The strange journey of a piece of disinformation

2003-04-01

The story was a fairly simple one: the allegation that the March 1988 poison gas attack in the Kurdish city of Halabja – which killed an estimated 4,500, mostly Kurdish civilians – was not the work of Iraq, but rather of its then-enemy Iran. The source: the CIA’s former senior policy analyst for Iraq, Stephen Pelletière.
From Peace Magazine Vol.19, No.2: Apr-Jun 2003.

It spread like a virus. And like a virus, it has proven very difficult to eradicate – to the particular frustration of human rights activists and groups sympathetic to the Kurds of Iraq. You may have already encountered the story on email, read a reference to it in an anti-war article, or even seen it appear in your daily newspaper.

The story was a fairly simple one: the allegation that the March 1988 poison gas attack in the Kurdish city of Halabja – which killed an estimated 4,500, mostly Kurdish civilians – was not the work of Iraq, but rather of its then-enemy Iran. The source: the CIA’s former senior policy analyst for Iraq, Stephen Pelletiere, writing in the New York Times in January 2003 (though the argument is largely a rehashing of a paper he co-wrote for the US Army War College in 1990, when Iraq was still a US ally).

Pelletiere’s argument is that, during a battle for control of the town of Halabja, both Iraqi and Iranian forces used chemical weapons to flush the other out, but that the gas which caused civilian deaths was one that Iraq was not known to possess.1 While he does not deny that Iraq had chemical weapons, his report was intended to cast doubt on the more general charge that the regime used gas against its own people.

Anti-war mailing lists began to disseminate the New York Times story, eager to share what appeared to be an exposé of US disinformation. George W Bush likes to demonize Saddam Hussein as “a man who gassed his own people,” and anti-war activists seemed particularly eager for evidence that this was a carefully crafted lie.

But Iraq Really Did It

Except it almost certainly was true: the Baghdad regime did use chemical weapons against their own Kurdish citizens. The Halabja attack was part of a year-long offensive against the Iraqi Kurds, some of whom had made a strategic alliance with Iran. This offensive, equal in intensity and brutality to the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia or the southern Sudan, was called the Anfal (literally, “the spoils”).

Under the command of Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish region was pacified through selective murder (up to 100,000 dead, most in mass executions), coupled with the forced removal of civilians across the border, to strategic towns, or to internment camps. Human Rights Watch records 40 occasions between April 1987 and August 1988 when chemical weapons (mainly mustard gas and tabun; later sarin and other nerve agents) were used against the Kurds, with a large cluster of attacks during the weeks following the Iran-Iraq armistice.

The Anfal was largely targeted at rural areas and villages. Poison gas was first used in the Balisan valley in April 1987. Iraqi forces videotaped the bombing as it happened, and extensive hospital records were kept of the dead and survivors (some of whom later died in detention or were “disappeared”). The total death toll of this first attack was between 225 and 400.

Further chemical attacks followed in the summer of 1987, though the main thrust of the Anfal was to empty the rural areas by conventional means, augmented by mass executions. It was not until February 1988 that the Iraqis would return to large-scale use of chemical weapons; in the month before Halabja, at least five gas attacks were staged. In the three months following Halabja, at least 12 more attacks were recorded by Human Rights Watch, the largest of these at Goktapa, where up to 300 died.

The Halabja attack was itself somewhat different from the earlier bombings. Halabja, a town of 40,000 which had nearly doubled in population due to refugee flows, was a few kilometres from the Iranian border and was, during the days before the chemical attack, an open city. Iranian soldiers walked around the centre while Iraqi forces remained in barracks elsewhere in the town. Before the chemical attacks on 16 March, the Iraqi troops withdrew from the town. Eyewitness reports tell of waves of bombers, flying low enough for their Iraqi markings to be clear to observers on the ground. The initial targets were all in northern residential areas — not the centre where Iraqi barracks had been. The pattern of the bombings clearly establishes that civilians were the primary target, and the motive was one of intimidation and revenge.

Survivors compared the gas to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man said that it smelled “very bad, like snake poison.” This meshes with accounts of the Balisan gas attacks of April 1987, where a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents were used.

An Ironic Charge

The documentary record on the Anfal is extensive. An account which concentrates on the use of chemical weapons by Iraq, and US official attitudes to this use, is found in Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic/New Republic, 2002). The 1993 Human Rights Watch report; Anfal: Genocide Against the Kurds. is a key document for students of genocide. Following the 1991 uprising against the Baghdad regime, several tons of government documents were seized and eventually smuggled out of the country. These papers revealed extensive details about the Anfal, including orders which explicitly show genocidal intent.

On the other hand, the “Iran gassed the Kurds” story has emerged frequently over the intervening 15 years, and in each case has relied heavily on Pelletiere’s interpretation of events. In 2002, for instance, you could read this version of the story both on the free-market polyconomics.com website and on Michel Chossudovsky’s anti-globalization globalresearch.ca. In both these cases, the Halabja events (the authors ignore or gloss over other attacks) are presented as an exposé of US government “disinformation” – a particularly ironic charge, given that the “counter-disinformation” came from a US government source and had its beginnings as pro-Iraq spin from the days when the US saw Iraq as a trusted ally.

Ken Simons is managing editor of Peace Magazine. Like Samantha Power and Human Rights Watch, he also opposes a US war against Iraq.

1 The victims’ lips were blue, which according to Pelletiere indicated that a blood agent such as cyanide (known to have been used by the Iranians elsewhere in the Iran-Iraq war) may have been used. Nerve agents such as tabun (used by the Iraqis) can also produce this discoloration as a side-effect of respiratory paralysis.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, page 17. Some rights reserved.