Hundreds of people joined in sombre commemorations on Saturday for the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja near Iraq’s border with Iran.
Many of those paying their respects held pictures of some of the estimated 5,000 people who were killed, mostly women and children, in what is now thought to have been the worst ever gas attack targeting civilians.
Others gathered around the martyrs’ monument in Halabja, some holding Kurdish flags.
In a speech marking the occasion, Kurdish regional prime minister Nechirvan Barzani called for March 16 to be recognised as an international day against chemical weapons.
Those commemorating the anniversary observed a minute’s silence at 11:35 am (0835 GMT), the time in 1988 when Saddam’s forces began gassing the town.
“Our family died here,” said Hounas, a 22-year-old from the nearby provincial capital of Sulaimaniyah. “We have to learn from this disaster — to forgive, but not to forget.”
Parked in front of the monument was a pickup truck that residents say was hit by a rocket during the 1988 attack. Next to it were the remains of the rocket they say hit it.
Leaflets were scattered around Halabja that read: “From Tears to Hope,” and “From Hatred to Forgiveness.”
“From far away, I saw the bodies of children, and women, and men,” recalled Abu Mohammed, now 32. “They were lying in the street. It was a tragedy.”
Saaman, a 23-year-old fine arts student whose parents lived in Halabja but managed to escape the massacre, said his mother had told him of how the day had unfolded.
“It was a nice day, and the family was all together in the house,” he said.
“My mother heard the sound of the planes, and then she heard the bombs. All of my family went outside — some of them died, and some of them escaped, including my mom and dad, who escaped to Iran.”
In March 1988, as Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran was coming to an end, Kurdish peshmerga rebels, with Tehran’s backing, took over the farming community of Halabja near the border with the Islamic republic.
The Iraqi army bombed the area, forcing the rebels to retreat into the surrounding hills, leaving their families behind.
Iraqi jets then swooped over the small town and for five hours sprayed it with nerve agents.
Three-quarters of the victims at Halabja were women and children.
“This terrible crime was but one of many in Hussein’s Anfal campaign, in which tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis were slaughtered,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
“On this solemn occasion, we honour the memories of the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who perished at Halabja and throughout… Anfal.”
Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known by his macabre nickname “Chemical Ali,” was hanged in January 2010 after receiving multiple death sentences, including one for the Halabja attack.
As dictator Saddam’s enforcer, he ordered the gas attack to crush the uprising. Majid said he took action against the Kurds, who had sided with Iraq’s enemy in the war, for the sake of Iraqi security and refused to express remorse.
Officials marked the anniversary of the attack last year by handing local authorities in Halabja the rope used to hang Majid.