Shwan Mohammed, AFP
Last updated: 11 September, 2013

Syria gas attack sparks memories in Iraq’s Halabja

Mired in a years-long war, a strongman uses chemical weapons against his own people — the story is one the people of Halabja know all too well.

As accusations are levelled against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the alleged use of chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus last month, memories come flooding back for residents of this small Kurdish town in north Iraq.

And despite sharp differences between dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gassing of thousands of Kurds and the allegations being made against Assad, many in Halabja see only parallels.

“I heard the news on the radio that there were chemical attacks in a village near Damascus,” said Mohammed Amin Hussein, sitting in a cafe in Halabja, which lies near the Iranian border in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

“I am very, very sad — it reminds me of that day in the spring of 1988, when Iraqi aircraft attacked Halabja.”

In March 1988, near the end of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi army bombed the farming community of Halabja after Iranian-backed Kurdish rebels took it over, before Iraqi jets swooped over it for five hours and sprayed it with nerve agents.

An estimated 5,000 people were killed — mostly women and children — in what is now thought to have been the worst ever gas attack targeting civilians.

“That day, in a few minutes, all of the people of Halabja became afraid,” Hussein recalled.

Turning his attention to the suspected chemical attack in Syria, the elderly man, who lost his 10-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter in 1988, said simply: “It’s the same as Halabja.”

Western powers have pointed the finger at Assad’s regime for the August 21 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus that killed hundreds and prompted the threat of punitive military strikes by US President Barack Obama.

The Syrian regime and its international allies, however, have denied the charges and blamed rebel forces.

By contrast, the United States steadfastly backed Saddam through his eight-year war with Iran, with recently-declassified documents showing Washington was aware of his use of chemical weapons, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

The initial reporting of both incidents also differ markedly.

In 1988, the Halabja massacre was brought to international attention thanks initially to Iranian journalists, followed by a British television crew.

The Damascus attack, however, has already been extensively documented thanks to a swathe of photos, videos and first-hand accounts posted on the Internet.

Both the US government and New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch have cited videos posted online in their arguments blaming Assad.

“The fact I’m able to … see these munitions in the videos, I’ve been piecing it together with that,” said Eliot Higgins, who posts detailed analyses of weapons used in the two-and-a-half-year-old Syrian conflict on his Brown Moses blog.

“Not only that, I can talk to activists on Skype.”

Higgins has gained notoriety over the course of the Syrian conflict by documenting arms employed on both sides by spending hours every day sifting through online videos and photos from his home just outside Leicester, in England.

“That, in and of itself, is hugely different from what happened in Iraq — it’s night and day.”

Whatever the differences, though, for the residents of Halabja, the chemical attack in Ghouta raises nothing but bad memories and associations.

“I saw the news about the chemical attacks on various Arab TV channels,” said Rustum Karim, a 60-year-old farmer sitting in the same cafe as Hussein.

“I told my sons to change the channel right away — it reminds me of the tragedy that happened in our city.”

Others drew larger parallels, between two Baathist regimes — although Saddam’s branch of the Baath Party and Assad’s split in the 1960s, their historic origins are linked — fighting a long-running battle.

“The Syrian regime is also a Baathist regime, just like the Iraqi regime” (of Saddam), said Maryam Hawari, who lost two of her brothers in the 1988 gassing when she was just 10.

“They are both dictatorial regimes, and to keep their power, they used the most dangerous weapons.”