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A Lethal First Chapter in Iraq's Gas Attacks

Gas attacks occurred first in the villages of Sheikh Wassan and Balisan, nearly a year before the 1988 attack at Halabja.
Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR /
Gas attacks occurred first in the villages of Sheikh Wassan and Balisan, nearly a year before the 1988 attack at Halabja.

The horrific chemical attacks on Kurds in Halabja, Iraq in 1988 killed more than 5,000 people; but the campaign against Iraq's Kurds had begun almost a year earlier.

On April 16, 1987, two small villages became the ground zero for a series of attacks. The campaign, known as Anfal in Arabic, was intended to eradicate Kurdish fighters and civilians from Kurdistan. According to an estimate by Human Rights Watch, between 70,000 and 100,000 people were killed over 16 months; Kurdish leaders say the final death toll is double that. Both agree that the campaign against the Kurds was genocide.

Today at Balisan and Sheikh Wassan, 23 commemorative graves represent 233 lost in the attack. The remains of the dead were too difficult to separate and identify.

Residents of the villages recall that planes appeared, dropping canisters that spewed yellow dust. The dust was mustard gas, but most civilians did not recognize the danger until symptoms appeared hours later. Many who did not die in the attacks were permanently blinded; children and the elderly were particularly affected.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, the former Baathist official better known as Chemical Ali, is thought to be responsible for the attacks; Kurdish militia (peshmerga) in the region had stood opposed to the Iraqi government. In a tape thought to be from that period, he made his intentions for the Kurds plain: "I will kill them all with chemical weapons!... Who is going to say anything?"

Joost Hiltermann, formerly of Human Rights Watch, helped research 18 tons of Iraqi archives and tapes brought out of Kurdistan in 1991, much of which will be used in the forthcoming tribunals against former leader Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali. "[Ali Hassan al-Majid] wasn't criticized from the first day he started using chemical weapons, and the fact [is] that from that day on, Iraq started escalating the use of chemical weapons."

NPR's Peter Breslow produced this story.

The tape of Ali Hassan al-Majid was obtained courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacki Lyden
Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.