The history of the Saddam Hussein's poison gas attack, with the complicity of the West, in the working class stronghold of Halabja.
Eyewitness in Halabja
On March 13, 1988, the city of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan was almost completely
destroyed by the Iraqi armed forces using chemical weapons, supplied by the West. Around 5,000 people
were killed at the time and many more more died from their injuries over
the next few weeks. Halabja was not chosen arbitrarily as the site for such
a massacre. It had been a major site of proletarian struggle against the Iran-Iraq
war - in which the US had backed Iraq. There was at least one deserter in every house, and sometimes four or
five. The following is a summary of translations of letters and articles we
have seen, written by comrades living in Halabja before and during the massacre.
As the account speaks for itself, we see no need to elaborate.
During 1987 the Iraqi government destroyed 45 villages around Halabja, using
explosives to completely demolish all the houses. The inhabitants poured into
Halabja, swelling the population to around 110,000. Almost all the young men
in these villages had been deserters from the army. They were not just dropping
out of the war but were always discussing ways of doing something against
The influx of people led to a severe housing shortage and there were no jobs
for most people. Shops were selling virtually nothing apart from maybe rice
and bread - fruit, vegetables and meat were far too expensive for most. All
the time there was talk amongst the unemployed about what to do about the
war. Only the rich wanted to fight for their country. Many people were selling
their possessions because of the insecure conditions. This enabled the rich
to get richer by buying people's TV sets, fridges, etc. and selling them in
The only sizeable bourgeois political organisation taken seriously by the
deserters was the Iraqi Communist Party (CP). All the other organisations and parties,
in particular the Kurdish nationalists (the largest of which was the Kurdish
Democratic Party), were totally discredited because of their open collaboration
with the state. Both the KDP and the CP tended to tail-end everything the
deserters did. The CP, however, had greater credibility because it gave more
support to the deserters than anyone else and was the only organisation to
say that sooner or later the government would attack Halabja and that people
had to prepare for this. The CP needed to wipe out the bad reputation it accrued
by joining the Ba'athist government in 1974.
There were also dozens of small organisations, many claiming to be communist,
with names like "the Marxist Leninist Workers' Party" , "the
Leninist Marxist Group" , etc. etc.. They produced lots of leaflets and
graffiti on walls.
Someone living in Halabja produced a pamphlet about the condition of the deserters
which was very critical of the Kurdish nationalists. A week later he was killed.
The place was in chaos. The "traitors and troublemakers were all going
around legitimately within the structure of pro-government organisations.
H. had a gun, as well as valid documents. Can you believe it?"
Since the end of 1986/beginning of 1987, three types of army had existed in
Halabja in addition to the Iraqi army proper. These were:
a) Clan Armies - Around Halabja there had traditionally been
five main family/tribal groupings and many more small ones. During the war
the feeling of belonging to one clan or another had become much stronger amongst
the population. The government set about trying to integrate deserters back
into the armed forces of the state by paying clan leaders (big land owners
who had become capitalists) 50,000 Dinar per month plus lots of weapons, flash
cars etc. to round up deserters from their own clan and put them under military
There was very fierce competition between the clan armies as the leaders vied
for more "recruits" and thus more money from the government. This
led to many gun fights on the streets, and even in cafes and shops. When people
spoke about "war" in Halabja they meant the wars between the clan
armies, and between the latter and the deserters, not the war between Iran
b) The Home Guard - This was by far the largest army. It
was not uniformed and had very few weapons. It was the army that deserters
joined purely because there was a law that everyone who had deserted had to
have ID saying that they had joined an army. The Home Guard can be seen as
a way of legalising desertion in the same way as the "Right to Strike"
legalised the strike weapon. S. Hussein even spoke about a "Right to
c) The Bounty Hunters - This was a small force which acted
with extreme viciousness on behalf of the state. Their main function was to
force deserters to join the Home Guard. They were always checking people's
ID and had a legal right to kill anyone who didn't have any. They were paid
1000 Dinar for bringing someone to a police station alive, and 500 Dinar for
their head. They killed a lot of poor people just to get money. They might
take someone's head to a police station claiming that they had killed him
at the border and that he was a Pasdar (Iranian Revolutionary Guard). After
the massacre most of these scum went to Iran to do the same job for the Iranian
There were very close links between the leaders of the clan armies, the bounty
hunters, Kurdish nationalist organisations and local businessmen.
The May '87 Uprising
All the talk about stopping the government from destroying Halabja turned
to action on 13 May 1987 when militants occupied the mosques and used the
loudspeakers to call for the organisation of an uprising. Mosques were used
because they were the most suitable buildings in which to hold mass meetings.
This was ironic because for weeks before the priests had been giving a special
talk after each Friday prayer meeting on... the evils of communist subversion!
Almost the whole working clan population of Halabja was awake that night discussing
Many people had weapons; these were mostly those who had been in the clan
armies (double deserters!). All ages were involved and women as well as men.
Everybody was saying "The soldiers are our brothers it is Saddam who
is the enemy!" . Iraqi Army troops came to Halabja. They said, more or
less, "We've been sent to kill you but we won't do it. But please disperse."
The crowd refused to disperse and persuaded most of the soldiers to join the
"... in May the governmental forces were toppled. The people had taken
over and the police and army had to go into hiding, only being able to move
around in tanks and in armoured divisions. Helicopters circled overhead, calling
for calm and care in the face of the enemies of the nation. Battles were raging
near the town, and the Iranians were getting nearer. The town was bombed by
Iranian artillery and there were many casualties. Everybody was aware of the
danger but were in favour of neither the Iranians nor the Iraqis".
The helicopters were accompanied by tanks. Some of the rebels fired at the
tanks, then the helicopter fired rockets into the crowd. People fled. Jordanian
troops then invaded the town killing hundreds of people. A few days later
200 people were rounded up, some dragged from hospitals, and buried alive.
Five days after the rebellion had started the government totally destroyed
the area where it had happened. They also booby-trapped empty houses nearby
leading to many more deaths.
Many people fled to Iran in small groups but the Peshmargan (Kurdish nationalist
guerillas) tried to stop them from leaving, saying they would 'liberate' Halabja.
This didn't stop the nationalists helping rich people and mullahs to leave,
in return for money. Every day helicopters came to tell people to be calm.
They said Halabja would not be destroyed.
Over the next few weeks there were rebellions in 4 or 5 other Kurdish cities.
The government closed the mosques and cut off their electricity to stop then
being used like they were in Halabja.
The Governor's Visit
The governor of Suliamania (the nearest big city) came to Halabja and made
a speech. He said: "Halabja is one of the cities in Iraq which has made
many sacrifices throughout history. President Hussein himself has a special
concern for Halabja and the people who spread rumours about Halabja being
destroyed are your enemies and enemies of the state."
Someone in the crowd shouted "What did you do with those 200 people,
we want them back!" . The governor said "Goodbye, see you next time".
Shortly before the massacre, deserters took over Sirwan (a town about 20 km
from Halabja) using weapons from the clan armies. No Kurdish nationalist organisations
were involved but the CP was to some extent. Soon afterwards, the Iraqi Airforce
totally destroyed the town with bombs and rockets.
Two weeks before the massacre clan leaders and army officers were secretly
moved to Suliamania. Iraqi soldiers suspected something was up and many gave
away their arms to deserters in the streets before fleeing to Suliamania.
Many poor people were trying to leave for Iran but the Peshmargan sent them
back, as before they helped the rich. Shortly before the massacre Halabja
was bombed for three days by Iran and then occupied by the Pasdaran. The Peshmargan
helped direct the Iranian bombing (perhaps because they wanted to get rid
of the Iraqi military) and after the occupation helped the Pasdaran to keep
everyone in Halabja. At the same time they moved their own families to Iran.
On 13 March 1988 chemical bombs were dropped on Halabja. No Pasdaran nor Peshmargan
were killed. The Iranian soldiers had left on the day before or on the morning
of the massacre. The Peshmargan continued to surround the city. Some had gas
"We ran over to the basement on the opposite side of the street to take
cover. Half an hour later the planes came back from all directions - there
must have been at least twenty of them, believe me - and in a few minutes
Halabja was in ruins. Shortly afterwards we smelt gas. It was just like the
smell of garlic. Some of us ran to get some water and we gave the others wet
towels and clothes to put over their faces."
At least three different gases were used: mustard gas, nerve gas and something
that made people crazy (they tore off their clothes, laughed for a while and
then dropped dead). Around 8000 died immediately.
Even after the massacre the Peshmargan would not let people leave. They looted
homes and raped women. After a week or so, many people went blind or insane.
Many just gave up the will to live.
After the Massacre: Life in the Refugee Camps in Iran
Many thousands of survivors ended up in refugee camps in Iran where they are
not allowed any contact with the Iranian population. The CP still has some
support amongst the refugees but when the Peshmargan came to the camps to
try to recruit they were chased out with stones.
Camps are run like the military. Everything organised in such a way that people
cannot have contact with each other. If you don't stay in your allocated place
you run the risk of being locked up without food. Special passes are required
for leaving the camps. These are very difficult to get. We are still conscripts.
All those born between 1945 and 1970 join the army, the rest go to the reserve
Reprisals and Resettlement
If an Iraqi soldier is killed in a particular area, the state orders the flattening
of a number of houses, and executes 5 or 6 young people in public as a warning.
Many people from Halabja with no relatives in Baghdad or Suliamarxia were
sent to "empty zones" near the border with Saudi Arabia. Escape
from these zones is impossible because you die of thirst before reaching the
nearest town. The Iraqi government has started to rebuild Halabja. They intend
to bring more people from Arab villages in the South to Halabja. These were
people who also fought the state during the war.
Published in Wildcat no.13, summer/autumn 1989