Poison gas attack on Halabja

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Coordinates: 35 ° 11 ′ 0 ″  N , 45 ° 59 ′ 0 ″  E

Halabja (Iraq)

The poison gas attack on Halabja was an attack by the Iraqi air force to the mainly Kurdish inhabited Iraqi city of Halabja in today's autonomous region of Kurdistan . The attack, which took place on March 16, 1988 towards the end of the First Gulf War , killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people.


Iraq's chemical weapons program

As UNMOVIC found in its 2006 report, Iraq's chemical weapons program had produced a total of 3859 tons of chemical warfare agents by 1991, of which 3315 tons were ammunitioned. With this 130,000 explosive devices could be produced; By 1988 over 101,000 explosive devices (aerial bombs, artillery ammunition and missile warheads) had been fired. Saddam Hussein used chemical warfare agents in the First Gulf War (1980–1988) not only against Iran, but also against the Kurds living in northern Iraq, especially in 1988 during the so-called Anfal Operation .

It is estimated that around 60% of Iraq's total poison gas arsenal was produced in plants that were partly illegally supplied and installed by companies from Germany. Between February 1983 and March 1985, German companies supplied equipment for the production of poison gases, which, according to Iraqis, began in 1986. The Society for Threatened Peoples threw ago before the massacre in Halabja more German than 40 European companies to be responsible for the crimes committed with poison gas war crimes in Iraq, as they are in the construction of gas plants, especially in Samarra had participated.

History of the attack

Halabja was an important center of the Kurdish resistance in the attempts at autonomy against the central government in Baghdad . On May 14, 1987 there were anti-government demonstrations in Halabja. Ali Hasan al-Majid , then commander for the northern regions of Iraq, then executed civilians who were injured in the demonstrations and ordered that their homes be torn down with tanks and bulldozers. There were also numerous arrests and more than 100 people " disappeared ".

Since April 1987, the Iraqi air force has carried out poison gas attacks against villages in the Kurdish mountainous region. The Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) kept the German-speaking media informed about this and reported a total of 87 poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages even before the attack on Halabja.

On March 15, 1988, Kurdish rebels of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, together with regular units of the Iranian army , captured the Iraqi city of Halabja, which then had 70,000 inhabitants, in Operation Dawn 10 (Valfajr 10) .

The attack

According to eyewitnesses, around 11 a.m. on March 16, Iraqi Air Force fighter jets flew over the city. It should have been up to 20 aircraft, including MiGs and Mirages . Then you could see columns of smoke rising, first white, then black and finally yellow. A helicopter was also involved in the attack, the crew of which took preparatory photographs and later measured the wind with the help of scraps of paper dropped.

The type of warfare agent used was later described as mustard gas , sarin , tabun and a warfare agent presumably based on cyanide . The exact composition of the toxins used is still unknown today.

A surviving resident described what had happened in retrospect in 2008:

“It was a beautiful spring day. Just before 11 a.m. […] artillery shells exploded in Halabja and planes began to drop bombs on the city, especially in the north of the city. We ran into our basement. At 2:00 p.m., when the bombing subsided, I cautiously walked from the basement to the kitchen and brought my family something to eat. When the bombing stopped, […] I heard a long, strange noise that sounded like a bomb explosion. A man came running into our house and shouted, 'Gas! Gas!' We ran to our car, got in, and closed the car windows. I think we drove over the bodies of innocent victims. I saw people lying on the floor vomiting a greenish liquid while others became hysterical and began to laugh out loud before falling motionless to the floor. I later smelled an apple and passed out. When I woke up, hundreds of corpses were scattered around me. I then took refuge in a nearby cellar. There was an ugly smell all around this area. It smelled like rotting garbage at first, but then came a sweet smell similar to the smell of apples. Then it smelled more like eggs. [...]

When people shout the words 'gas' and 'poison' and you hear how these calls spread among people, horror spreads, especially among children and women. Your loved ones, your friends, you watch them go and then fall like leaves to the ground. It's indescribable. Birds fell from their nests. Then other animals, then people. It was total annihilation. Those who could walk left the city on foot. Anyone who had a car continued to do so. But those who had too many children to carry on their shoulders stayed in the city and fell victim to the gas. "



American soldier in front of the graves of the victims

According to the BBC, 3,200 to 5,000 people died as a result of the attack . According to Human Rights Watch , the death toll is certainly higher than 3,200 because that was the known number of deaths obtained from systematic interviews with survivors. Most reports fall back on Kurdish and Iranian sources and name the number of victims between 4,000 (for example Dilip Hiro) and 7,000. Almost all of the victims were civilians, and according to some reports up to 75% of the victims were women and children.

Some victims died quickly. An Iranian photojournalist described it as follows: "Life had ended like a film that suddenly stops at a picture." For example, he came into a kitchen and saw the body of a woman who was still holding the knife with the she had chopped up a carrot. Many victims were suffocated in agony. A Turkish photographer came to Halabja 24 hours after the attack and reported: “No birds, no animals. There was nothing living to be seen. The streets were covered with corpses. I saw babies in their dead mother's arms. I saw children who had hugged their father in agony. "

Some were able to escape death by breathing through damp cloths and escaping into the mountainous terrain in the area.

Surviving victims

Around 7,000 to 10,000 people suffered injuries and some permanent damage to their health. The mustard gas burned the skin, eyes and lungs. There was also genetic damage and thus an increase in cancer and malformations in newborns. Further damage was caused by the neurotoxins. Many who survived initially died of serious illnesses over the next few years.

After 10 years, the number of people with Down syndrome had doubled and the rate of leukemia tripled. There was an even greater increase in cardiac failure and congenital heart defects . Miscarriages were more than 10 times more common than in a neighboring area that was not affected by the poison gas attack. Damage to the bones led to physical disabilities, and some victims could no longer walk without aids. Children of mothers exposed to the attack suffered increased damage and deformities in the teeth and oral tissue.

Even 30 years after the poison gas attack, reports from Halabja are that many victims suffer from the long-term effects, including skin cancer , eye diseases, breathing problems, infertility , deformities, nerve damage and psychological problems. The head of the local health department complained that there was still a shortage of drugs and specialized doctors for eye diseases, for example.

The attack also resulted in permanent soil and water contamination and a loss of flora in the affected area. Many residents left Halabja permanently.


Among the first photographers to document the event were the later Pulitzer Prize winner Kaveh Golestan, who had already seen the attack by fighter planes from a distance, and the Turkish photographer Ramazan Öztürk. Iranian authorities flew Western journalists to Halabja by helicopter on March 21, 1988 to inform the world public. The journalists filmed and took photos. Some of the video footage was used in a 35-minute film about the poison gas attack that United Nations officials showed journalists on March 30th in Iran.

Immediately after it became known, Iraq accused Iran of being responsible for the poison gas attack. The US also initially blamed Iran for the poison gas attack. After that, Western analysts and the US accused both warring parties or were still unsure years later.

Shortly after the attack, a conviction by the UN Security Council failed due to the US veto and the abstentions from Great Britain, France, Australia and Denmark. It was only on September 9, 1988 that the US government condemned the poison gas attack on Halabja as a "heinous and unjustifiable act" by Iraq against the Kurdish population.

The comparable poison gas attack on Sardasht , an Iranian city, which took place 9 months before the attack on Halabja, only found media coverage as a result of the exposure of the poison gas attack on Halabja. Another 40 attacks with poison gas on Kurdish towns and cities between February and September 1988, such as north of Sulaimaniyya (February 29, 1988) and near Sardasht and Marivan (March 22, 1988, 31 dead, 450 injured), received less media coverage.

Court judgments

After five years of investigative work, a trial began in April 1992 at the Darmstadt Regional Court against ten German managers whose companies had participated in the construction of the Iraqi plants for the production of poison gas. Proceedings had been opened against twelve other representatives of these companies without being charged. Of the ten defendants, only three were sentenced to less than two years' suspended prison sentence . The main reason for the low fines was the dual-use problem: According to the expert report, the Iraqi chemical plants were suitable for the production of pesticides, so that it could not be clearly demonstrated that the intention to produce toxic gases had to have been clear to all involved . Three of the defendants were acquitted. The remaining proceedings were closed, mainly due to the statute of limitations .

The poison gas attack on Halabja was one of the charges in the trial of Saddam Hussein , which began in October 2005 and ended in December 2006 with the confirmation of the previous death sentence. Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging on December 30, 2006 .

In December 2005, the Dutchman Frans van Anraat was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by a court in The Hague for delivering thousands of tons of chemicals for the production of poison gas to Iraq. The Dutch court classified the poison gas attack on Halabja as genocide and a war crime . In May 2007 the Court of Appeal in The Hague increased the sentence to 17 years in prison.

The former defense minister of Iraq, Sultan Hashem Ahmed al-Tai, and Sabir Abdul-Aziz al-Douri, former head of the military intelligence service of Iraq, were sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2010, the former head of the military intelligence service in northern Iraq, Farhan Mutlaq al- Jubouri, sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Against Ali Hassan al-Majid , better known as "Chemical Ali", four death sentences were spoken in total, of which the last 17 January 2010 because of his responsibility for the poison gas attack on Halabja. The judgment was supported by an unusual piece of evidence. A tape found in 1991 in the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniyya can be heard as al-Majid said with reference to Halabja: “I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who should say something against it? The international community? I don't give a shit about the international community and those who listen to it. I'm not going to attack them with the chemical stuff for just one day, I'll keep doing it for 15 days. ”The death sentence was carried out on January 25, 2010 by hanging.

The attack on Halabja has been cited again and again as an example of the need to try such crimes before an international court. In this sense, for example, Hans-Peter Kaul as judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague expressed himself . However, the International Criminal Court did not deal with the poison gas attack on Halabja because it only started work in July 2002 and it is not allowed to render retrospective judgments. In some media reports and blog entries you can read that the International Criminal Court has classified the poison gas attack as a crime against humanity. This is apparently a matter of confusion with the court in The Hague, which convicted the Dutchman Frans van Anraat for aiding and abetting war crimes.


  1. VX as in the BBC report was not used. Iraq manufactured VX in 1988, three 500 kg bombs and one 122 mm missile were only equipped for test purposes but were not used. → See: UNMOVIC final report (PDF; 13.6 MB)
    The information on cyanide comes from a press release by the Defense Intelligence Agency of March 23, 1988, which stated that Iraq did not have this gas at the time, Iran on it but showed interest. The accusation comes up again and again later. See Stephen C. Pelletiere; see Jean Pascal Zanders (SIPRI): Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons: A Critical Analysis of Past Allegations , 2001.
  2. a) In a January 31, 2003 opinion piece in the New York Times entitled A War Crime Or an Act of War? Stephen C. Pelletiere, former Iraq analyst for the CIA during the Gulf War, argues that the use of poison gas was not genocide but a "tragic" part of fighting. Pelletiere refers to a secret report by the Defense Intelligence Agency , according to which Iraqis had mustard gas, while Iranians had cyanide-based poison gases, which cause the symptoms of the Halabja victims.
    b) One (who?) suspects that Iran produced hydrocyanic acid , chlorine gas and phosgene in small batches between 1987 and 1988 and also used them sporadically in artillery ammunition and bombs during this period. See Anthony H. Cordesman: Proliferation in the “Axis of Evil” (PDF), CSIS , January 30, 2002. This contradicts a statement by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini , who when asked about Iranian use of poison gas, issued a fatwa : “Islam forbids to the fighters the pollution of the atmosphere in the holy war ”. See Dilip Hiro: The Longest War. The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict. Routledge, New York 1991, ISBN 0-415-90407-2 , p. 201.

Web links

Commons : Poison gas attack on Halabja  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. UNMOVIC: Twenty-fifth quarterly report on the activities of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in accordance with paragraph 12 of Security Council resolution 1284 (1999) (PDF; 76 kB)
  2. a b c Christoph Gunkel: Iraqi poison gas attack: smell of garbage and sweet apples spiegel.de, March 15, 2013.
  3. a b "Bugs, Fleas, Persians, Israelis" spiegel.de, April 13, 1992.
  4. ^ A b Society for Threatened Peoples calls for a German and European reconstruction program for Halabja gfbv.de, March 13, 2008.
  5. Middle East Watch & Physicians for Human Rights: Unquiet Graves: The Search for the Disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan hrw.org, February 1992 (PDF).
  6. ^ A b Dilip Hiro: The Longest War. The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict. Routledge, New York 1991, ISBN 0-415-90407-2 , p. 201.
  7. a b c d e f 1988: Thousands die in Halabja gas attack bbc.co.uk, accessed January 8, 2013
  8. Congressional Record , Vol. 148, Pt. 14, October 9, 2002.
  9. Jeffry Goldberg: The Great Terror , in: The New Yorker , March 25, 2002.
  11. a b The environmental aftermath resulted from chemical bombardment of Halabja Territory for the period 1988-2014 , Ali A Alwaely, Hanan N Al-qaralocy et al., International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research, Volume 6, Issue 9, September-2015 , ISSN 2229-5518, PDF
  12. Halabja: Survivors talk about horror of attack, continuing ordeal ekurd.net, March 15, 2008.
  13. ^ A b George Black: The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds , Publisher: Human Rights Watch, 1993, ISBN 1-56432-108-8 , Chapter 3 , see section The March 16 Chemical Attack on Halabja .
  14. Examples of varying information on the number of fatalities: "about 5000" according to a request to the Bundestag in 2010 ( printed matter 17/1022 ); "About 6800" according to an article in the New York Times on Jan. 17, 2003.
  15. a b Obituary for Kaveh Golestan telegraph.co.uk, April 5, 2003 (English).
  16. ^ A b Poison Gas in Warfare: The Invisible Enemy deutschlandfunkkultur.de, April 22, 2015.
  17. a b Iraqi Kurdistan: 30 Years of Halabja Human Rights Report No. 83 of the STP , March 2018 (PDF), p. 24 f.
  18. Possible effects of chemical weapons used in Halabja martyr city at 16th march 1988 on developing oral and dental tissues , Mohammed A. Mahmood, Balkees T. Garib, Saeed A. Abdulkareem, Bagh College Dentistry, Vol. 22 (1), 2010
  19. Iraqi Kurdistan: 30 Years of Halabja , Human Rights Report No. 83 of the STP, March 2018, pp. 6–8.
  20. Iraqi Kurdistan: 30 Years of Halabja , Human Rights Report No. 83 of the STP, March 2018, p. 9.
  21. ^ A b c Richard Guthrie, Julian Perry Robinson: Iraq and Chemical & Biological Warfare. A Chronology of Events: 1988 (First Quarter)
  22. Charles E. Redman , United States State Department spokesman , in first press release, March 23, 1988: Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons: A Critical Analysis of Past Allegations .
  23. Stephen C. Pelletiere: Iraq and the International Oil System: Why America Went to War in the Gulf , 2001, ISBN 978-0-275-94562-6 , p. 206
  24. Nikki R. Keddie: Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution , Yale University 2006, ISBN 978-0-300-12105-6 , p. 369
  25. ^ Salih, Azad: Free Kurdistan. The Kurdish Protected Zone in Iraqi Kurdistan. (PDF) FU dissertation, Berlin 2004, chap. 1, p. 47.
  26. nytimes.com U.S. ASSERTS IRAQ USED POISON GAS AGAINST THE KURDS , accessed January 8, 2013
  27. Brief request to the federal government, printed matter 17/1022 , March 15, 2010 (PDF).
  28. Iraqi Kurdistan: 30 Years of Halabja Human Rights Report No. 83 of the STP , March 2018 (PDF), p. 19 f.
  29. a b Iraq: The executioner and his judge spiegel.de, October 17, 2005.
  30. ^ "Chemie-Ali" receives fourth death penalty spiegel.de, January 17, 2010.
  31. Hans-Peter Kaul, judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in the DE interview deutschland.de, March 18, 2013.
  32. Example: Article by Christoph Gunkel on spiegel.de, March 15, 2013.