How did I miss this? Those ungrateful Kurds burned down the museum and memorial we built to commemorate the infamous 1988 Halabja gas attack!
Quick history lesson. In 1988 Iraq and Iran were at war, Saddam’s Iraq was an American ally…and was slowly losing the war. (A war of aggression that Saddam blatantly started by the way.) The Iranians were allied with Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq, in the spring of that year with Iranian help Kurdish insurgents captured the ethnically Kurdish town of Halabja (pop. approx. 70,000) from Saddam’s forces. Saddam’s response? His military attacked Halabja with chemical weapons in the worst chemical weapons attack on civilians in recent history. Hundreds of people died horribly, likely there 3-5,000 dead. While initially there was some attempt to blame the attack on Iran, almost all now agree the evidence points to Saddam and Iraq.
Fast forward. The Iranians looted the town before they withdrew, Saddam’s returning troops destroyed what was left. Nothing is done for more than a decade, Kurds live in huts in the ruins, suffering from the residual aftereffects of the gas attack. The USA invades and liberates Iraq. In 2003 a Museum/Memorial is opened in Halabja dedicated to the memory of the victims. Colin Powell even visits and is feted as a hero.
After that, nothing. No reconstruction, no medical help…despite the fact that the security situation in Halabja is excellent. Kurdish Islamic militants rapidly gain influence in the town as the corrupt and/or incompetent Kurdish “government” in northern Iraq makes excuses for not rebuilding the town. In 2006, on the eighteenth anniversary of the attack, locals were protesting the corruption and lack of rebuilding. (It must have been especially galling seeing American and Kurdish politicians invoking the massacre non stop for eighteen years to justify their cause, while actually doing nothing for the people of Halabja.) Kurdish troops started firing above the crowd, the protest turned into a riot and rioters attacked and burned down the Museum. At least one person was killed in the mêlée, many were injured. Nothing has happened since, Halabja remains in ruins and the locals are now so hostile to westerners that it simply isn’t safe for them to travel there.
Gee, one would think that considering how often and how loudly the USA invoked the massacre in Halabja to justify US policy in Iraq, we would have done something to actually help the victims? Even as survivors testified at Saddam’s trial about the atrocity, nothing was being done to help the town. The western press has gone to great lengths to avoid any mention of Halabja, there are only a tiny handful or articles about the town’s plight and the burning of the Museum. I didn’t know of any of this until yesterday, and I thought I followed the situation in Iraq very closely.
The lesson to be learnt here seems obvious to me. What politicians say has no bearing on reality. Despite all the concern about Halabja expressed by leaders in the west, they did nothing there except build a museum. And the Kurdish politicians, so often touted as the great benefactors of freedom and democracy of the American liberation, have done exactly the same. (The money donated by westerners to rebuild Halabja is missing in action.) Halabja neatly illustrates the almost mind numbing hypocrisy in the west regarding our policies in Iraq. We say we invaded Iraq for their own good, yet have done nothing to help Saddam’s most high profile victims except exploit them for propaganda purposes. How does Colin Powell sleep at night?
It should also be clear from the recent history of Halabja why Islamic fundamentalists and militants have grown so powerful and popular in Iraq. The western media largely ignores the light years wide gap between what the west says and what it does, to the people living under the benevolent colonial government we installed in Iraq the distinction is painfully obvious. Halabja’s plight neatly illustrates why so many of them hate us, and why fundamentalist militias and terrorists have found Iraq to be a fertile recruiting ground.
And the almost complete absence of this story in the western media once again shows what a myth the idea of the “liberal” media is. If the western media really was liberal and anti-Bush and anti-war, stories like Halabja’s burning museum would be front page news. I’m willing to bet that few if any readers ever saw the above image. What a mess.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and it is central to illustrating the post. Credit: New York Times)