The disparate communities of Iraq — majority Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds – were ruled with an iron hand by President Saddam Hussein, who came to power after deposing his Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party leader and friend Ahmed Hasan Al-Bakr in 1979. Indicating his future modus operandi as a supreme human rights abuser, all potential rivals for the top job were arrested, murdered… or both.
In classic dictatorship style Saddam Hussein then attempted to defuse internal tension by declaring a patriotic war on an external ‘enemy’ – the new Shi’ite-led Iranian regime. Hostilities lasted from 1980 to 1988, cost up to 1.5 million lives and ended in a bloody and indecisive stalemate.
Meanwhile, the troublesome Kurds of northern Iraq posed a problem for Saddam’s regime. This proud and would-be-independent people favored the Iranian cause as the lesser of two evils, so Kurds and Iranians had combined to resist government forces that unleashed Operation Anfal in 1986 to terrorize and subjugate a Kurdish rural population that harbored insurgents. The operation was led by Saddam’s feared cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid. Chemical Ali was his nickname, earned after deadly chemical warfare became his game.
This was acquired after a ruthless poison gas attack on the town of Halabja, which had been liberated during the closing months of the Iraq-Iran conflict by Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas. Saddam Hussein couldn’t afford to lose the Anfal campaign, and ordered al-Majid to use air-dropped mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX on Halabja and surrounding villages, backed by a conventional offensive intended to crush the Kurdish revolt once and for all. Thousands died immediately, mostly civilians, and thousands more would suffer long-term health problems as a result of the chemical attack.
Subsequently Halabja itself was virtually destroyed by bombing and a ground attack.
When: March 16-17 1988
Where: Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
Death toll: The world’s largest chemical weapons attack on a civilian population is thought to have killed up to 5,000 people and certainly no fewer than 3,500, with over 7,000 more injured out of a population of 80,000.
You should know: Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and the infamous instrument of the dictator’s repressive regime, was captured when Coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and in 2007 was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.