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March 16, 1988: Saddam Hussein Orders Chemical Bombing of Kurds in Iraq

5,000 civilians murdered. Was the United States complicit?


halabja bombing chemical weapons posion gas

A scene from Halabja's museum commemorating the 5,000 Kurds who died on March 16, 1988 when Saddam Hussein ordered the town bombed with poison gas

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)
March 16, 1988: Toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein orders the bombing of the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja with chemical bombs. The bombing, which kills about 5,000 people, is part of Saddam’s Anfal campaign designed to eradicate Iraq’s Kurds.

Peter Galbraith, then a senior adviser to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and among the first Americans to witness the genocide, told CBC News:

As we traveled from the Arab area to the Kurdish area, we were stunned to see that the villages were gone. And the villages that were on our maps were no longer there…they had simply been erased from the face of the earth. As we traveled from place to place we could see this destruction as it was taking place. Rubble on one side, on the other side…bulldozers waiting to complete the work of destruction. As we got further into Kurdistan…all traces of human inhabitation were gone. These were places that had been inhabited for millennia.
The United States may have been complicit in Iraq's chemical bombings. On Aug. 18, 2002, The New York Times reported that "A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program." The paper continued,
The covert program was carried out at a time when President Reagan's top aides... were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraq attacked Kurds in Halabja in March 1988.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted, so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It has long been known that the United States provided intelligence assistance to Iraq in the form of satellite photography to help the Iraqis understand how Iranian forces were deployed against them. But the full nature of the program, as described by former Defense Intelligence Agency officers, was not previously disclosed.

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