by Jeffrey Goldberg
The New Yorker
April 2, 2002
In northern Iraq, there is new evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal war on the Kurds and of his possible ties to Al Qaeda.
Issue of 2002-03-25 Posted 2002-03-25
In the late morning of March 16, 1988, an Iraqi Air Force helicopter appeared over the city of Halabja, which is about fifteen miles from the border with Iran. The Iran-Iraq War was then in its eighth year, and Halabja was near the front lines. At the time, the city was home to roughly eighty thousand Kurds, who were well accustomed to the proximity of violence to ordinary life. Like most of Iraqi Kurdistan, Halabja was in perpetual revolt against the regime of Saddam Hussein, and its inhabitants were supporters of the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters whose name means “those who face death.”
A young woman named Nasreen Abdel Qadir Muhammad was outside her family’s house, preparing food, when she saw the helicopter. The Iranians and the peshmerga had just attacked Iraqi military outposts around Halabja, forcing Saddam’s soldiers to retreat. Iranian Revolutionary Guards then infiltrated the city, and the residents assumed that an Iraqi counterattack was imminent. Nasreen and her family expected to spend yet another day in their cellar, which was crude and dark but solid enough to withstand artillery shelling, and even napalm.
“At about ten o’clock, maybe closer to ten-thirty, I saw the helicopter,” Nasreen told me. “It was not attacking, though. There were men inside it, taking pictures. One had a regular camera, and the other held what looked like a video camera. They were coming very close. Then they went away.”
Nasreen thought that the sight was strange, but she was preoccupied with lunch; she and her sister Rangeen were preparing rice, bread, and beans for the thirty or forty relatives who were taking shelter in the cellar. Rangeen was fifteen at the time. Nasreen was just sixteen, but her father had married her off several months earlier, to a cousin, a thirty-year-old physician’s assistant named Bakhtiar Abdul Aziz. Halabja is a conservative place, and many more women wear the veil than in the more cosmopolitan Kurdish cities to the northwest and the Arab cities to the south.
The bombardment began shortly before eleven. The Iraqi Army, positioned on the main road from the nearby town of Sayid Sadiq, fired artillery shells into Halabja, and the Air Force began dropping what is thought to have been napalm on the town, especially the northern area. Nasreen and Rangeen rushed to the cellar. Nasreen prayed that Bakhtiar, who was then outside the city, would find shelter.
The attack had ebbed by about two o’clock, and Nasreen made her way carefully upstairs to the kitchen, to get the food for the family. “At the end of the bombing, the sound changed,” she said. “It wasn’t so loud. It was like pieces of metal just dropping without exploding. We didn’t know why it was so quiet.”
A short distance away, in a neighborhood still called the Julakan, or Jewish quarter, even though Halabja’s Jews left for Israel in the nineteen-fifties, a middle-aged man named Muhammad came up from his own cellar and saw an unusual sight: “A helicopter had come back to the town, and the soldiers were throwing white pieces of paper out the side.” In retrospect, he understood that they were measuring wind speed and direction. Nearby, a man named Awat Omer, who was twenty at the time, was overwhelmed by a smell of garlic and apples.
Nasreen gathered the food quickly, but she, too, noticed a series of odd smells carried into the house by the wind. “At first, it smelled bad, like garbage,” she said. “And then it was a good smell, like sweet apples. Then like eggs.” Before she went downstairs, she happened to check on a caged partridge that her father kept in the house. “The bird was dying,” she said. “It was on its side.” She looked out the window. “It was very quiet, but the animals were dying. The sheep and goats were dying.” Nasreen ran to the cellar. “I told everybody there was something wrong. There was something wrong with the air.”
The people in the cellar were panicked. They had fled downstairs to escape the bombardment, and it was difficult to abandon their shelter. Only splinters of light penetrated the basement, but the dark provided a strange comfort. “We wanted to stay in hiding, even though we were getting sick,” Nasreen said. She felt a sharp pain in her eyes, like stabbing needles. “My sister came close to my face and said, ‘Your eyes are very red.’ Then the children started throwing up. They kept throwing up. They were in so much pain, and crying so much. They were crying all the time. My mother was crying. Then the old people started throwing up.”
Chemical weapons had been dropped on Halabja by the Iraqi Air Force, which understood that any underground shelter would become a gas chamber. “My uncle said we should go outside,” Nasreen said. “We knew there were chemicals in the air. We were getting red eyes, and some of us had liquid coming out of them. We decided to run.” Nasreen and her relatives stepped outside gingerly. “Our cow was lying on its side,” she recalled. “It was breathing very fast, as if it had been running. The leaves were falling off the trees, even though it was spring. The partridge was dead. There were smoke clouds around, clinging to the ground. The gas was heavier than the air, and it was finding the wells and going down the wells.”
The family judged the direction of the wind, and decided to run the opposite way. Running proved difficult. “The children couldn’t walk, they were so sick,” Nasreen said. “They were exhausted from throwing up. We carried them in our arms.”
Across the city, other families were making similar decisions. Nouri Hama Ali, who lived in the northern part of town, decided to lead his family in the direction of Anab, a collective settlement on the outskirts of Halabja that housed Kurds displaced when the Iraqi Army destroyed their villages. “On the road to Anab, many of the women and children began to die,” Nouri told me. “The chemical clouds were on the ground. They were heavy. We could see them.” People were dying all around, he said. When a child could not go on, the parents, becoming hysterical with fear, abandoned him. “Many children were left on the ground, by the side of the road. Old people as well. They were running, then they would stop breathing and die.”
Nasreen’s family did not move quickly. “We wanted to wash ourselves off and find water to drink,” she said. “We wanted to wash the faces of the children who were vomiting. The children were crying for water. There was powder on the ground, white. We couldn’t decide whether to drink the water or not, but some people drank the water from the well they were so thirsty.”
They ran in a panic through the city, Nasreen recalled, in the direction of Anab. The bombardment continued intermittently, Air Force planes circling overhead. “People were showing different symptoms. One person touched some of the powder, and her skin started bubbling.”
A truck came by, driven by a neighbor. People threw themselves aboard. “We saw people lying frozen on the ground,” Nasreen told me. “There was a small baby on the ground, away from her mother. I thought they were both sleeping. But she had dropped the baby and then died. And I think the baby tried to crawl away, but it died, too. It looked like everyone was sleeping.”
At that moment, Nasreen believed that she and her family would make it to high ground and live. Then the truck stopped. “The driver said he couldn’t go on, and he wandered away. He left his wife in the back of the truck. He told us to flee if we could. The chemicals affected his brain, because why else would someone abandon his family?”
As heavy clouds of gas smothered the city, people became sick and confused. Awat Omer was trapped in his cellar with his family; he said that his brother began laughing uncontrollably and then stripped off his clothes, and soon afterward he died. As night fell, the family’s children grew sicker too sick to move.
Nasreen’s husband could not be found, and she began to think that all was lost. She led the children who were able to walk up the road.
In another neighborhood, Muhammad Ahmed Fattah, who was twenty, was overwhelmed by an oddly sweet odor of sulfur, and he, too, realized that he must evacuate his family; there were about a hundred and sixty people wedged into the cellar. “I saw the bomb drop,” Muhammad told me. “It was about thirty metres from the house. I shut the door to the cellar. There was shouting and crying in the cellar, and then people became short of breath.” One of the first to be stricken by the gas was Muhammad’s brother Salah. “His eyes were pink,” Muhammad recalled. “There was something coming out of his eyes. He was so thirsty he was demanding water.” Others in the basement began suffering tremors.
March 16th was supposed to be Muhammad’s wedding day. “Every preparation was done,” he said. His fiancée, a woman named Bahar Jamal, was among the first in the cellar to die. “She was crying very hard,” Muhammad recalled. “I tried to calm her down. I told her it was just the usual artillery shells, but it didn’t smell the usual way weapons smelled. She was smart, she knew what was happening. She died on the stairs. Her father tried to help her, but it was too late.”
Death came quickly to others as well. A woman named Hamida Mahmoud tried to save her two-year-old daughter by allowing her to nurse from her breast. Hamida thought that the baby wouldn’t breathe in the gas if she was nursing, Muhammad said, adding, “The baby’s name was Dashneh. She nursed for a long time. Her mother died while she was nursing. But she kept nursing.” By the time Muhammad decided to go outside, most of the people in the basement were unconscious; many were dead, including his parents and three of his siblings.
Nasreen said that on the road to Anab all was confusion. She and the children were running toward the hills, but they were going blind. “The children were crying, ‘We can’t see! My eyes are bleeding!’ ” In the chaos, the family got separated. Nasreen’s mother and father were both lost. Nasreen and several of her cousins and siblings inadvertently led the younger children in a circle, back into the city. Someone she doesn’t know who’s led them away from the city again and up a hill, to a small mosque, where they sought shelter. “But we didn’t stay in the mosque, because we thought it would be a target,” Nasreen said. They went to a small house nearby, and Nasreen scrambled to find food and water for the children. By then, it was night, and she was exhausted.
Bakhtiar, Nasreen’s husband, was frantic. Outside the city when the attacks started, he had spent much of the day searching for his wife and the rest of his family. He had acquired from a clinic two syringes of atropine, a drug that helps to counter the effects of nerve agents. He injected himself with one of the syringes, and set out to find Nasreen. He had no hope. “My plan was to bury her,” he said. “At least I should bury my new wife.”
After hours of searching, Bakhtiar met some neighbors, who remembered seeing Nasreen and the children moving toward the mosque on the hill. “I called out the name Nasreen,” he said. “I heard crying, and I went inside the house. When I got there, I found that Nasreen was alive but blind. Everybody was blind.”
Nasreen had lost her sight about an hour or two before Bakhtiar found her. She had been searching the house for food, so that she could feed the children, when her eyesight failed. “I found some milk and I felt my way to them and then I found their mouths and gave them milk,” she said.
Bakhtiar organized the children. “I wanted to bring them to the well. I washed their heads. I took them two by two and washed their heads. Some of them couldn’t come. They couldn’t control their muscles.”
Bakhtiar still had one syringe of atropine, but he did not inject his wife; she was not the worst off in the group. “There was a woman named Asme, who was my neighbor,” Bakhtiar recalled. “She was not able to breathe. She was yelling and she was running into a wall, crashing her head into a wall. I gave the atropine to this woman.” Asme died soon afterward. “I could have used it for Nasreen,” Bakhtiar said. “I could have.”
After the Iraqi bombardment subsided, the Iranians managed to retake Halabja, and they evacuated many of the sick, including Nasreen and the others in her family, to hospitals in Tehran.
Nasreen was blind for twenty days. “I was thinking the whole time, Where is my family? But I was blind. I couldn’t do anything. I asked my husband about my mother, but he said he didn’t know anything. He was looking in hospitals, he said. He was avoiding the question.”
The Iranian Red Crescent Society, the equivalent of the Red Cross, began compiling books of photographs, pictures of the dead in Halabja. “The Red Crescent has an album of the people who were buried in Iran,” Nasreen said. “And we found my mother in one of the albums.” Her father, she discovered, was alive but permanently blinded. Five of her siblings, including Rangeen, had died.
Nasreen would live, the doctors said, but she kept a secret from Bakhtiar: “When I was in the hospital, I started menstruating. It wouldn’t stop. I kept bleeding. We don’t talk about this in our society, but eventually a lot of women in the hospital confessed they were also menstruating and couldn’t stop.” Doctors gave her drugs that stopped the bleeding, but they told her that she would be unable to bear children.
Nasreen stayed in Iran for several months, but eventually she and Bakhtiar returned to Kurdistan. She didn’t believe the doctors who told her that she would be infertile, and in 1991 she gave birth to a boy. “We named him Arazoo,” she said. Arazoo means hope in Kurdish. “He was healthy at first, but he had a hole in his heart. He died at the age of three months.”
I met Nasreen last month in Erbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. She is thirty now, a pretty woman with brown eyes and high cheekbones, but her face is expressionless. She doesn’t seek pity; she would, however, like a doctor to help her with a cough that she’s had ever since the attack, fourteen years ago. Like many of Saddam Hussein’s victims, she tells her story without emotion.
During my visit to Kurdistan, I talked with more than a hundred victims of Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds. Saddam has been persecuting the Kurds ever since he took power, more than twenty years ago. Several old women whose husbands were killed by Saddam’s security services expressed a kind of animal hatred toward him, but most people, like Nasreen, told stories of horrific cruelty with a dispassion and a precision that underscored their credibility. Credibility is important to the Kurds; after all this time, they still feel that the world does not believe their story.
A week after I met Nasreen, I visited a small village called Goktapa, situated in a green valley that is ringed by snow-covered mountains. Goktapa came under poison-gas attack six weeks after Halabja. The village consists of low mud-brick houses along dirt paths. In Goktapa, an old man named Ahmed Raza Sharif told me that on the day of the attack on Goktapa, May 3, 1988, he was in the fields outside the village. He saw the shells explode and smelled the sweet-apple odor as poison filled the air. His son, Osman Ahmed, who was sixteen at the time, was near the village mosque when he was felled by the gas. He crawled down a hill and died among the reeds on the banks of the Lesser Zab, the river that flows by the village. His father knew that he was dead, but he couldn’t reach the body. As many as a hundred and fifty people died in the attack; the survivors fled before the advancing Iraqi Army, which levelled the village. Ahmed Raza Sharif did not return for three years. When he did, he said, he immediately began searching for his son’s body. He found it still lying in the reeds. “I recognized his body right away,” he said.
The summer sun in Iraq is blisteringly hot, and a corpse would be unidentifiable three years after death. I tried to find a gentle way to express my doubts, but my translator made it clear to Sharif that I didn’t believe him.
We were standing in the mud yard of another old man, Ibrahim Abdul Rahman. Twenty or thirty people, a dozen boys among them, had gathered. Some of them seemed upset that I appeared to doubt the story, but Ahmed hushed them. “It’s true, he lost all the flesh on his body,” he said. “He was just a skeleton. But the clothes were his, and they were still on the skeleton, a belt and a shirt. In the pocket of his shirt I found the key to our tractor. That’s where he always kept the key.”
Some of the men still seemed concerned that I would leave Goktapa doubting their truthfulness. Ibrahim, the man in whose yard we were standing, called out a series of orders to the boys gathered around us. They dispersed, to houses and storerooms, returning moments later holding jagged pieces of metal, the remnants of the bombs that poisoned Goktapa. Ceremoniously, the boys dropped the pieces of metal at my feet. “Here are the mercies of Uncle Saddam,” Ibrahim said.
2. THE AFTERMATH
The story of Halabja did not end the night the Iraqi Air Force planes returned to their bases. The Iranians invited the foreign press to record the devastation. Photographs of the victims, supine, bleached of color, littering the gutters and alleys of the town, horrified the world. Saddam Hussein’s attacks on his own citizens mark the only time since the Holocaust that poison gas has been used to exterminate women and children.
Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who led the campaigns against the Kurds in the late eighties, was heard on a tape captured by rebels, and later obtained by Human Rights Watch, addressing members of Iraq’s ruling Baath Party on the subject of the Kurds. “I will kill them all with chemical weapons!” he said. “Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them.”
Attempts by Congress in 1988 to impose sanctions on Iraq were stifled by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, and the story of Saddam’s surviving victims might have vanished completely had it not been for the reporting of people like Randal and the work of a British documentary filmmaker named Gwynne Roberts, who, after hearing stories about a sudden spike in the incidence of birth defects and cancers, not only in Halabja but also in other parts of Kurdistan, had made some disturbing films on the subject. However, no Western government or United Nations agency took up the cause.
In 1998, Roberts brought an Englishwoman named Christine Gosden to Kurdistan. Gosden is a medical geneticist and a professor at the medical school of the University of Liverpool. She spent three weeks in the hospitals in Kurdistan, and came away determined to help the Kurds. To the best of my knowledge, Gosden is the only Western scientist who has even begun making a systematic study of what took place in northern Iraq.
Gosden told me that her father was a high-ranking officer in the Royal Air Force, and that as a child she lived in Germany, near Bergen-Belsen. “It’s tremendously influential in your early years to live near a concentration camp,” she said. In Kurdistan, she heard echoes of the German campaign to destroy the Jews. “The Iraqi government was using chemistry to reduce the population of Kurds,” she said. “The Holocaust is still having its effect. The Jews are fewer in number now than they were in 1939. That’s not natural. Now, if you take out two hundred thousand men and boys from Kurdistan” an estimate of the number of Kurds who were gassed or otherwise murdered in the campaign, most of whom were men and boys” you’ve affected the population structure. There are a lot of widows who are not having children.”
Richard Butler, an Australian diplomat who chaired the United Nations weapons-inspection team in Iraq, describes Gosden as “a classic English, old-school-tie kind of person.” Butler has tracked her research since she began studying the attacks, four years ago, and finds it credible. “Occasionally, people say that this is Christine’s obsession, but obsession is not a bad thing,” he added.
Before I went to Kurdistan, in January, I spent a day in London with Gosden. We gossiped a bit, and she scolded me for having visited a Washington shopping mall without appropriate protective equipment. Whenever she goes to a mall, she brings along a polyurethane bag “big enough to step into” and a bottle of bleach. “I can detoxify myself immediately,” she said.
Gosden believes it is quite possible that the countries of the West will soon experience chemical- and biological-weapons attacks far more serious and of greater lasting effect than the anthrax incidents of last autumn and the nerve-agent attack on the Tokyo subway system several years ago that what happened in Kurdistan was only the beginning. “For Saddam’s scientists, the Kurds were a test population,” she said. “They were the human guinea pigs. It was a way of identifying the most effective chemical agents for use on civilian populations, and the most effective means of delivery.”
The charge is supported by others. An Iraqi defector, Khidhir Hamza, who is the former director of Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program, told me earlier this year that before the attack on Halabja military doctors had mapped the city, and that afterward they entered it wearing protective clothing, in order to study the dispersal of the dead. “These were field tests, an experiment on a town,” Hamza told me. He said that he had direct knowledge of the Army’s procedures that day in Halabja. “The doctors were given sheets with grids on them, and they had to answer questions such as ‘How far are the dead from the cannisters?’ ”
Gosden said that she cannot understand why the West has not been more eager to investigate the chemical attacks in Kurdistan. “It seems a matter of enlightened self-interest that the West would want to study the long-term effects of chemical weapons on civilians, on the DNA,” she told me. “I’ve seen Europe’s worst cancers, but, believe me, I have never seen cancers like the ones I saw in Kurdistan.”
According to an ongoing survey conducted by a team of Kurdish physicians and organized by Gosden and a small advocacy group called the Washington Kurdish Institute, more than two hundred towns and villages across Kurdistan were attacked by poison gas far more than was previously thought in the course of seventeen months. The number of victims is unknown, but doctors I met in Kurdistan believe that up to ten per cent of the population of northern Iraq nearly four million people has been exposed to chemical weapons. “Saddam Hussein poisoned northern Iraq,” Gosden said when I left for Halabja. “The questions, then, are what to do? And what comes next?”
3. HALABJA’S DOCTORS
The Kurdish people, it is often said, make up the largest stateless nation in the world. They have been widely despised by their neighbors for centuries. There are roughly twenty-five million Kurds, most of them spread across four countries in southwestern Asia: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Kurds are neither Arab, Persian, nor Turkish; they are a distinct ethnic group, with their own culture and language. Most Kurds are Muslim (the most famous Muslim hero of all, Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders, was of Kurdish origin), but there are Jewish and Christian Kurds, and also followers of the Yezidi religion, which has its roots in Sufism and Zoroastrianism. The Kurds are experienced mountain fighters, who tend toward stubbornness and have frequent bouts of destructive infighting.
After centuries of domination by foreign powers, the Kurds had their best chance at independence after the First World War, when President Woodrow Wilson promised the Kurds, along with other groups left drifting and exposed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a large measure of autonomy. But the machinations of the great powers, who were becoming interested in Kurdistan’s vast oil deposits, in Mosul and Kirkuk, quickly did the Kurds out of a state.
In the nineteen-seventies, the Iraqi Kurds allied themselves with the Shah of Iran in a territorial dispute with Iraq. America, the Shah’s patron, once again became the Kurds’ patron, too, supplying them with arms for a revolt against Baghdad. But a secret deal between the Iraqis and the Shah, arranged in 1975 by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, cut off the Kurds and brought about their instant collapse; for the Kurds, it was an ugly betrayal.
The Kurdish safe haven, in northern Iraq, was born of another American betrayal. In 1991, after the United States helped drive Iraq out of Kuwait, President George Bush ignored an uprising that he himself had stoked, and Kurds and Shiites in Iraq were slaughtered by the thousands. Thousands more fled the country, the Kurds going to Turkey, and almost immediately creating a humanitarian disaster. The Bush Administration, faced with a televised catastrophe, declared northern Iraq a no-fly zone and thus a safe haven, a tactic that allowed the refugees to return home. And so, under the protective shield of the United States and British Air Forces, the unplanned Kurdish experiment in self-government began. Although the Kurdish safe haven is only a virtual state, it is an incipient democracy, a home of progressive Islamic thought and pro-American feeling.
Today, Iraqi Kurdistan is split between two dominant parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, whose General Secretary is Jalal Talabani. The two parties have had an often angry relationship, and in the mid-nineties they fought a war that left about a thousand soldiers dead. The parties, realizing that they could not rule together, decided to rule apart, dividing Kurdistan into two zones. The internal political divisions have not aided the Kurds’ cause, but neighboring states also have fomented disunity, fearing that a unified Kurdish population would agitate for independence.
Turkey, with a Kurdish population of between fifteen and twenty million, has repressed the Kurds in the eastern part of the country, politically and militarily, on and off since the founding of the modern Turkish state. In 1924, the government of Atatürk restricted the use of the Kurdish language (a law not lifted until 1991) and expressions of Kurdish culture; to this day, the Kurds are referred to in nationalist circles as “mountain Turks.”
Turkey is not eager to see Kurds anywhere draw attention to themselves, which is why the authorities in Ankara refused to let me cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran, whose Kurdish population numbers between six and eight million, was not helpful, either, and my only option for gaining entrance to Kurdistan was through its third neighbor, Syria. The Kurdistan Democratic Party arranged for me to be met in Damascus and taken to the eastern desert city of El Qamishli. From there, I was driven in a Land Cruiser to the banks of the Tigris River, where a small wooden boat, with a crew of one and an outboard motor, was waiting. The engine spluttered; when I learned that the forward lines of the Iraqi Army were two miles downstream, I began to paddle, too. On the other side of the river were representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrillas, who wore pantaloons and turbans and were armed with AK-47s.
“Welcome to Kurdistan” read a sign at the water’s edge greeting visitors to a country that does not exist.
Halabja is a couple of hundred miles from the Syrian border, and I spent a week crossing northern Iraq, making stops in the cities of Dahuk and Erbil on the way. I was handed over to representatives of the Patriotic Union, which controls Halabja, at a demilitarized zone west of the town of Koysinjaq. From there, it was a two-hour drive over steep mountains to Sulaimaniya, a city of six hundred and fifty thousand, which is the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In Sulaimaniya, I met Fouad Baban, one of Kurdistan’s leading physicians, who promised to guide me through the scientific and political thickets of Halabja.
Baban, a pulmonary and cardiac specialist who has survived three terms in Iraqi prisons, is sixty years old, and a man of impish good humor. He is the Kurdistan coördinator of the Halabja Medical Institute, which was founded by Gosden, Michael Amitay, the executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, and a coalition of Kurdish doctors; for the doctors, it is an act of bravery to be publicly associated with a project whose scientific findings could be used as evidence if Saddam Hussein faced a war-crimes tribunal. Saddam’s agents are everywhere in the Kurdish zone, and his tanks sit forty miles from Baban’s office.
Soon after I arrived in Sulaimaniya, Baban and I headed out in his Toyota Camry for Halabja. On a rough road, we crossed the plains of Sharazoor, a region of black earth and honey-colored wheat ringed by jagged, snow-topped mountains. We were not travelling alone. The Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service, is widely reported to have placed a bounty on the heads of Western journalists caught in Kurdistan (either ten thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars, depending on the source of the information). The areas around the border with Iran are filled with Tehran’s spies, and members of Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist terror group, were said to be decapitating people in the Halabja area. So the Kurds had laid on a rather elaborate security detail. A Land Cruiser carrying peshmerga guerrillas led the way, and we were followed by another Land Cruiser, on whose bed was mounted an anti-aircraft weapon manned by six peshmerga, some of whom wore black balaclavas. We were just south of the American- and British-enforced no-fly zone. I had been told that, at the beginning of the safe-haven experiment, the Americans had warned Saddam’s forces to stay away; a threat from the air, though unlikely, was, I deduced, not out of the question.
“It seems very important to know the immediate and long-term effects of chemical and biological weapons,” Baban said, beginning my tutorial. “Here is a civilian population exposed to chemical and possibly biological weapons, and people are developing many varieties of cancers and congenital abnormalities. The Americans are vulnerable to these weapons they are cheap, and terrorists possess them. So, after the anthrax attacks in the States, I think it is urgent for scientific research to be done here.”
Experts now believe that Halabja and other places in Kurdistan were struck by a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents, including sarin (the agent used in the Tokyo subway attack) and VX, a potent nerve agent. Baban’s suggestion that biological weapons may also have been used surprised me. One possible biological weapon that Baban mentioned was aflatoxin, which causes long-term liver damage.
A colleague of Baban’s, a surgeon who practices in Dahuk, in northwestern Kurdistan, and who is a member of the Halabja Medical Institute team, told me more about the institute’s survey, which was conducted in the Dahuk region in 1999. The surveyors began, he said, by asking elementary questions; eleven years after the attacks, they did not even know which villages had been attacked.
“The team went to almost every village,” the surgeon said. “At first, we thought that the Dahuk governorate was the least affected. We knew of only two villages that were hit by the attacks. But we came up with twenty-nine in total. This is eleven years after the fact.”
The surgeon is professorial in appearance, but he is deeply angry. He doubles as a pediatric surgeon, because there are no pediatric surgeons in Kurdistan. He has performed more than a hundred operations for cleft palate on children born since 1988. Most of the agents believed to have been dropped on Halabja have short half-lives, but, as Baban told me, “physicians are unsure how long these toxins will affect the population. How can we know agent half-life if we don’t know the agent?” He added, “If we knew the toxins that were used, we could follow them and see actions on spermatogenesis and ovogenesis.”
Increased rates of infertility, he said, are having a profound effect on Kurdish society, which places great importance on large families. “You have men divorcing their wives because they could not give birth, and then marrying again, and then their second wives can’t give birth, either,” he said. “Still, they don’t blame their own problem with spermatogenesis.”
Baban told me that the initial results of the Halabja Medical Institute-sponsored survey show abnormally high rates of many diseases. He said that he compared rates of colon cancer in Halabja with those in the city of Chamchamal, which was not attacked with chemical weapons. “We are seeing rates of colon cancer five times higher in Halabja than in Chamchamal,” he said.
There are other anomalies as well, Baban said. The rate of miscarriage in Halabja, according to initial survey results, is fourteen times the rate of miscarriage in Chamchamal; rates of infertility among men and women in the affected population are many times higher than normal. “We’re finding Hiroshima levels of sterility,” he said.
Then, there is the suspicion about snakes. “Have you heard about the snakes?” he asked as we drove. I told him that I had heard rumors. “We don’t know if a genetic mutation in the snakes has made them more toxic,” Baban went on, “or if the birds that eat the snakes were killed off in the attacks, but there seem to be more snakebites, of greater toxicity, in Halabja now than before.” (I asked Richard Spertzel, a scientist and a former member of the United Nations Special Commission inspections team, if this was possible. Yes, he said, but such a rise in snakebites was more likely due to “environmental imbalances” than to mutations.)
My conversation with Baban was suddenly interrupted by our guerrilla escorts, who stopped the car and asked me to join them in one of the Land Cruisers; we veered off across a wheat field, without explanation. I was later told that we had been passing a mountain area that had recently had problems with Islamic terrorists.
We arrived in Halabja half an hour later. As you enter the city, you see a small statue modelled on the most famous photographic image of the Halabja massacre: an old man, prone and lifeless, shielding his dead grandson with his body.
A torpor seems to afflict Halabja; even its bazaar is listless and somewhat empty, in marked contrast to those of other Kurdish cities, which are well stocked with imported goods (history and circumstance have made the Kurds enthusiastic smugglers) and are full of noise and activity. “Everyone here is sick,” a Halabja doctor told me. “The people who aren’t sick are depressed.” He practices at the Martyrs’ Hospital, which is situated on the outskirts of the city. The hospital has no heat and little advanced equipment; like the city itself, it is in a dilapidated state.
The doctor is a thin, jumpy man in a tweed jacket, and he smokes without pause. He and Baban took me on a tour of the hospital. Afterward, we sat in a bare office, and a woman was wheeled in. She looked seventy but said that she was fifty; doctors told me she suffers from lung scarring so serious that only a lung transplant could help, but there are no transplant centers in Kurdistan. The woman, whose name is Jayran Muhammad, lost eight relatives during the attack. Her voice was almost inaudible. “I was disturbed psychologically for a long time,” she told me as Baban translated. “I believed my children were alive.” Baban told me that her lungs would fail soon, that she could barely breathe. “She is waiting to die,” he said. I met another woman, Chia Hammassat, who was eight at the time of the attacks and has been blind ever since. Her mother, she said, died of colon cancer several years ago, and her brother suffers from chronic shortness of breath. “There is no hope to correct my vision,” she said, her voice flat. “I was married, but I couldn’t fulfill the responsibilities of a wife because I’m blind. My husband left me.”
Baban said that in Halabja “there are more abnormal births than normal ones,” and other Kurdish doctors told me that they regularly see children born with neural-tube defects and undescended testes and without anal openings. They are seeing and they showed moonchildren born with six or seven toes on each foot, children whose fingers and toes are fused, and children who suffer from leukemia and liver cancer.
I met Sarkar, a shy and intelligent boy with a harelip, a cleft palate, and a growth on his spine. Sarkar had a brother born with the same set of malformations, the doctor told me, but the brother choked to death, while still a baby, on a grain of rice.
Meanwhile, more victims had gathered in the hallway; the people of Halabja do not often have a chance to tell their stories to foreigners. Some of them wanted to know if I was a surgeon, who had come to repair their children’s deformities, and they were disappointed to learn that I was a journalist. The doctor and I soon left the hospital for a walk through the northern neighborhoods of Halabja, which were hardest hit in the attack. We were trailed by peshmerga carrying AK-47s. The doctor smoked as we talked, and I teased him about his habit. “Smoking has some good effect on the lungs,” he said, without irony. “In the attacks, there was less effect on smokers. Their lungs were better equipped for the mustard gas, maybe.”
We walked through the alleyways of the Jewish quarter, past a former synagogue in which eighty or so Halabjans died during the attack. Underfed cows wandered the paths. The doctor showed me several cellars where clusters of people had died. We knocked on the gate of one house, and were let in by an old woman with a wide smile and few teeth. In the Kurdish tradition, she immediately invited us for lunch.
She told us the recent history of the house. “Everyone who was in this house died,” she said. “The whole family. We heard there were one hundred people.” She led us to the cellar, which was damp and close. Rusted yellow cans of vegetable ghee littered the floor. The room seemed too small to hold a hundred people, but the doctor said that the estimate sounded accurate. I asked him if cellars like this one had ever been decontaminated. He smiled. “Nothing in Kurdistan has been decontaminated,” he said.
4. AL ANFAL
The chemical attacks on Halabja and Goktapa and perhaps two hundred other villages and towns were only a small part of the cataclysm that Saddam’s cousin, the man known as Ali Chemical, arranged for the Kurds. The Kurds say that about two hundred thousand were killed. (Human Rights Watch, which in the early nineties published “Iraq’s Crime of Genocide,” a definitive study of the attacks, gives a figure of between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand.)
The campaign against the Kurds was dubbed al-Anfal by Saddam, after a chapter in the Koran that allows conquering Muslim armies to seize the spoils of their foes. It reads, in part, “Against them” your enemies” make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly.”
The Anfal campaign was not an end in itself, like the Holocaust, but a means to an end an instance of a policy that Samantha Power, who runs the Carr Center for Human Rights, at Harvard, calls “instrumental genocide.” Power has just published ” ‘A Problem from Hell,’ ” a study of American responses to genocide. “There are regimes that set out to murder every citizen of a race,” she said. “Saddam achieved what he had to do without exterminating every last Kurd.” What he had to do, Power and others say, was to break the Kurds’ morale and convince them that a desire for independence was foolish.
Most of the Kurds who were murdered in the Anfal were not killed by poison gas; rather, the genocide was carried out, in large part, in the traditional manner, with roundups at night, mass executions, and anonymous burials. The bodies of most of the victims of the Anfal mainly men and boys have never been found.
One day, I met one of the thousands of Kurdish women known as Anfal widows: Salma Aziz Baban. She lives outside Chamchamal, in a settlement made up almost entirely of displaced families, in cinder-block houses. Her house was nearly empty no furniture, no heat, just a ragged carpet. We sat on the carpet as she told me about her family. She comes from the Kirkuk region, and in 1987 her village was uprooted by the Army, and the inhabitants, with thousands of other Kurds, were forced into a collective town. Then, one night in April of 1988, soldiers went into the village and seized the men and older boys. Baban’s husband and her three oldest sons were put on trucks. The mothers of the village began to plead with the soldiers. “We were screaming, ‘Do what you want to us, do what you want!’ ” Baban told me. “They were so scared, my sons. My sons were crying.” She tried to bring them coats for the journey. “It was raining. I wanted them to have coats. I begged the soldiers to let me give them bread. They took them without coats.” Baban remembered that a high-ranking Iraqi officer named Bareq orchestrated the separation; according to “Iraq’s Crime of Genocide,” the Human Rights Watch report, the man in charge of this phase was a brigadier general named Bareq Abdullah al-Haj Hunta.
After the men were taken away, the women and children were herded onto trucks. They were given little water or food, and were crammed so tightly into the vehicles that they had to defecate where they stood. Baban, her three daughters, and her six-year-old son were taken to the Topzawa Army base and then to the prison of Nugra Salman, the Pit of Salman, which Human Rights Watch in 1995 described this way: “It was an old building, dating back to the days of the Iraqi monarchy and perhaps earlier. It had been abandoned for years, used by Arab nomads to shelter their herds. The bare walls were scrawled with the diaries of political prisoners. On the door of one cell, a guard had daubed ‘Khomeini eats shit.’ Over the main gate, someone else had written, ‘Welcome to Hell.’ ”
“We arrived at midnight,” Baban told me. “They put us in a very big room, with more than two thousand people, women and children, and they closed the door. Then the starvation started.”
The prisoners were given almost nothing to eat, and a single standpipe spat out brackish water for drinking. People began to die from hunger and illness. When someone died, the Iraqi guards would demand that the body be passed through a window in the main door. “The bodies couldn’t stay in the hall,” Baban told me. In the first days at Nugra Salman, “thirty people died, maybe more.” Her six-year-old son, Rebwar, fell ill. “He had diarrhea,” she said. “He was very sick. He knew he was dying. There was no medicine or doctor. He started to cry so much.” Baban’s son died on her lap. “I was screaming and crying,” she said. “My daughters were crying. We gave them the body. It was passed outside, and the soldiers took it.”
Soon after Baban’s son died, she pulled herself up and went to the window, to see if the soldiers had taken her son to be buried. “There were twenty dogs outside the prison. A big black dog was the leader,” she said. The soldiers had dumped the bodies of the dead outside the prison, in a field. “I looked outside and saw the legs and hands of my son in the mouths of the dogs. The dogs were eating my son.” She stopped talking for a moment. “Then I lost my mind.”
She described herself as catatonic; her daughters scraped around for food and water. They kept her alive, she said, until she could function again. “This was during Ramadan. We were kept in Nugra Salman for a few more months.”
In September, when the war with Iran was over, Saddam issued a general amnesty to the Kurds, the people he believed had betrayed him by siding with Tehran. The women, children, and elderly in Nugra Salman were freed. But, in most cases, they could not go home; the Iraqi Army had bulldozed some four thousand villages, Baban’s among them. She was finally resettled in the Chamchamal district.
In the days after her release, she tried to learn the fate of her husband and three older sons. But the men who disappeared in the Anfal roundups have never been found. It is said that they were killed and then buried in mass graves in the desert along the Kuwaiti border, but little is actually known. A great number of Anfal widows, I was told, still believe that their sons and husbands and brothers are locked away in Saddam’s jails. “We are thinking they are alive,” Baban said, referring to her husband and sons. “Twenty-four hours a day, we are thinking maybe they are alive. If they are alive, they are being tortured, I know it.”
Baban said that she has not slept well since her sons were taken from her. “We are thinking, Please let us know they are dead, I will sleep in peace,” she said. “My head is filled with terrible thoughts. The day I die is the day I will not remember that the dogs ate my son.”
Before I left, Baban asked me to write down the names of her three older sons. They are Sherzad, who would be forty now; Rizgar, who would be thirty-one; and Muhammad, who would be thirty. She asked me to find her sons, or to ask President Bush to find them. “One would be sufficient,” she said. “If just one comes back, that would be enough.”
5. WHAT THE KURDS FEAR
In a conversation not long ago with Richard Butler, the former weapons inspector, I suggested a possible explanation for the world’s indifference to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons to commit genocide that the people he had killed were his own citizens, not those of another sovereign state. (The main chemical-weapons treaty does not ban a country’s use of such weapons against its own people, perhaps because at the time the convention was drafted no one could imagine such a thing.) Butler reminded me, however, that Iraq had used chemical weapons against another country Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. He offered a simpler rationale. “The problems are just too awful and too hard,” he said. “History is replete with such things. Go back to the grand example of the Holocaust. It sounded too hard to do anything about it.”
The Kurds have grown sanguine about the world’s lack of interest. “I’ve learned not to be surprised by the indifference of the civilized world,” Barham Salih told me one evening in Sulaimaniya. Salih is the Prime Minister of the area of Kurdistan administered by the Patriotic Union, and he spoke in such a way as to suggest that it would be best if I, too, stopped acting surprised. “Given the scale of the tragedy we’re talking about large numbers of victims I suppose I’m surprised that the international community has not come in to help the survivors,” he continued. “It’s politically indecent not to help. But, as a Kurd, I live with the terrible hand history and geography have dealt my people.”
Salih’s home is not prime ministerial, but it has many Western comforts. He had a satellite television and a satellite telephone, yet the house was frigid; in a land of cheap oil, the Kurds, who are cut off the Iraqi electric grid by Saddam on a regular basis, survive on generator power and kerosene heat.
Over dinner one night, Salih argued that the Kurds should not be regarded with pity. “I don’t think one has to tap into the Wilsonian streak in American foreign policy in order to find a rationale for helping the Kurds,” he said. “Helping the Kurds would mean an opportunity to study the problems caused by weapons of mass destruction.”
Salih, who is forty-one, often speaks bluntly, and is savvy about Washington’s enduring interest in ending the reign of Saddam Hussein. Unwilling publicly to exhort the United States to take military action, Salih is aware that the peshmerga would be obvious allies of an American military strike against Iraq; other Kurds have been making that argument for years. It is not often noted in Washington policy circles, but the Kurds already hold a vast swath of territory inside the country including two important dams whose destruction could flood Baghdad and have at least seventy thousand men under arms. In addition, the two main Kurdish parties are members of the Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, which is headed by Ahmad Chalabi, a London-based Shiite businessman; at the moment, though, relations between Chalabi and the Kurdish leaders are contentious.
Kurds I talked to throughout Kurdistan were enthusiastic about the idea of joining an American-led alliance against Saddam Hussein, and serving as the northern-Iraqi equivalent of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. President Bush’s State of the Union Message, in which he denounced Iraq as the linchpin of an “axis of evil,” had had an electric effect on every Kurd I met who heard the speech. In the same speech, President Bush made reference to Iraq’s murder of “thousands of its own citizens leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children.” General Simko Dizayee, the chief of staff of the peshmerga, told me, “Bush’s speech filled our hearts with hope.”
Prime Minister Salih expressed his views diplomatically. “We support democratic transformation in Iraq,” he said half smiling, because he knows that there is no chance of that occurring unless Saddam is removed. But until America commits itself to removing Saddam, he said, “we’re living on the razor’s edge. Before Washington even wakes up in the morning, we could have ten thousand dead.” This is the Kurdish conundrum: the Iraqi military is weaker than the American military, but the Iraqis are stronger than the Kurds. Seven hundred Iraqi tanks face the Kurdish safe haven, according to peshmerga commanders.
General Mustafa Said Qadir, the peshmerga leader, put it this way: “We have a problem. If the Americans attack Saddam and don’t get him, we’re going to get gassed. If the Americans decided to do it, we would be thankful. This is the Kurdish dream. But it has to be done carefully.”
The Kurdish leadership worries, in short, that an American mistake could cost the Kurds what they have created, however inadvertently: a nearly independent state for themselves in northern Iraq. “We would like to be our own nation,” Salih told me. “But we are realists. All we want is to be partners of the Arabs of Iraq in building a secular, democratic, federal country.” Later, he added, “We are proud of ourselves. We have inherited a devastated country. It’s not easy what we are trying to achieve. We had no democratic institutions, we didn’t have a legal culture, we did not have a strong military. From that situation, this is a remarkable success story.”
The Kurdish regional government, to be sure, is not a Vermont town meeting. The leaders of the two parties, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, are safe in their jobs. But there is a free press here, and separation of mosque and state, and schools are being built and pensions are being paid. In Erbil and in Sulaimaniya, the Kurds have built playgrounds on the ruins of Iraqi Army torture centers. “If America is indeed looking for Muslims who are eager to become democratic and are eager to counter the effects of Islamic fundamentalism, then it should be looking here,” Salih said.
Massoud Barzani is the son of the late Mustafa Barzani, a legendary guerrilla, who built the Democratic Party, and who entered into the ill-fated alliance with Iran and America. I met Barzani in his headquarters, above the town of Salahuddin. He is a short man, pale and quiet; he wore the red turban of the Barzani clan and a wide cummerbund across his baggy trousers the outfit of a peshmerga.
Like Salih, he chooses his words carefully when talking about the possibility of helping America bring down Saddam. “It is not enough to tell us the U.S. will respond at a certain time and place of its choosing,” Barzani said. “We’re in artillery range. Iraq’s Army is weak, but it is still strong enough to crush us. We don’t make assumptions about the American response.”
One day, I drove to the Kurdish front lines near Erbil, to see the forward positions of the Iraqi Army. The border between the Army-controlled territory and the Kurdish region is porous; Baghdad allows some Kurds nonpolitical Kurds to travel back and forth between zones.
My peshmerga escort took me to the roof of a building overlooking the Kulak Bridge and, beyond it, the Iraqi lines. Without binoculars, we could see Iraqi tanks on the hills in front of us. A local official named Muhammad Ajar joined us; he told me that the Iraqi forces arrayed there were elements of the Army’s Jerusalem brigade, a reserve unit established by Saddam with the stated purpose of liberating Jerusalem from the Israelis. Other peshmerga joined us. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and we were enjoying the weather. A man named Aziz Khaddar, gazing at the plain before us, said, “When I look across here, I imagine American tanks coming down across this plain going to Baghdad.” His friends smiled and said, “Inshallah “God willing. Another man said, “The U.S. is the lord of the world.”
6. THE PRISONERS
A week later, I was at Shinwe, a mountain range outside Halabja, with another group of peshmerga. My escorts and I had driven most of the way up, and then slogged through fresh snow. From one peak, we could see the village of Biyara, which sits in a valley between Halabja and a wall of mountains that mark the Iranian border. Saddam’s tanks were an hour’s drive away to the south, and Iran filled the vista before us. Biyara and nine other villages near it are occupied by the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam. Shinwe, in fact, might be called the axis of the axis of evil.
We were close enough to see trucks belonging to Ansar al-Islam making their way from village to village. The commander of the peshmerga forces surrounding Biyara, a veteran guerrilla named Ramadan Dekone, said that Ansar al-Islam is made up of Kurdish Islamists and an unknown number of so-called Arab Afghans Arabs, from southern Iraq and elsewhere, who trained in the camps of Al Qaeda.
“They believe that people must be terrorized,” Dekone said, shaking his head. “They believe that the Koran says this is permissible.” He pointed to an abandoned village in the middle distance, a place called Kheli Hama. “That is where the massacre took place,” he said. In late September, forty-two of his men were killed by Ansar al-Islam, and now Dekone and his forces seemed ready for revenge. I asked him what he would do if he captured the men responsible for the killing.
“I would take them to court,” he said.
When I got to Sulaimaniya, I visited a prison run by the intelligence service of the Patriotic Union. The prison is attached to the intelligence-service headquarters. It appears to be well kept and humane; the communal cells hold twenty or so men each, and they have kerosene heat, and even satellite television. For two days, the intelligence agency permitted me to speak with any prisoner who agreed to be interviewed. I was wary; the Kurds have an obvious interest in lining up on the American side in the war against terror. But the officials did not, as far as I know, compel anyone to speak to me, and I did not get the sense that allegations made by prisoners were shaped by their captors. The stories, which I later checked with experts on the region, seemed at least worth the attention of America and other countries in the West.
The allegations include charges that Ansar al-Islam has received funds directly from Al Qaeda; that the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein has joint control, with Al Qaeda operatives, over Ansar al-Islam; that Saddam Hussein hosted a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Baghdad in 1992; that a number of Al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan have been secretly brought into territory controlled by Ansar al-Islam; and that Iraqi intelligence agents smuggled conventional weapons, and possibly even chemical and biological weapons, into Afghanistan. If these charges are true, it would mean that the relationship between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda is far closer than previously thought.
When I asked the director of the twenty-four-hundred-man Patriotic Union intelligence service why he was allowing me to interview his prisoners, he told me that he hoped I would carry this information to American intelligence officials. “The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. haven’t come out yet,” he told me. His deputy added, “Americans are going to Somalia, the Philippines, I don’t know where else, to look for terrorists. But this is the field, here.” Anya Guilsher, a spokeswoman for the C.I.A., told me last week that as a matter of policy the agency would not comment on the activities of its officers. James Woolsey, a former C.I.A. director and an advocate of overthrowing the Iraqi regime, said, “It would be a real shame if the C.I.A.’s substantial institutional hostility to Iraqi democratic resistance groups was keeping it from learning about Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda in northern Iraq.”
The possibility that Saddam could supply weapons of mass destruction to anti-American terror groups is a powerful argument among advocates of “regime change,” as the removal of Saddam is known in Washington. These critics of Saddam argue that his chemical and biological capabilities, his record of support for terrorist organizations, and the cruelty of his regime make him a threat that reaches far beyond the citizens of Iraq.
“He’s the home address for anyone wanting to make or use chemical or biological weapons,” Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident, said. Makiya is the author of “Republic of Fear,” a study of Saddam’s regime. “He’s going to be the person to worry about. He’s got the labs and the know-how. He’s hell-bent on trying to find a way into the fight, without announcing it.”
On the surface, a marriage of Saddam’s secular Baath Party regime with the fundamentalist Al Qaeda seems unlikely. His relationship with secular Palestinian groups is well known; both Abu Nidal and Abul Abbas, two prominent Palestinian terrorists, are currently believed to be in Baghdad. But about ten years ago Saddam underwent something of a battlefield conversion to a fundamentalist brand of Islam.
“It was gradual, starting the moment he decided on the invasion of Kuwait,” in June of 1990, according to Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the University of Haifa. “His calculation was that he needed people in Iraq and the Arab world as well as God to be on his side when he invaded. After he invaded, the Islamic rhetorical style became overwhelming “so overwhelming, Baram continued, that a radical group in Jordan began calling Saddam “the New Caliph Marching from the East.” This conversion, cynical though it may be, has opened doors to Saddam in the fundamentalist world. He is now a prime supporter of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and of Hamas, paying families of suicide bombers ten thousand dollars in exchange for their sons’ martyrdom. This is part of Saddam’s attempt to harness the power of Islamic extremism and direct it against his enemies.
Kurdish culture, on the other hand, has traditionally been immune to religious extremism. According to Kurdish officials, Ansar al-Islam grew out of an idea spread by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former chief of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and now Osama bin Laden’s deputy in Al Qaeda. “There are two schools of thought” in Al Qaeda, Karim Sinjari, the Interior Minister of Kurdistan’s Democratic Party-controlled region, told me. “Osama bin Laden believes that the infidels should be beaten in the head, meaning the United States. Zawahiri’s philosophy is that you should fight the infidel even in the smallest village, that you should try to form Islamic armies everywhere. The Kurdish fundamentalists were influenced by Zawahiri.”
Kurds were among those who travelled to Afghanistan from all over the Muslim world, first to fight the Soviets, in the early nineteen-eighties, then to join Al Qaeda. The members of the groups that eventually became Ansar al-Islam spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan, according to Kurdish intelligence officials. One Kurd who went to Afghanistan was Mala Krekar, an early leader of the Islamist movement in Kurdistan; according to Sinjari, he now holds the title of “emir” of Ansar al-Islam.
In 1998, the first force of Islamist terrorists crossed the Iranian border into Kurdistan, and immediately tried to seize the town of Haj Omran. Kurdish officials said that the terrorists were helped by Iran, which also has an interest in undermining a secular Muslim government. “The terrorists blocked the road, they killed Kurdish Democratic Party cadres, they threatened the villagers,” Sinjari said. “We fought them and they fled.”
The terrorist groups splintered repeatedly. According to a report in the Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, which is published in London, Ansar al-Islam came into being, on September 1st of last year, with the merger of two factions: Al Tawhid, which helped to arrange the assassination of Kurdistan’s most prominent Christian politician, and whose operatives initiated an acid-throwing campaign against unveiled women; and a faction called the Second Soran Unit, which had been affiliated with one of the Kurdish Islamic parties. In a statement issued to mark the merger, the group, which originally called itself Jund al-Islam, or Soldiers of Islam, declared its intention to “undertake jihad in this region” in order to carry out “God’s will.” According to Kurdish officials, the group had between five hundred and six hundred members, including Arab Afghans and at least thirty Iraqi Kurds who were trained in Afghanistan.
Kurdish officials say that the merger took place in a ceremony overseen by three Arabs trained in bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan, and that these men supplied Ansar al-Islam with three hundred thousand dollars in seed money. Soon after the merger, a unit of Ansar al-Islam called the Victory Squad attacked and killed the peshmerga in Kheli Hama.
Among the Islamic fighters who were there that day was Rekut Hiwa Hussein, a slender, boyish twenty-year-old who was captured by the peshmerga after the massacre, and whom I met in the prison in Sulaimaniya. He was exceedingly shy, never looking up from his hands as he spoke. He was not handcuffed, and had no marks on the visible parts of his body. We were seated in an investigator’s office inside the intelligence complex. Like most buildings in Sulaimaniya, this one was warmed by a single kerosene heater, and the room temperature seemed barely above freezing. Rekut told me how he and his comrades in Ansar al-Islam overcame the peshmerga.
“They thought there was a ceasefire, so we came into the village and fired on them by surprise,” he said. “They didn’t know what happened. We used grenades and machine guns. We killed a lot of them and then the others surrendered.” The terrorists trussed their prisoners, ignoring pleas from the few civilians remaining in the town to leave them alone. “The villagers asked us not to slaughter them,” Rekut said. One of the leaders of Ansar al-Islam, a man named Abdullah al-Shafi, became incensed. “He said, ‘Who is saying this? Let me kill them.’ ”
Rekut said that the peshmerga were killed in ritual fashion: “We put cloths in their mouths. We then laid them down like sheep, in a line. Then we cut their throats.” After the men were killed, peshmerga commanders say, the corpses were beheaded. Rekut denied this. “Some of their heads had been blown off by grenades, but we didn’t behead them,” he said.
I asked Rekut why he had joined Ansar al-Islam. “A friend of mine joined,” he said quietly. “I don’t have a good reason why I joined.” A guard then took him by the elbow and returned him to his cell.
The Kurdish intelligence officials I spoke to were careful not to oversell their case; they said that they have no proof that Ansar al-Islam was ever involved in international terrorism or that Saddam’s agents were involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But they do have proof, they said, that Ansar al-Islam is shielding Al Qaeda members, and that it is doing so with the approval of Saddam’s agents.
Kurdish officials said that, according to their intelligence, several men associated with Al Qaeda have been smuggled over the Iranian border into an Ansar al-Islam stronghold near Halabja. The Kurds believe that two of them, who go by the names Abu Yasir and Abu Muzaham, are high-ranking Al Qaeda members. “We don’t have any information about them,” one official told me. “We know that they don’t want anybody to see them. They are sleeping in the same room as Mala Krekar and Abdullah al-Shafi “the nominal leaders of Ansar al-Islam.
The real leader, these officials say, is an Iraqi who goes by the name Abu Wa’el, and who, like the others, spent a great deal of time in bin Laden’s training camps. But he is also, they say, a high-ranking officer of the Mukhabarat. One senior official added, “A man named Abu Agab is in charge of the northern bureau of the Mukhabarat. And he is Abu Wa’el’s control officer.”
Abu Agab, the official said, is based in the city of Kirkuk, which is predominantly Kurdish but is under the control of Baghdad. According to intelligence officials, Abu Agab and Abu Wa’el met last July 7th, in Germany. From there, they say, Abu Wa’el travelled to Afghanistan and then, in August, to Kurdistan, sneaking across the Iranian border.
The Kurdish officials told me that they learned a lot about Abu Wa’el’s movements from one of their prisoners, an Iraqi intelligence officer named Qassem Hussein Muhammad, and they invited me to speak with him. Qassem, the Kurds said, is a Shiite from Basra, in southern Iraq, and a twenty-year veteran of Iraqi intelligence.
Qassem, shambling and bearded, was brought into the room, and he genially agreed to be interviewed. One guard stayed in the room, along with my translator. Qassem lit a cigarette, and leaned back in his chair. I started by asking him if he had been tortured by his captors. His eyes widened. “By God, no,” he said. “There is nothing like torture here.” Then he told me that his involvement in Islamic radicalism began in 1992 in Baghdad, when he met Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Qassem said that he was one of seventeen bodyguards assigned to protect Zawahiri, who stayed at Baghdad’s Al Rashid Hotel, but who, he said, moved around surreptitiously. The guards had no idea why Zawahiri was in Baghdad, but one day Qassem escorted him to one of Saddam’s palaces for what he later learned was a meeting with Saddam himself.
Qassem’s capture by the Kurds grew out of his last assignment from the Mukhabarat. The Iraqi intelligence service received word that Abu Wa’el had been captured by American agents. “I was sent by the Mukhabarat to Kurdistan to find Abu Wa’el or, at least, information about him,” Qassem told me. “That’s when I was captured, before I reached Biyara.”
I asked him if he was sure that Abu Wa’el was on Saddam’s side. “He’s an employee of the Mukhabarat,” Qassem said. “He’s the actual decision-maker in the group “Ansar al-Islam” but he’s an employee of the Mukhabarat.” According to the Kurdish intelligence officials, Abu Wa’el is not in American hands; rather, he is still with Ansar al-Islam. American officials declined to comment.
The Kurdish intelligence officials told me that they have Al Qaeda members in custody, and they introduced me to another prisoner, a young Iraqi Arab named Haqi Ismail, whom they described as a middle- to high-ranking member of Al Qaeda. He was, they said, captured by the peshmerga as he tried to get into Kurdistan three weeks after the start of the American attack on Afghanistan. Ismail, they said, comes from a Mosul family with deep connections to the Mukhabarat; his uncle is the top Mukhabarat official in the south of Iraq. They said they believe that Haqi Ismail is a liaison between Saddam’s intelligence service and Al Qaeda.
Ismail wore slippers and a blanket around his shoulders. He was ascetic in appearance and, at the same time, ostentatiously smug. He appeared to be amused by the presence of an American. He told the investigators that he would not talk to the C.I.A. The Kurdish investigators laughed and said they wished that I were from the C.I.A.
Ismail said that he was once a student at the University of Mosul but grew tired of life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Luckily, he said, in 1999 he met an Afghan man who persuaded him to seek work in Afghanistan. The Kurdish investigators smiled as Ismail went on to say that he found himself in Kandahar, then in Kabul, and then somehow here he was exceedingly vague in an Al Qaeda camp. When I asked him how enrollment in an Al Qaeda camp squared with his wish to seek work in Afghanistan, he replied, “Being a soldier is a job.” After his training, he said, he took a post in the Taliban Foreign Ministry. I asked him if he was an employee of Saddam’s intelligence service. “I prefer not to talk about that,” he replied.
Later, I asked the Kurdish officials if they believed that Saddam provides aid to Al Qaeda-affiliated terror groups or simply maintains channels of communication with them. It was getting late, and the room was growing even colder. “Come back tomorrow,” the senior official in the room said, “and we’ll introduce you to someone who will answer that question.”
7. THE AL QAEDA LINK
The man they introduced me to the next afternoon was a twenty-nine-year-old Iranian Arab, a smuggler and bandit from the city of Ahvaz. The intelligence officials told me that his most recent employer was bin Laden. When they arrested him, last year, they said, they found a roll of film in his possession. They had the film developed, and the photographs, which they showed me, depicted their prisoner murdering a man with a knife, slicing his ear off and then plunging the knife into the top of the man’s head.
The Iranian had a thin face, thick black hair, and a mustache; he wore an army jacket, sandals, and Western-style sweatpants. Speaking in an almost casual tone, he told me that he was born in 1973, that his real name was Muhammad Mansour Shahab, and that he had been a smuggler most of his adult life.
“I met a group of drug traffickers,” he said. “They gave us drugs and we got them weapons,” which they took from Iran into Afghanistan. In 1996, he met an Arab Afghan. “His name was Othman,” the man went on. “He gave me drugs, and I got him a hundred and fifty Kalashnikovs. Then he said to me, ‘You should come visit Afghanistan.’ So we went to Afghanistan in 1996. We stayed for a while, I came back, did a lot of smuggling jobs. My brother-in-law tried to send weapons to Afghanistan, but the Iranians ambushed us. I killed some of the Iranians.”
He soon returned with Othman to Afghanistan, where, he said, Othman gave him the name Muhammad Jawad to use while he was there. “Othman said to me, ‘You will meet Sheikh Osama soon.’ We were in Kandahar. One night, they gave me a sleeping pill. We got into a car and we drove for an hour and a half into the mountains. We went to a tent they said was Osama’s tent.” The man now called Jawad did not meet Osama bin Laden that night. “They said to me, ‘You’re the guy who killed the Iranian officer.’ Then they said they needed information about me, my real name. They told Othman to take me back to Kandahar and hold me in jail for twenty-one days while they investigated me.”
The Al Qaeda men completed their investigation and called him back to the mountains. “They told me that Osama said I should work with them,” Jawad said. “They told me to bring my wife to Afghanistan.” They made him swear on a Koran that he would never betray them. Jawad said that he became one of Al Qaeda’s principal weapons smugglers. Iraqi opposition sources told me that the Baghdad regime frequently smuggled weapons to Al Qaeda by air through Dubai to Pakistan and then overland into Afghanistan. But Jawad told me that the Iraqis often used land routes through Iran as well. Othman ordered him to establish a smuggling route across the Iraq-Iran border. The smugglers would pose as shepherds to find the best routes. “We started to go into Iraq with the sheep and cows,” Jawad told me, and added that they initiated this route by smuggling tape recorders from Iraq to Iran. They opened a store, a front, in Ahvaz, to sell electronics, “just to establish relationships with smugglers.”
One day in 1999, Othman got a message to Jawad, who was then in Iran. He was to smuggle himself across the Iraqi border at Fao, where a car would meet him and take him to a village near Tikrit, the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s clan. Jawad was then taken to a meeting at the house of a man called Luay, whom he described as the son of Saddam’s father-in-law, Khayr Allah Talfah. (Professor Baram, who has long followed Saddam’s family, later told me he believes that Luay, who is about forty years old, is close to Saddam’s inner circle.) At the meeting, with Othman present, Mukhabarat officials instructed Jawad to go to Baghdad, where he was to retrieve several cannisters filled with explosives. Then, he said, he was to arrange to smuggle the explosives into Iran, where they would be used to kill anti-Iraqi activists. After this assignment was completed, Jawad said, he was given a thousand Kalashnikov rifles by Iraqi intelligence and told to smuggle them into Afghanistan.
A year later, there was a new development: Othman told Jawad to smuggle several dozen refrigerator motors into Afghanistan for the Iraqi Mukhabarat; a cannister filled with liquid was attached to each motor. Jawad said that he asked Othman for more information. “I said, ‘Othman, what does this contain?’ He said, ‘My life and your life.’ He said they “the Iraqi agents” were going to kill us if we didn’t do this. That’s all I’ll say.
“I was given a book of dollars,” Jawad went on, meaning ten thousand dollars a hundred American hundred-dollar bills. “I was told to arrange to smuggle the motors. Othman told me to kill any of the smugglers who helped us once we got there.” Vehicles belonging to the Taliban were waiting at the border, and Jawad said that he turned over the liquid-filled refrigerator motors to the Taliban, and then killed the smugglers who had helped him.
Jawad said that he had no idea what liquid was inside the motors, but he assumed that it was some type of chemical or biological weapon. I asked the Kurdish officials who remained in the room if they believed that, as late as 2000, the Mukhabarat was transferring chemical or biological weapons to Al Qaeda. They spoke carefully. “We have no idea what was in the cannisters,” the senior official said. “This is something that is worth an American investigation.”
When I asked Jawad to tell me why he worked for Al Qaeda, he replied, “Money.” He would not say how much money he had been paid, but he suggested that it was quite a bit. I had one more question: How many years has Al Qaeda maintained a relationship with Saddam Hussein’s regime? “There’s been a relationship between the Mukhabarat and the people of Al Qaeda since 1992,” he replied.
Carole O’Leary, a Middle Eastern expert at American University, in Washington, and a specialist on the Kurds, said it is likely that Saddam would seek an alliance with Islamic terrorists to serve his own interests. “I know that there are Mukhabarat agents throughout Kurdistan,” O’Leary said, and went on, “One way the Mukhabarat could destabilize the Kurdish experiment in democracy is to link up with Islamic radical groups. Their interests dovetail completely. They both have much to fear from the democratic, secular experiment of the Kurds in the safe haven, and they both obviously share a hatred for America.”
8. THE PRESENT DANGER
A paradox of life in northern Iraq is that, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children suffer from the effects of chemical attacks, the child-mortality rate in the Kurdish zone has improved over the past ten years. Prime Minister Salih credits this to, of all things, sanctions placed on the Iraqi regime by the United Nations after the Gulf War because of Iraq’s refusal to dismantle its nonconventional-weapons program. He credits in particular the program begun in 1997, known as oil-for-food, which was meant to mitigate the effects of sanctions on civilians by allowing the profits from Iraqi oil sales to buy food and medicine. Calling this program a “fantastic concept,” Salih said, “For the first time in our history, Iraqi citizens all citizens are insured a portion of the country’s oil wealth. The north is a testament to the success of the program. Oil is sold and food is bought.”
I asked Salih to respond to the criticism, widely aired in the West, that the sanctions have led to the death of thousands of children. “Sanctions don’t kill Iraqi children,” he said. “The regime kills children.”
This puzzled me. If it was true, then why were the victims of the gas attacks still suffering from a lack of health care? Across Kurdistan, in every hospital I visited, the complaints were the same: no CT scans, no MRIs, no pediatric surgery, no advanced diagnostic equipment, not even surgical gloves. I asked Salih why the money designated by the U.N. for the Kurds wasn’t being used for advanced medical treatment. The oil-for-food program has one enormous flaw, he replied. When the program was introduced, the Kurds were promised thirteen per cent of the country’s oil revenue, but because of the terms of the agreement between Baghdad and the U.N. a “defect,” Salih said the government controls the flow of food, medicine, and medical equipment to the very people it slaughtered. Food does arrive, he conceded, and basic medicines as well, but at Saddam’s pace.
On this question of the work of the United Nations and its agencies, the rival Kurdish parties agree. “We’ve been asking for a four-hundred-bed hospital for Sulaimaniya for three years,” said Nerchivan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the region controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, and Salih’s counterpart. Sulaimaniya is in Salih’s territory, but in this case geography doesn’t matter. “It’s our money,” Barzani said. “But we need the approval of the Iraqis. They get to decide. The World Health Organization is taking its orders from the Iraqis. It’s crazy.”
Barzani and Salih accused the World Health Organization, in particular, of rewarding with lucrative contracts only companies favored by Saddam. “Every time I interact with the U.N.,” Salih said, “I think, My God, Jesse Helms is right. If the U.N. can’t help us, this poor, dispossessed Muslim nation, then who is it for?”
Many Kurds believe that Iraq’s friends in the U.N. system, particularly members of the Arab bloc, have worked to keep the Kurds’ cause from being addressed. The Kurds face an institutional disadvantage at the U.N., where, unlike the Palestinians, they have not even been granted official observer status. Salih grew acerbic: “Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority of Mr. Arafat. We have spent the last ten years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society. What has he built?”
Last week, in New York, I met with Benon Sevan, the United Nations undersecretary-general who oversees the oil-for-food program. He quickly let me know that he was unmoved by the demands of the Kurds. “If they had a theme song, it would be ‘Give Me, Give Me, Give Me,’ ” Sevan said. “I’m getting fed up with their complaints. You can tell them that.” He said that under the oil-for-food program the “three northern governorates” U.N. officials avoid the word “Kurdistan “have been allocated billions of dollars in goods and services. “I don’t know if they’ve ever had it so good,” he said.
I mentioned the Kurds’ complaint that they have been denied access to advanced medical equipment, and he said, “Nobody prevents them from asking. They should go ask the World Health Organization “which reports to Sevan on matters related to Iraq. When I told Sevan that the Kurds have repeatedly asked the W.H.O., he said, “I’m not going to pass judgment on the W.H.O.” As the interview ended, I asked Sevan about the morality of allowing the Iraqi regime to control the flow of food and medicine into Kurdistan. “Nobody’s innocent,” he said. “Please don’t talk about morals with me.”
When I went to Kurdistan in January to report on the 1988 genocide of the Kurds, I did not expect to be sidetracked by a debate over U.N. sanctions. And I certainly didn’t expect to be sidetracked by crimes that Saddam is committing against the Kurds now in particular “nationality correction,” the law that Saddam’s security services are using to implement a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Large-scale operations against the Kurds in Kirkuk, a city southeast of Erbil, and in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan under Saddam’s control, have received scant press attention in the West; there have been few news accounts and no Security Council condemnations drafted in righteous anger.
Saddam’s security services have been demanding that Kurds “correct” their nationality by signing papers to indicate that their birth records are false that they are in fact Arab. Those who don’t sign have their property seized. Many have been evicted, often to Kurdish-controlled regions, to make room for Arab families. According to both the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, more than a hundred thousand Kurds have been expelled from the Kirkuk area over the past two years.
Nationality correction is one technique that the Baghdad regime is using in an over-all “Arabization” campaign, whose aim is to replace the inhabitants of Kurdish cities, especially the oil-rich Kirkuk, with Arabs from central and southern Iraq, and even, according to persistent reports, with Palestinians. Arabization is not new, Peter Galbraith, a professor at the National Defense University and a former senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says. Galbraith has monitored Saddam’s anti-Kurdish activities since before the Gulf War. “It’s been going on for twenty years,” he told me. “Maybe it’s picked up speed, but it is certainly nothing new. To my mind, it’s part of a larger process that has been under way for many years, and is aimed at reducing the territory occupied by the Kurds and at destroying rural Kurdistan.”
“This is the apotheosis of cultural genocide,” said Saedi Barzinji, the president of Salahaddin University, in Erbil, who is a human-rights lawyer and Massoud Barzani’s legal adviser. Barzinji and other Kurdish leaders believe that Saddam is trying to set up a buffer zone between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan, just in case the Kurds win their independence. To help with this, Barzinji told me last month, Saddam is trying to rewrite Kirkuk’s history, to give it an “Arab” past. If Kurds, Barzinji went on, “don’t change their ethnic origin, they are given no food rations, no positions in government, no right to register the names of their new babies. In the last three to four weeks, hospitals have been ordered, the maternity wards ordered, not to register any Kurdish name.” New parents are “obliged to choose an Arab name.” Barzinji said that the nationality-correction campaign extends even to the dead. “Saddam is razing the gravestones, erasing the past, putting in new ones with Arab names,” he said. “He wants to show that Kirkuk has always been Arab.”
Some of the Kurds crossing the demarcation line between Saddam’s forces and the Kurdish zone, it is said, are not being expelled but are fleeing for economic reasons. But in camps across Kurdistan I met refugees who told me stories of visits from the secret police in the middle of the night.
Many of the refugees from Kirkuk live in tent camps built on boggy fields. I visited one such camp at Beneslawa, not far from Erbil, where the mud was so thick that it nearly pulled off my shoes. The people at the campo several hundred, according to two estimates I heard are ragged and sick. A man named Howar told me that his suffering could not have been avoided even if he had agreed to change his ethnic identity.
“When you agree to change your nationality, the police write on your identity documents ‘second-degree Arab,’ which they know means Kurd,” he told me. “So they always know you’re a Kurd.” (In a twist characteristic of Saddam’s regime, Kurdish leaders told me, Kurds who agree to “change” their nationality are fined for having once claimed falsely to be Kurdish.)
Another refugee, Shawqat Hamid Muhammad, said that her son had gone to jail for two months for having a photograph of Mustafa Barzani in his possession. She said that she and her family had been in the Beneslawa camp for two months. “The police came and knocked on our door and told us we have to leave Kirkuk,” she said. “We had to rent a truck to take our things out. We were given one day to leave. We have no idea who is in our house.” Another refugee, a man named Ibrahim Jamil, wandered over to listen to the conversation. “The Arabs are winning Kirkuk,” he said. “Soon the only people there will be Arabs, and Kurds who call themselves Arabs. They say we should be Arab. But I’m a Kurd. It would be easier for me to die than be an Arab. How can I not be a Kurd?”
Peter Galbraith told me that in 1987 he witnessed the destruction of Kurdish villages and cemeteries “anything that was related to Kurdish identity,” he said. “This was one of the factors that led me to conclude that it is a policy of genocide, a crime of intent, destroying a group whole or in part.”
9. IRAQ’S ARMS RACE
In a series of meetings in the summer and fall of 1995, Charles Duelfer, the deputy executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM the now defunct arms-inspection team met in Baghdad with Iraqi government delegations. The subject was the status of Iraq’s nonconventional-weapons programs, and Duelfer, an American diplomat on loan to the United Nations, was close to a breakthrough.
In early August, Saddam’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel had defected to Jordan, and had then spoken publicly about Iraq’s offensive biological, chemical, and nuclear capabilities. (Kamel later returned to Iraq and was killed almost immediately, on his father-in-law’s orders.) The regime’s credibility was badly damaged by Kamel’s revelations, and during these meetings the Iraqi representatives decided to tell Duelfer and his team more than they had ever revealed before. “This was the first time Iraq actually agreed to discuss the Presidential origins of these programs,” Duelfer recalled. Among the most startling admissions made by the Iraqi scientists was that they had weaponized the biological agent aflatoxin.
Aflatoxin, which is produced from types of fungi that occur in moldy grains, is the biological agent that some Kurdish physicians suspect was mixed with chemical weapons and dropped on Kurdistan. Christine Gosden, the English geneticist, told me, “There is absolutely no forensic evidence whatsoever that aflatoxins have ever been used in northern Iraq, but this may be because no systematic testing has been carried out in the region, to my knowledge.”
Duelfer told me, “We kept pressing the Iraqis to discuss the concept of use for aflatoxin. We learned that the origin of the biological-weapons program is in the security services, not in the military meaning that it really came out of the assassinations program.” The Iraqis, Duelfer said, admitted something else: they had loaded aflatoxin into two Scud-ready warheads, and also mixed aflatoxin with tear gas. They wouldn’t say why.
In an op-ed article that Duelfer wrote for the Los Angeles Times last year about Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, he offered this hypothesis: “If a regime wished to conceal a biological attack, what better way than this? Victims would suffer the short-term effects of inhaling tear gas and would assume that this was the totality of the attack: Subsequent cancers would not be linked to the prior event.”
United Nations inspectors were alarmed to learn about the aflatoxin program. Richard Spertzel, the chief biological-weapons inspector for UNSCOM, put it this way: “It is a devilish weapon. Iraq was quite clearly aware of the long-term carcinogenic effect of aflatoxin. Aflatoxin can only do one thing destroy people’s livers. And I suspect that children are more susceptible. From a moral standpoint, aflatoxin is the cruellest weapon it means watching children die slowly of liver cancer.”
Spertzel believes that if aflatoxin were to be used as a weapon it would not be delivered by a missile. “Aflatoxin is a little tricky,” he said. “I don’t know if a single dose at one point in time is going to give you the long-term effects. Continuous, repeated exposure through food would be more effective.” When I asked Spertzel if other countries have weaponized aflatoxin, he replied, “I don’t know any other country that did it. I don’t know any country that would.”
It is unclear what biological and chemical weapons Saddam possesses today. When he maneuvered UNSCOM out of his country in 1998, weapons inspectors had found a sizable portion of his arsenal but were vexed by what they couldn’t find. His scientists certainly have produced and weaponized anthrax, and they have manufactured botulinum toxin, which causes muscular paralysis and death. They’ve made Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium that causes gas gangrene, a condition in which the flesh rots. They have also made wheat-cover smut, which can be used to poison crops, and ricin, which, when absorbed into the lungs, causes hemorrhagic pneumonia.
According to Gary Milhollin, the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, whose Iraq Watch project monitors Saddam’s weapons capabilities, inspectors could not account for a great deal of weaponry believed to be in Iraq’s possession, including almost four tons of the nerve agent VX; six hundred tons of ingredients for VX; as much as three thousand tons of other poison-gas agents; and at least five hundred and fifty artillery shells filled with mustard gas. Nor did the inspectors find any stores of aflatoxin.
Saddam’s motives are unclear, too. For the past decade, the development of these weapons has caused nothing but trouble for him; his international isolation grows not from his past crimes but from his refusal to let weapons inspectors dismantle his nonconventional-weapons programs. When I asked the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya why Saddam is so committed to these programs, he said, “I think this regime developed a very specific ideology associated with power, and how to extend that power, and these weapons play a very important psychological and political part.” Makiya added, “They are seen as essential to the security and longevity of the regime.”
Certainly, the threat of another Halabja has kept Iraq’s citizens terrorized and compliant. Amatzia Baram, the Iraq expert at the University of Haifa, told me that in 1999 Iraqi troops in white biohazard suits suddenly surrounded the Shiite holy city of Karbala, in southern Iraq, which has been the scene of frequent uprisings against Saddam. (The Shiites make up about sixty per cent of Iraq’s population, and the regime is preoccupied with the threat of another rebellion.) The men in the white suits did nothing; they just stood there. “But the message was clear,” Baram said. ” ‘What we did to the Kurds in Halabja we can do to you.’ It’s a very effective psychological weapon. From the information I saw, people were really panicky. They ran into their homes and shut their windows. It worked extremely well.”
Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction clearly are not meant solely for domestic use. Several years ago in Baghdad, Richard Butler, who was then the chairman of UNSCOM, fell into conversation with Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s confidant and Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister. Butler asked Aziz to explain the rationale for Iraq’s biological-weapons project, and he recalled Aziz’s answer: “He said, ‘We made bioweapons in order to deal with the Persians and the Jews.’ ”
Iraqi dissidents agree that Iraq’s programs to build weapons of mass destruction are focussed on Israel. “Israel is the whole game,” Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, told me. “Saddam is always saying publicly, ‘Who is going to fire the fortieth missile?’ “a reference to the thirty-nine Scud missiles he fired at Israel during the Gulf War. “He thinks he can kill one hundred thousand Israelis in a day with biological weapons.” Chalabi added, “This is the only way he can be Saladin “the Muslim hero who defeated the Crusaders. Students of Iraq and its government generally agree that Saddam would like to project himself as a leader of all the Arabs, and that the one sure way to do that is by confronting Israel.
In the Gulf War, when Saddam attacked Israel, he was hoping to provoke an Israeli response, which would drive America’s Arab friends out of the allied coalition. Today, the experts say, Saddam’s desire is to expel the Jews from history. In October of 2000, at an Arab summit in Cairo, I heard the vice-chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, a man named Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, deliver a speech on Saddam’s behalf, saying, “Jihad alone is capable of liberating Palestine and the rest of the Arab territories occupied by dirty Jews in their distorted Zionist entity.”
Amatzia Baram said, “Saddam can absolve himself of all sins in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim worlds by bringing Israel to its knees. He not only wants to be a hero in his own press, which already recognizes him as a Saladin, but wants to make sure that a thousand years from now children in the fourth grade will know that he is the one who destroyed Israel.”
It is no comfort to the Kurds that the Jews are now Saddam’s main preoccupation. The Kurds I spoke with, even those who agree that Saddam is aiming his remaining Scuds at Israel, believe that he is saving some of his “special weapons” a popular euphemism inside the Iraqi regime for a return visit to Halabja. The day I visited the Kalak Bridge, which divides the Kurds from the Iraqi Army’s Jerusalem brigade, I asked Muhammad Najar, the local official, why the brigade was not facing west, toward its target. “The road to Jerusalem,” he replied, “goes through Kurdistan.”
A few weeks ago, after my return from Iraq, I stopped by the Israeli Embassy in Washington to see the Ambassador, David Ivry. In 1981, Ivry, who then led Israel’s Air Force, commanded Operation Opera, the strike against the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. The action was ordered by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who believed that by hitting the reactor shortly before it went online he could stop Iraq from building an atomic bomb. After the attack, Israel was condemned for what the Times called “inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.” Today, though, Israel’s action is widely regarded as an act of muscular arms control. “In retrospect, the Israeli strike bought us a decade,” Gary Milhollin, of the Wisconsin Project, said. “I think if the Israelis had not hit the reactor the Iraqis would have had bombs by 1990″óthe year Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Today, a satellite photograph of the Osirak site hangs on a wall in Ivry’s office. The inscription reads, “For General David Ivry With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.” It is signed “Dick Cheney.”
“Preemption is always a positive,” Ivry said.
Saddam Hussein never gave up his hope of turning Iraq into a nuclear power. After the Osirak attack, he rebuilt, redoubled his efforts, and dispersed his facilities. Those who have followed Saddam’s progress believe that no single strike today would eradicate his nuclear program. I talked about this prospect last fall with August Hanning, the chief of the B.N.D., the German intelligence agency, in Berlin. We met in the new glass-and-steel Chancellery, overlooking the renovated Reichstag.
The Germans have a special interest in Saddam’s intentions. German industry is well represented in the ranks of foreign companies that have aided Saddam’s nonconventional-weapons programs, and the German government has been publicly regretful. Hanning told me that his agency had taken the lead in exposing the companies that helped Iraq build a poison-gas factory at Samarra. The Germans also feel, for the most obvious reasons, a special responsibility to Israel’s security, and this, too, motivates their desire to expose Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Hanning is tall, thin, and almost translucently white. He is sparing with words, but he does not equivocate. “It is our estimate that Iraq will have an atomic bomb in three years,” he said.
There is some debate among arms-control experts about exactly when Saddam will have nuclear capabilities. But there is no disagreement that Iraq, if unchecked, will have them soon, and a nuclear-armed Iraq would alter forever the balance of power in the Middle East. “The first thing that occurs to any military planner is force protection,” Charles Duelfer told me. “If your assessment of the threat is chemical or biological, you can get individual protective equipment and warning systems. If you think he’s going to use a nuclear weapon, where are you going to concentrate your forces?”
There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological and chemical weapons. When I talked about Saddam’s past with the medical geneticist Christine Gosden, she said, “Please understand, the Kurds were for practice.”