Halabja (pop. 80,000) is a small Kurdish city in northern
Iraq. On Wednesday, the Star reminded readers that Saddam
Hussein's Iraqi army killed 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 chemical
weapons attack on Halabja near the end of a bloody, eight-year
war with Iran.
The statement that Saddam was responsible for gassing the
Kurds — his own people — was straightforward.
Indeed, U.S. President George W. Bush has used similar
language about the disaster at Halabja in making a case for a
military strike to oust Saddam.
Yet the Star also reported, in a Jan. 31 Opinion page column,
that there's reason to believe the story about Saddam
"gassing his own people" at Halabja may not even be
Curious about those contradictory reports, and prodded by
Star reader Bill Hynes, the ombud decided to examine how this
paper covered the Halabja story 15 years ago, when Washington
was tilting toward Saddam's side in the Iran-Iraq war.
The Star's early coverage was skimpy. I found no breaking
news story about the March 16, 1988 gas attack on the city.
But four days later, a Reuters News Agency dispatch (filed
from Cyprus) said Kurds, fighting on the Iranian side, had
managed to seize Halabja and nearby villages "where Iran
has accused Iraq of using chemical weapons against Kurds."
Two days later, Reuters reported, Iran was alleging that
5,000 Kurds were killed by chemical bombs dropped on Halabja by
the Iraqi Air Force.
Iranian officials put injured Iraqi civilians on display to
back up their charges. An Iranian doctor said mustard gas and
"some agent causing long-term damage" had been
Burn victim Ahmad Karim, 58, a street vendor from Halabja,
told a reporter: "We saw the (Iraqi) planes come and use
chemical bombs. I smelled something like insecticide."
Two weeks later, the fog of war over Halabja thickened a
little when the Star ran a Reuters story saying a United Nations
team had examined Iraqi and Iranian civilians who had
been victims of mustard gas and nerve gas.
"But the two-man team did not say how or by whom the
weapons had been used," the Reuters story said.
It explained that Iraq and Iran were accusing each other of
using poison gas in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol
against chemical weapons.
In September, 1988, the Star quoted an unnamed U.N. official
as saying the Security Council chose to condemn the use of gas
in the Iran-Iraq war rather than finger Iraq, generally believed
to have lost the war with Iran.
The same story said Iraq's claims that Iran also had used
chemical weapons "have not been verified."
Buried in that story by freelancer Trevor Rowe was an
intriguing piece of information. Rowe reported the Iraqi forces
had attacked Halabja when it "was occupied by Iranian
troops. Five thousand Kurdish civilians were reportedly
Let's fast-forward to Jan. 31 of this year, when The New York
Times published an opinion piece by Stephen C. Pelletiere, the
CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq during the 1980s.
In the article, Pelletiere said the only thing known for
certain was that "Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that
day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi
chemical weapons killed the Kurds."
Pelletiere said the gassing occurred during a battle between
Iraqis and Iranians.
"Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who
had seized the town ... The Kurdish civilians who died had the
misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not
Iraq's main target," he wrote.
The former CIA official revealed that immediately after the
battle the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and
produced a classified report that said it was Iranian gas that
killed the Kurds.
Both sides used gas at Halabja, Pelletiere suggested.
"The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies however,
indicated they had been killed with a blood agent — that is, a
cyanide-based gas — which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis,
who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not
known to have possessed blood agents at the time."
"A War Crime Or an Act of War?" was the way The
Times' headline writer neatly summed up Pelletiere's argument.
No doubt, Saddam has mistreated Kurds during his rule. But
it's misleading to say, so simply and without context, that he
killed his own people by gassing 5,000 Kurds at Halabja.
The fog of war that enveloped the battle at Halabja in 1988
never really lifted. With a new war threatening in Iraq, it's
coming back stronger than ever.
Journalists risking their lives to cover an American-led
attack on Iraq would face many obvious obstacles in trying to
get at the truth.
In light of that, editors need to consider assigning staff
back home to do reality checks on claims and counter-claims made
in the fog of war.
As our retrospective on the Halabja story suggests, the
bang-bang coverage — gripping though it may be — may not be
enough to get the job done.
Don Sellar is the Toronto Star's ombudsman.
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