at the scene of the deadliest use of gas since World War II came as David Kay, the CIA special advisor directing the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, prepared his first report on what has been found.

The failure by the United States, so far, to find either weapons ready for use or ingredients for their production continues to spark questions about the U.S.-led war. The controversy has been particularly painful for Powell, who dramatically presented U.S. intelligence claims of Iraq's deadliest arms to the United Nations in February.

In stark contrast to his one-day stop in Baghdad, where he was largely confined to a U.S.- secured area, Powell was mobbed in Halabja by Iraqis, some of whom lost up to two dozen relatives in the 1988 chemical attack. Kurdish leaders who control this region of northern Iraq said Halabja represented the reason the United States needed to overthrow Hussein.

"Fifteen years ago much of the world doubted the evil of Saddam and refused to act in the face of his weapons of mass destruction," said Barham Salih, prime minister of a Kurdish region run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. "It is perplexing for the people of Halabja, indeed rather painful, to hear voices in the international community that continue to insist on proof of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction."

Against a backdrop of 1,076 symbolic white headstones in the local graveyard, one for each family that lost members, Powell pledged that the world will never forget Halabja.

"I can't tell you that choking mothers died holding choking babies. You know that. I can't say that the world should have acted sooner. You know that. What I can tell you is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again," he told a cheering crowd.

Kurds had adorned the graveyard, where thousands of the victims are buried in mass graves, with many pro-American banners, all in English even though most Kurds do not know the language. One declared, "The world should not doubt Saddam's weapons," while another said, "Help us bring justice to the war criminals."

Kurds have asked that Ali Hassan Majid, the Iraqi general known as "Chemical Ali," be brought here to be tried for his role in the attack. Majid is in U.S. custody.

Among dozens of placards carried by the Kurds, along with faded pictures of family members killed in the attack, was one with a picture of President Bush with the caption "man of peace."

Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK, said Kurds have a saying that they have no friends but the remote mountains where they live. But after the U.S. invasion, he said, "I am proud that after so many years of loneliness we have friends like you."

He said Halabja's mass graves "validate the morality of your intervention."

Powell also visited a monument to victims, finished only Sunday, where Suhayba Abdul Rahman showed the secretary a picture of her five children and husband killed in the attack. Blinded by the chemicals -- a common problem here -- Rahman thanked Bush for launching the war but asked Powell to help her get medical attention to try to restore her sight.

The names of the 5,000 victims are inscribed on the circular walls of the modest memorial. A separate room contains a life-size scene of the devastation, with bodies of children, women and men sprawled on top of one another on the ground as they try to flee. A mist depicts the clouds left by chemical weapons.

Halabja, about seven miles from the Iranian border, was the worst hit of at least 40 towns and villages during the Anfal ("The Spoils") campaign when Hussein's air force dropped bombs full of sarin, tabun, VX and mustard gas on Kurds. Powell was national security advisor under President Reagan when the town was attacked.

Tens of thousands tried to flee, but Iraq's military dropped more bombs cutting off escape, according to Kurdish officials and international humanitarian groups.

Aveen Jawhar was 8 months old in 1988. In the crowd to greet Powell, the teenager is going blind and has a continuous cough that prevents her from going to school or working. Dozens of other victims were in the crowd.

Offspring of survivors in Halabja and other targeted towns have been born with or have developed serious medical problems, including deformities and cancers, according to a British doctor who has tracked problems for a decade.

Powell finished his visit to Iraq's Kurdish north at lunch with Talabani, the PUK leader, and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, both members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

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