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 The Halabja Monument as a top-down “chosen trauma”

 Opinion — Analysis 
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


The Halabja Monument as a top-down “chosen trauma” ‎ 5.3.2012 
By Saeed Kakeyi

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Saed Kakei, Ph.D. Student, Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program Read more by the Author
March 5, 2012

On Wednesday, March 16th, 1988, my wife and I were working in a Turkish delight and Halva production facility in Kayseri, Turkey, while eagerly waiting for our UN sponsored immigration process to Canada. After work, we jointly went to a Turkish police station, close to our work and resident locations, to sign our weekly refugee attendance. Unlike previously experienced harsh treatments, the officer in charge of the Iraqi refugees in his area on that date was very polite and sympathetic to us. In fact, to my surprise, he started talking to us in Kurdish and asked if I ever visited the City of Halabja in northern Iraq. Fearing that we might face unforeseen consequences, I denied speaking any Kurdish and reiterated to him that we were a Turkman couple from the multiethnic city of Kirkuk, Iraq.

The officer stood up, went to the door of his office and closed it. At that very moment, I said to myself: ‘That’s it. It’s our turn to be beaten, humiliated, and eventually be deported to Iraq to face our ultimate fate in the hands of the Iraqi Ba’athist thugs!’ As I was going through that fearful episode, the officer came back to me and hugged me as though I was one of his close relatives. With tearful eyes, the officer told me in Kurdish: “Ey bra no! Li me Fermane” (Oh, brother! It’s our genocide). Still not knowing, I asked him in Kurdish, “What is going on?” The officer responded that he just heard on the news that Halabja was bombed with chemical gases and that thousands of innocent Kurds got killed just like the way in which thousands of innocent Japanese died in in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1948.

At first, I was extremely cautious of expressing any emotions. But, as the police officer continued demonstrating his genuine feelings, emotions, and true Kurdishness, I told him the fact that I was a Kurd from Kirkuk who left the Iraqi Army to join the Kurdish Peshmarga (freedom fighter) forces operating in the rural areas of Halabja area for the past two years. Also, I related to him that due to increasing Iraqi usage of chemical gases against the Peshmarga forces, I had no choice but to grab my wife’s hand and seek refuge in Turkey. From that day on, the officer and I became friends. We exchanged family visits until December 15th, 1988, the day when my family and I migrated to Canada, and I never saw that officer again.

Prelude to the gassing of Halabja

After the demise of the Ottoman Empire during the WWI, Modern Iraq was created by the European colonial allies from three semi-independent Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The area was also known as Mesopotamia, the occupying British authority had drew up the borders of the modern State of Iraqi by dividing Kurdistan and, in the process, annexing the southern parts of Kurdistan to Iraq by which the Kurds left without any rights to an independent state. As a result, from 1919 until 1958, the Kurds in Iraq had suffered socioeconomic and socio-political domination by a succession of a minority Sunni Arab regimes based in the capital Baghdad.

After the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, Britain lost its influence within Iraq and the destiny of the Kurds was left in the hands of a consecutive undemocratic, Arab nationalist governments. Without exception, these regimes, in their attempts to assimilate the Kurds, refused to acknowledge the Kurds' basic human needs, far less the Kurdish demand for self-determination. Consequently, the Kurdish people in Iraq campaigned for political rights and

were forced to resort to armed struggle against the central governments in Baghdad to secure and serve their distinct national identity. In so doing, their cause has contributed to the wider instability in the Middle East. This in turn has influenced international politics to consistently refuse to address the Kurdish issue, in part because the stability of the regional powers was connected to the political and economic interests of the United States (U.S.) and the former Soviet Union.

During the Cold War era, both, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were heavily engaged in supporting dictatorial regimes in the region. The national interests of the bipolar hegemonic powers were inconsistently favoured over the fundamental principles of human rights and, in the process, turned blind eyes to atrocities committed by their Middle Eastern state actors. Moreover, this neglect has allowed some greedy international companies trading with Iraq to clearly violate international agreements by supplying prohibited plants and raw chemical materials to Baghdad which enabled the proliferation and the production of a vast arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to be used against innocent civilian Kurds by the executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraq is not the first state to have used chemical weapons and the Kurds are not the first victims of chemical gases. However, it is the first time in history of mankind to have the WMD been used by a sovereign state against its own people in an attempt to suppress an intrastate conflict and to commit the act of genocide to eradicate an opposing ethnic minority.

That been said, it is worth mentioning that the recent history of the Kurds in Iraq comprises of a long list of tragedies of which only the major ones have gained international public awareness and generated varying degrees of international concern. Only the genocide of Halabja in March, 1988 has captured the world attention. There have been numerous other chemical attacks which were not exposed or investigated by the international community despite consistent allegations and appeals by the Kurds. Paradoxically, neither the U.S., as the world champion for democracy and individual freedom and liberty, nor the United Nations (UN), as the legitimate platform of the civilized world, have raised concerns, let alone condemning such heinous crimes against humanity.

The U.S. State Department, especially during the Ronald Reagan era, was silent about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against its own Kurdish population during the eight years of Iran-Iraq war before 1987. The first Iraqi gas attack on its own Kurdish town of Penjween, some 40 kilometers northwest of Halabja, was on November 13, 1983 (Khateri and Wangerin, 2008, p. 9) during which 17 casualties were secretly reported owing to nerve gases (Lin, 2008). By any account, the attack on Penjween was a serious breach of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but both, the U.S. and the UN continued to publicly ignore it.

A month after the Penjween poison gas attack, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major Iraqi Kurdish political organizations in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, was vowed to engage in a year-long fruitless bilateral negotiations with Baghdad government. Desperate for a respite after losing one-third of his military might in the southern Iraqi frontiers of his war with Iran, Saddam Hussein, tactically recognized the Kurdish cause with the intentions of making concessions on the disputed status of the Kurdish majority Kirkuk province. As for the PUK leaders who initially earned the sympathies of the majority of the Kurds, their trilateral combats with Iraq, Iran, and most devastatingly their long years of internal fighting with the pro-Iranian leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had earned them unbearable hardship and countless Peshmarga loses. Therefore, aside from daunting the imminent dangers of Iraq’s poison gases, the PUK leaders welcomed Saddam’s recognition despite their awareness of his intentions to assimilate the Kurds.

The PUK saw a number of possible long-term achievements to be gained in aforementioned negotiations. For the first time since 1975, the Ba'athists officially confirmed that no genuine autonomy had been granted to the Kurds; that Saddam Hussein had made concessions to Jalal Talabani, the leader of PUK and the current President of Iraq, promising him not only to share oil revenues from Kirkuk province, but also a remapping of the Kurdistan autonomous region to include eastern side of the Khasa River that runs horizontally through the centre of Kirkuk city. However, once the Reagan administration fully backed the Iraqi regime in its war with Iran, the PUK-Iraqi Ba’athists’ negotiations reached an impasse in January 1985. As a result, renewed fighting between the two sides broke out encouraging the PUK leadership to ally with Iran and eventually make truce and reconciliation with the KDP and the other main Kurdish political parties. This political reshufflings empowered the PUK-KDP Peshmargas to inflict severe blows on the Iraqi military operating in Kurdistan.

Iraq’s reaction to the KDP-PUK relations with Iran

For decades, the enmity between Iran and Iraq had seemed to Kurdish politicians as a geopolitical gap that they could exploit to their advantage. In their reconciliation efforts with the KDP leadership, leaders of the PUK were eager to have Iran play a fair role in managing the balance of power in Iraqi Kurdistan. Desperate to defeat Iraq, Iran played a dominant role in subsiding Kurdish factionalism. As a result, the Iranian sponsored PUK-KDP reconciliation not only boosted the moral and military strength of the Peshmarga forces of both Kurdish factions, but also led to the subsequent formation of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF) in December 1986.

This newly formed political umbrella, IKF, managed to cover all Iraqi Kurdish opposing political groups and parties under the slogan of the “Overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a democratic Iraq and autonomous Kurdistan" (Al-Sharara, 1987). In fact, with direct Iranian support and occasional joint operations with small numbers of the Iranian Revolutionary guards (Pasdaran), the Peshmarga forces, mainly belonging to the PUK and the KDP, launched sophisticated attacks deep inside Iraqi Kurdistan targeting Iraq’s vital economic facilities and military installations located in Kirkuk and elsewhere. Such operations invoked Saddam’s wrath.

On March 18th, 1987, Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) appointed Ali Hassan Al-Majid, Saddam’s powerful first cousin, as the Secretary General of the Northern Bureau of the Ba'ath Party Organization (Human Rights Watch, 1993, p. 62). Shortly thereafter, the RCC issued decree no. 160, dated March 29, 1987, authorizing Al-Majid to be the overlord of northern Iraq with extraordinary powers “mandatory for all state agencies, be they military, civilian and security” in order to exterminate the Kurds in a systematic genocide known as the Anfal (spoils) campaigns (1993, p. 63). Accordingly, Al-Majid—later earned the nickname of Chemical Ali—unleashed his evil wrath to ethnically cleanse Iraq’s Kurdish population, especially those who were suspected of having sympathy or association with the Kurdish liberation movement.

Aside from intensifying the Ba’athist regime’s Arabization of Kurdistan, Chemical Ali ordered the Iraqi military to extensively use chemical weapons against the villages and small cities suspected of cooperating with the Peshmarga forces.

On April 15, 1987, four fixed-wing planes flew low over Helladen, Bergallu, Kanitu, Sirwan, Awazic, Noljika and Chinara, all in Sulaymania province, and dropped their poison loaded bombs (Ala'Aldeen, 1991, p. 7). Although the high winds on that day rendered the exploded poisonous bombs almost ineffective, still, tens of serious as well as hundreds of moderate injuries occurred, mainly among women and young children. A day later, Chemical Ali sent his planes to Erbil province bombing the villages of Sheikh Wassanan, Totma, Zeni, Ballokawa, Alana, Darash and the entire valley of Balisan.

In Sheilch Wassanan alone, a village—in the District of Rawanduz, Erbil—consisting of 150 houses and a population of about 500 people, 121 of them were killed instantly, including 76 children aged between one day and eight years. 286 of the injured villagers were able to go to the city of Erbil to seek medical attention. As they were admitted to the Erbil Educational Hospital, the Ba’athists rounded them and took them to a military prison in Erbil where 202 of them died over a short period because of their untreated skin burns, lung damages, and other internal injuries caused by mustard gas. The remaining 84 victims with moderate injuries were taken to a military range, not far from Erbil where they were shot dead and buried in a mass grave (Ala'Aldeen, 1991; Human Rights Watch, 1993, p. 69-71).

Throughout 1987, poison gas attacks of the Ba’athist regime continued on the Peshmarga strongholds in the provinces of Sulaymania and Erbil, and also expanded to target the liberated areas of Duhok province—bordering Turkey and Syria—as well as the north-eastern regions of the oil-rich Kirkuk province. Ironically, while these horrific atrocities had become a daily reality for the Kurds; and, while the international community turned a blind eye to the occurrences of these appalling crimes, it was clear that the unleashed Ba’athists would not hesitate to use these WMD indiscriminately.

Kurdishness and Iraq’s Arabization Policy

There is no doubt that these poison attacks were used as a catalyst to terrorize with the aim of Arabizing the entire Kurdish population in Iraq. With every air raid or artillery bombardment on Peshmarga strongholds, every Kurd, including the majority of the pro-government Kurdish mercenaries, felt the

irrationality of Ba’athists’ pan-Arab “hate-ness” towards the non-Arab Kurdish minority. In fact, many Kurds resisted the central authorities’ tangible as well as psychological pressures exerted on them to join the ranks of the ruling Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party (BASP). In so doing, they argued that the BASP’s ethnocentric group identity postulated in its central slogan as “One Arab nation, bearing a Perpetual Massage” does not correlate with their separate group identity portrayed as “Kurdishness.” In other words, the Kurdish argument based its substance on the fact that if the Ba’athists’ pan-Arab struggle to unite the Arabs of the twenty-two sovereign nation-states in a united single state was logical, then the Kurdish nationalist struggle to unite the divided four parts of Kurdistan must be logical as well. Thus, the Ba’athist regime devised its infamous Arabization policy after the collapse of the 1974-75 Kurdish revolt.

The initial phases of the Arabization policy began with the deportation of more than 200,000 Fayli Kurds from central Iraq to Iran and the resettlement of more than 150,000 Kurds who participated in the 1974-75 revolt to the southern Arab provinces of Iraq. Parallel to this Kurdish population uproots, the Ba’athist regime brought thousands of Arab nomads and Palestinian refugees and settled them in Kirkuk province while forcing close to 300,000 Kirkuki Kurds to resettle either in Erbil and Suleimaniya provinces or to be deported to southern Iraq. The consequence of this state sponsored neo-racism not only strengthened positions the Kurdish armed opposition groups, but also seriously questioned the notion of Kurdish patriotism vis-à-vis Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Therefore, faced with the Baghdad government’s denial of their people’s basic human needs and in the course of combating Arabization enforced with poison gases as direct threats to their existing identity, Kurdish opposition leaders saw no wrongdoings in letting their Peshmarga forces cooperate with the Iranian forces against the Iraqi military targets. Still, instead of addressing its Kurdish conflict objectively, the Iraqi Ba’athist regime chose to deal with it subjectively. Saddam Hussein and his rubberstamp RCC authorized Chemical Ali to begin prepping then executing the Anfal campaigns of Kurdish Genocide.

After conducting a national census in October 1987, Chemical Ali began his ethnic cleansing preps as following:

1. Aside from offering clemency to the Kurds who were willing to change their nationality from Kurdish to Arabic, no other Iraqi ethnic minorities allowed be identified other than Arabs or Kurds (Human Rights Watch, 1993, p. 25).

2. Forceful evacuations of all Kurds from the "grey" areas—25 kilometres away from major cities, towns, and highways—in which the Iraqi regime had partial control. In so doing, he razed their homes, villages, and towns to the ground without allowing them the rights to rebuild.

3. Impose a total economic blockade on designated "prohibited zones" where shoot-to-kill orders applied on every moving creature at distances of 50 kilometres from major cities, towns, and highways (1993, p. 24).

4. Burn down crops, farms, trees and other plants; and, seal all water springs with concrete and spoil the underground water supply.

5. Finally, launch the Anfal campaigns in eight stages to systematically eliminate everyone who dares to challenge the government’s Arabization policy (1993, p. 25).

It became evident that the target was not merely the Kurdish opposition groups, but the whole population of Iraqi Kurdistan. Eventually, by the Fall of 1988, over 4,000 villages were demolished, an estimated 182,000 Kurds “disappeared”, and half a million people were forced to live in "Protected Camps" scattered all over Iraq (1993, p. 11).

The Anfalization of the Jafayeti valley and the gassing of Halabja

Even before the first stage of the village clearances got underway, the Iraqi regime had crossed a new barrier in its war against the Kurds. Throughout 1987, the PUK Peshmarga forces kept up a steady rhythm of military actions. In early April 1987, the PUK leadership decided to sweep out Iraqi government forces from the Jafayeti valley, which runs southeast from Dukan Lake. Edged in by sharp mountains, the valley was a strategic PUK stronghold protected by difficult terrain. But, because of its close proximity to Iraq’s northeastern borders with Iran, the Iraqi regime had established dozens of forward military posts in areas leading to the valley. As Chemical Ali became the supreme commander of the Iraqi forces in the north, these posts posed looming dangers on the PUK headquarters. Therefore, the PUK amassed thousands of its Peshmergas in the valley and within a few hours had overrun all those Iraqi forward posts and taken hundreds of prisoners.

While these operations boosted the morals of the Peshmargas to liberate large expanses of Kurdistan, they became pulpit for accusing the Kurds with disloyalty and treason. In the eyes of those who saw the glass half empty, Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was considered to be much more important than the Arabization, ethnic cleansing, and the exterminations of its Kurds. Such a wrongfully predisposed international interpretation had encouraged the Ba’athist culprits to devise and execute more deliberate attacks which became known as the Anfal campaigns to wipe out the Kurds, once and for all.

In retaliation to the PUK’s Jafayeti valley advancement, the Iraqi regime began to congregate its forces to take back the forward military posts which were lost to the Peshmarga forces in 1987. Using more toxic nerve gases, the Iraqi regime was able to sweep through the Jafayeti valley on February 23rd, 1988. After two weeks of fierce resistance, the PUK headquarters in the villages of Sergalu and Bergalu came under siege. Thus, the PUK leadership took the desperate decision to open a second front against the Iraqi military. As a strategic manoeuvre, the PUK leadership chose to capture the City of Halabja hoping to draw the Iraqi forces away from the siege of Sergalou and Bergalou. For the Iraqi regime, however, the fall of Halabja meant the PUK’s direct access to the manmade Sirwan Lake which not only provides summer irrigation to much of Iraq’s northeastern agricultural industry, but also electricity generated from the dam at the southern edge of the Sirwan Lake feeding the provinces of Diyala and Baghdad. In addition, if the PUK decides to blow up the dam, then most of Diyala province and Baghdad would be flooded.

As a result, on March 13, 1988, Shawkat Haji Mushir, a member of the PUK leadership, led 500 Peshmargas and fought his way towards Halabja while government forces were busy carrying out the first phase of the Anfal campaigns in the Jafayeti valley. After a full day of fierce fighting, the Iraqi forces retreated from Halabja towards Sulaimaniya city, some 70 kilometers northwest of Halabja. Two days later (i.e., on March 16th, 1988), the Iraqi regime began its aerial nerve gases attacks on the Halabja killing at least 5,000 innocent Kurds instantly and wounding over 10,000 people.

It is important to clarify events before the gassing of Halabja and to stress a very important historical fact that Halabja was not occupied by Iranian troops before the Iraqi planes bombarded the city with chemical weapons. The people of Halabja welcomed the native Peshmargas, including their leader Shawkat Haji Mushir who himself was from Halabja. Except for a cameraman and two unarmed individuals, no Iranians participated in the PUK led liberation operation. Yet, astonished by the people's loyalty to the Peshmargas, the Ba’athist regime tried publicly to link the battle for Halabja and its poison gassing to the Iraq-Iran war. Once the gassing of the city caused thousands of casualties and drove the entire population of the city, some 80,000, to seek refuge in Iraqi controlled Suleimaniya city with others running to the borders with Iran, the Iranians came to the rescue of the victims and entered Halabja. However, in the process of evacuating the wounded civilian Kurds, the Iranian regime attempted to take advantage of the tragic scenes for its political propaganda. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, the impotence of the international community and the lack of condemnation from individual governments in the face of Saddam's clear violation of human rights allowed this regime to continue with its genocide campaigns which ended in January 1989.

Halabja and its effects on the 1991 Kurdish uprising

Once the Iraq-Iran war in August 1988, the Iraqi regime not only expanded its operations to exterminate the Kurds in the North, but also went after the very allies which supported it in its war against Iran, mainly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. After a year-long of extortion policy towards the Arab Gulf states, the Iraqi regime invaded Kuwait claiming the forceful unification of the Arab countries.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, not only caused great International condemnation, but also prompted the U.S. to use the gassing of Halabja as a cause to outlaw the Iraqi regime which eventually was driven out of Kuwait in March 1991 by the U.S. led International forces in the so-called Desert Storm Operation.

The aftermath of Desert Storm led to tragic events in Iraqi Kurdistan. After responding to the U.S. calls for uprising against the Iraqi regime, the Iraqi Kurdish population were able to drive out all Iraqi security forces from Kurdistan, including the Kirkuk province. For a month-long, Kurds felt the true meaning of freedom. However, after the American back-down from toppling the Iraqi regime and, consequently, permitting the Iraqi regime to go after its Shiite and Kurdish opposition groups, Saddam Hussein used all his might to expel close to three million Kurds who had nowhere to go but the icy mountains of Kurdistan. In this tragic process, close to 120,000 civilian Kurds, mainly young children, elderly, and women lost their lives due to fields littered with mines, cold weather, and food shortages. Although the Iraqi regime did not use chemical weapons in putting down the Kurdish uprising in 1991, but memories of Halabja and the fears of being gassed, chemical weapons had greatly contributed to the mass exodus of the Kurds and the casualties left behind.

Images of dying and suffering Kurds on the borders of Iran and Turkey—being broadcasted by international media all over the world, forced the U.S. and the UN to intervene on behalf of the suffering Kurds. By the spring of 1991, the UN decided to set up a “safe heaven” where Kurds could be protected from the wrath of the Ba’athist regime of Iraq. This safe heaven then developed into a “no-fly zone” in which the Iraqi government could not authority over. This precipitated the weakness of the Iraqi regime which eventually withdrew its governmental institutions from Kurdistan leading to a political as well as an administrative vacuum.

To fill the gap, the IKF managed to run internationally observed and acceptable elections in June 1992 that resulted in the first elected Kurdish parliament in Iraq’s history. Shortly after the elections, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established to govern the three dominated Kurdish provinces of Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimaniya. Throughout its first four years of duration, the KRG promised to rebuild the City of Halabja with plans to bring back its original population scattered between Iraqi “designated camps” and various Iranian refugee camps. However, lacking sufficient economic resources and being under the triple embargos of the UN on Iraq, the regional powers (i.e., Iran, Syria, and Turkey) on the KRG, and the Iraqi internal embargo on the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG not only defaulted on its promises, but lost its control of the Halabja district to some hard-core pro-Iranian Iraqi Kurdish Islamic political entities. Thus, Halabja and the Halabjans became exploited and fell victim to International, regional, and domestic politics.

Attempting to erect a sculpture in memory of the victims of chemical gas, a local Halabjan artist was shot dead by radical members of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) in 1994. To add more traumas to the sufferings of the Kurds, the IKF dissolved itself because of factional frictions between the leaderships of the KDP and the PUK. Thanks to the regional interferences, the KDP-PUK relations severely deteriorated to the point that the KDP leadership, in alliance with the Iraqi Ba’athist regime, drove the PUK leadership out of power in August 1996. Hence, a bloody internal fight broke out lasting well over two years.

After the Washington Agreement in 1998, sponsored by then the U.S. Secretary of State, Medline Albright, the KDP and PUK agreed to settle their differences peacefully by which both parties to improve their separate governments and gradually work towards a unified KRG. As for Halabja, it remained under the control of the Kurdish Islamist groups until the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the construction of the Halabja Monument

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, the centerpiece of its justification was WMD. But its precise timing was driven, in large part, by the fifteenth anniversary of the poison gas attack on Halabja. Short on credible intelligence on Iraq’s WMD arsenal, the Bush Administration deliberately used the gassing of Halabja as an international “chosen trauma” to justify his war on Iraq.

At the Azores summit on March 16, 2003, President George W. Bush stated that “on this very day 15 years ago, Saddam Hussein launched a chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi village of Halabja…” Then, Bush reiterated five reasons for going to war: “The dictator of Iraq and his weapons of mass destruction are a threat to the security of free nations. He is a danger to his neighbors. He’s a sponsor of terrorism. He’s an obstacle to progress in the Middle East. For decades he has been the cruel, cruel oppressor of the Iraqi people” (Whitehouse, 2003).

During the invasion of Iraq, a series of Tomahawk missiles were launched against the Kurdish Ansar-Al-Sunna radical group operating in the rural areas of the Halabja district. After uprooting this radical group from the region, both the Bush Administration and the PUK leadership jointly claimed to find chemical raw materials identical to those which believed the Iraqi regime had in possession.

Needless to say more, the radical Ansar-Al-Sunna was driven into Iran and later was designated as a terrorist group operating against the U.S. forces in central Iraq. With the U.S. help, the PUK was able to gain control of the region, including the city of Halabja. A few months after the invasion of Iraq, the

Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) allocated close to US$20 million to rebuild the fresh water system in the city. But, by the suggestion of the current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his trusted man, Barham Salih who was then the PUK factional Prime Minister in Sulaimaniya province, that money was diverted to construct the Halabja Monument. Within a few months, the Halabja Monument was inaugurated on September 15, 2003. Attended by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Halabja Monument became a showpiece for the KRG and the newly installed pro-U.S. government in Baghdad. Foreign visitors were taken to the Halabja Monument dedicated to the victims of Halabja without ever seeing the city or meeting its residents.

The Halabja Monument is built on a 1,600 square meters land. It has a circular shape with a central tower depicting joined hands reaching for the sky. At the top of the tower, sixteen palms hold an invisible steel globe. Each palm representing a day in the month has been shaped differently to represent various ages of a human being. Ironically, the hidden globe represents the world. In other words, Halabja is an international “chosen trauma.” Still, the irregular and the unequal heights of the hands represent different parts of Kurdistan in geographical terms. At the bottom of the sixteen hands just above the circular structure of the Monument, there are several discolored balls. These identical shapes represent the clouds of chemical gases which engulfed the city in March 1988.

It is critical to mention that this bizarre Monument became an added burden for the ignored and suffering population of the city. On the one hand, it became a pilgrimage for the novice Kurdish politicians, especially those who never lived in the district before; yet, own many pieces of lands leading to the Monument. On the other hand, none of the promises made by the KRG officials in the last two decades were materialized. Adding more insults to the traumas of the Halabjans, Jalal Talabani reportedly “had regretted the fact that there were no more Halabjas because it had put the Kurdish question internationally on the map” (Amin, 2009).

Simply put, Halabjans are asking to have a “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” monument with which they could express and tell their own “chosen trauma” and not those who are twisting this very Kurdish trauma for political gains. Nevertheless, when their demands fell on deaf ears, angry young Halabjans planned a demonstration to take place on the eighteenth anniversary of the gassing of Halabja in 2006. As some Kurdish government officials entered Halabja city and forced their way to the Halabja Monument, a group of high school students tried to block the convoy of the officials from reaching the Monument. During that protest, two security guards of the officials opened fire on the protesting students killing one and wounding several others. Therefore, enraged residents marched to the Halabja Monument in protest against the KRG’s indiscriminate brutality. After another alteration with some PUK officials at the site of the Monument, the outraged and crowd entered the Monument burning everything, including much of the articles and the exhibited pictures of their relatives.

The Halabja Monument and the initiative for a Peace and Reconciliation

On my first visit to the Halabja Monument in October 2008, I met with the Director of the Monument, Mr Sarkhel Ghafar Hama-Khan, who tried to blame the burning of the Monument on the radical Islamists who consider memorials and grave yards as non-Islamic practice. In the meantime, there were couple of young and energetic men present during Hama-Khan’s retelling of the burning account. I was told by those two young men that the main reasons for the protest on March 16, 2006 was because of their basic human needs were not met. Their access to clean water, electricity, and essential public services were nonexistent. For the people in Halabja, their human needs were much more important than having a controversial Monument visited by those who played a significant role leading to the gassing of Halabja in 1988. When I argued on the importance of having a monument to commemorate the victims of Halabja, I was told by those two men that they were all for a monument that has a simple shape and truly represents not only the victims of Halabja, but also those who lost their lives during the Anfal campaigns and the Ba’athists’ Arabization policy of Kurdistan. Also, knowing the actual cost of the Halabja Monument was almost half of the allocated US$20 million, Halabjans were baffled by the level of corruption and political deceits in Kurdistan.

Thereafter, I asked Mr. Hama-Khan if there was any initiative or program in place to utilize the Halabja Monument as a touring site for “Peace and Reconciliation” efforts. The Director responded in the negative. Then, I began explaining to him my initiative to form an Iraqi Peace and Reconciliation Missions (PRM) that would bring all senior Iraqi military and police officers, especially those who served under the deposed Iraqi dictator—Saddam Hussein, so that they could never again obey any orders to kill or torture their fellow Iraqi citizens under any circumstances. Also, I provided that I have a strong endorsement coming from the current Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Military, General Babekir Zibari, and some funding for the initiative coming from the Commanding General of the U.S. led coalition forces operating in Iraq.

Mr. Hama-Khan’s initial reaction was that organizing PRM to visit his site for such a humanitarian work would highly be encouraging. However, knowing most of the KRG officials responsible for the Halabja Monument, he reiterated that it would be very difficult to begin with my initiative without getting their prior permissions. To my surprise, I later learned that I needed to meet with two dozen officials working for three different governments; the central government in Baghdad, the KRG in Erbil, and the provincial government in Sulaimaniya.

Once I returned to Baghdad, I met with the then Iraqi deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Barham Salih who while he expressed his full support for the initiative, he also, amiably, cautioned me not to rush. Dr. Barham Salih highlighted the fact that the Halabjans had already made their minds not to forgive let alone reconcile with the perpetrators of the Halabja tragedy.

On April 01, 2009, as a joint delegation made of senior Iraqi and U.S. military generals and I, we visited the Halabja Monument. While there to evaluate the viability of my PRM initiative, Major General (MG) Hussein Duhi—the Iraqi Deputy Chief of Staff for Training—became overwhelmingly emotional and began openly crying. At that very moment, both, the Director of the Monument and the Mayor of Halabja, Mr. Khidir Kareem, in an unprecedented scene, hugged and comforted MG Duhi. Later, he recorded a very emotional note in the “Memorial Note Book” at the Monument as following:

“… I have visited the Halabja Monument to see the infidel Saddam’s criminal acts of using chemical weapons against my people in Kurdistan, Iraq. It is truly a perpetual shame that will continue to hunt down Saddam, his thugs, and his regime forever. Viewing aspects of the said tragedy here in this Monument, I can undoubtedly tell that the actual traumas of the Kurdish people are much bigger and more painful than to be comprehended here.

Therefore, on behalf of myself and on behalf of all members of the new Iraqi Army, I sincerely apologize to our proud people in Kurdistan and reiterate that the Iraqi Army will always serve and fearlessly defend the people of Iraq with all their vital interests. Never again we will be used to oppress our own people.

May Allah forgive and sanctify the pure souls of all those who were victimized in Halabja tragedy and my condolences go out to their relatives …” (Kakei, 2010).

A week later, our delegation had returned to Baghdad where each member had submitted a separate evaluative report to his superiors. Towards the end of June 2009, I was informed that the Multi-National Security Transitional Command –Iraq (MNSTC-I) would support and partially fund the PRM initiative for a duration of one year. Afterwards, it would be up to the Iraqi government to fully fund it or not.

Regrettably, the Iraqi Minister of Defense (MoD), Abdul-Qdir Al-Ubaidi, was not happy with the news of MG Duhi’s emotional breakdown. As a result, he decided not to support the PRM. In fact, I was told by General Babekir Zibari that Al-Ubaidi—in one of his weekly defense meetings—has told his senior military subordinates that if they need to publically be humiliated, then no one will stop them from doing so. Al-Ubaidi has reportedly also said that “by joining the PRM visits to the Halabja Monument, your genuine tears will be seen by Kurds as crocodile tears” (Kakei, 2010). Thus, after six long months of waiting for Iraqi funds match the MNSTC-I, which never allocated, the PRM initiative came to an end. Accordingly, among other reasons, I resigned from my position as a senior advisor to the Iraqi MoD and returned to Canada early in January 2010.

To sum up this narrative, I must say that despite the controversies related to the Halabja Monument representing a top-down “chosen trauma.” The Monument has a great potential to be used as a site not only for PRM, but also for a critically needed either Iraqi or Kurdistani Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Given the volatility of the security situation in Baghdad, the notion of establishing a TRC is too early to be suggested. But, the need to have a TRC in the relatively stable Kurdistan region is very critical. There are many Kurdish tribal chiefs who in one way or another have been accused of participating in the Anfal campaigns of Kurdish genocide. Though the KDP and the PUK are not willing to bring justice to these publically accused tribal leaders, either a TRC or at least a PRM could play significant role in healing the wounds of the Saddam era. Finally, KRG officials need to listen to the legitimate concerns of the people in Halabja. Their sorrows and concerns may be accommodated by modifying the Halabja Monument so that it can represent a solid and an uncontested “chosen trauma.”

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Saeed Kakeyi, Ph.D. Student, Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program,
a longtime contributing writer and columnist for

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