Santa Barbara Independent, September 28, 2006
By Kevin McKiernan, maker of the documentary Good Kurds, Bad Kurds and author of the new book The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland. He has covered the war in Iraq in both Kurdish and Arab areas for ABC News.
“Saddam Hussein deserves the ultimate punishment.”
Is there something to learn from Saddam Hussein’s atrocities — such as the thousands of Kurds, including children, who were asphyxiated by poison gas — or should we simply erase a monstrous thug and move on? That’s the $64 question as Hussein’s soap opera case lumbers along in an Iraqi courtroom amid concern about the appointment of tribunal judges by U.S. occupation forces, the disregard for the rule of law alleged by Human Rights Watch, and the nearly $128 million American taxpayers have spent so far to secure a conviction. Instead, Saddam’s threats to boycott the trial and other theatrical outbursts have competed for headlines with public pronouncements of guilt by Iraq’s current president Jalal Talabani (“Saddam deserves a death sentence 20 times a day”), obscuring a record of wider responsibility for the “Kurdish Holocaust.”
It seems axiomatic that a trial for war crimes should be a tool of investigation, not just a vehicle for vengeance or a means to justify an invasion. After all, the triumph of the Nuremberg trials was not the execution of Nazi war criminals, but rather the exposure of the Third Reich and its accomplices — so that the world might listen when Jews and other victims solemnly vowed, “Never again.” Today, the Nuremberg legacy endures in children who visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles or are taught in school about the horrors of the gas chambers. Unfortunately, the issue of international support for the Nazis in World War II, some of it from American companies like Standard Oil, General Motors, and Chase Bank — all sanctioned by the U.S. government after the attack on Pearl Harbor — is seldom part of the lesson.
Beyond criticisms about the independence of the judiciary is the question of trying Saddam and his henchmen in an environment where more than 3,000 civilians were killed just last month, including another member of Hussein’s defense team — the fifth such assassination since the proceedings began. An overriding issue, however, is whether the trial will expose key American and European officials who played a role in arming the Iraqi regime with industrial insecticides and a variety of other deadly components that the West knew were being used against the Kurds.
Imagine looking down on thousands of little creatures — and then spraying them with a giant can of Raid. That is essentially what Saddam Hussein’s air force did in 1988 when pilots gassed the Kurdish town of Halabja with a cloud of deadly toxins, including large quantities of the nerve gas found in household insecticides. The Halabja massacre is now Exhibit A for the prosecution, and the Kurds who survived Hussein’s reign of terror have front row seats in the Baghdad courtroom. Human rights monitors estimate that more than 100,000 Kurds were killed or “disappeared” in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s, the period when Hussein’s regime received billions of dollars in aid from the West. Halabja is the best known of more than 200 sites in northern Iraq where chemicals were sprayed.
Over the years, Halabja survivors have shared with me the grisly last moments of their friends and relatives. In the initial moments of exposure, I am told, some victims spurted blood from their ears. Some vomited, and others fell down laughing and writhing as they choked to death. The environment suffered as well. A Kurdish doctor I know estimates that 40 percent of Kurdish lands were contaminated. He and others fear that the “cocktails” of mustard, VX, and sarin gas may have caused long-term damage to the soil and water table.
During my frequent trips to the area since 1991, residents have repeatedly asked me why family members still suffer from cancers, cleft palates, stillbirths, miscarriages, and birth defects. On one Halabja visit, my translator told me that his uncle died in 1996 after being bitten by a “poison snake” which had feasted on uncollected corpses lying on the streets following the 1988 attack. Such stories make up the grotesque folklore of Halabja and other contaminated areas of Kurdistan. No one knows the truth — because no Western government or health agency has wanted to spend the money to conduct comprehensive soil and water tests. Just as there has been no deep investigation of Hussein’s international helpers, little is known about long-term health hazards to Kurds who still live in these areas. In both cases, the lack of information increases the risk that similar catastrophes may be repeated.
The broad outlines of Hussein’s U.S. support that are known include:
• the courting of the Iraqi regime by the Reagan-Bush administration in the early 1980s as a foil against the Islamic Republic of Iran;
• President Reagan’s handwritten letter to Saddam Hussein soliciting better relations;
• multiple visits by the then special White House envoy Donald Rumsfeld, who also represented efforts by the Bechtel Corporation to build a lucrative oil pipeline across Iraq;
• the administration’s decision to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein — who was known in those days as the Butcher of Baghdad — from the list of international sponsors of terror, to make it eligible to receive U.S. technology;
• the sworn affidavit of Howard Teicher, who worked at Reagan’s National Security Council, that the United States actively supported the Iraqi war effort against Iran by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits to purchase weapons;
• the transfer to Baghdad of anthrax, botulinum, and other substances from U.S. government labs in Maryland;
• and the fact that Hussein’s technicians fitted some U.S.-made helicopters with nozzles and used them to spray gas on Kurdish villages.
It is clear that Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was known at the highest levels in Washington. A State Department official has stated that he informed former Secretary of State George Shultz that Iraq was making “almost daily use” of chemical weapons against Iranian troops, and evidence exists that the CIA provided satellite photos to Iraqi generals, enabling them to pinpoint the positions of Iranians for chemical attacks. In other words, Saddam was using WMDs with U.S. oversight.
The Kurds were fighting for their rights in Iraq, but in Saddam’s war with Iran, the Kurds found themselves on Tehran’s side. For the United States, defeating Iran trumped nearly every other concern. Even after chemical weapons were used on the Kurds in 1988, the Reagan-Bush administration actively blocked trade sanctions against Iraq, and the Commerce Department continued to approve military exports to the brutal regime. The message to Saddam Hussein couldn’t have been clearer: You can gas the Kurds and get away with it.
The war crimes trials in Baghdad still offer Saddam’s victims — and American taxpayers — the opportunity to expose political wrongdoing and to prevent more Halabjas. There seems little doubt that the ex-dictator and his associates will one day face a hangman or firing squad — assuming they live long enough. But if U.S. influence allows prosecutors to sidestep the vital issue of the “aiders and abettors,” the 5,000 Kurds sprayed to death in Halabja and the tens of thousands of other victims — many of them still struggling with blindness, cancers, and birth defects — will be cheated of their right to know the real story of this and other Iraqi war crimes. Without that wider inquiry, the trials may well be seen as a form of victor’s justice.