New UK plan could bring internationals
complicit in Halabja massacre to justice
By Shwan Zulal
Photo: Yahya Ahmad Barzinji/Halabja-Sulaimaniyah.
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Saddam Hussein’s poison
gas attacks on Halabja still claim victims today
with locals sick and projects on hold because of
contamination. International firms that supplied gas
ingredients have never been brought to justice
either. A new UK plan could change all that.
Of all the crimes against humanity committed by
former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, the one that
many still remember is the poison gas attack on the
town of Halabja, in the northern state of Iraqi
Kurdistan, in 1988. It resulted in the deaths of an
estimated 5,000 civilians and injury to thousands
more. And despite the time that has passed since,
residents in the town today are still suffering from
the ongoing effects of the gas attacks, whether
physical, psychological or environmental.
The victims in Halabja were buried in mass graves
shortly after the chemical gas attack, during which
substances such as mustard gas and the chemical
weapons, sarin and tabun, were used.
The chemicals killed Halabja’s residents
indiscriminately and the mass burial that took place
afterwards, happened without the decontamination of
the victims’ bodies.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are buried in mass
graves around the country and the process of
exhumation and identification is an ongoing one.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003,www.ekurd.net
crowds actually descended on some well known mass
graves, looking for their missing loved ones.
Emotion took over as people were desperate to know
what had happened to their loved ones. This resulted
in many graves being dug up and thousands of bodies
being discovered; however the process was messy and
The Halabja mass graves present an altogether
different problem. “The last time we tried to dig
the mass graves in Halabja a year ago, two of the
workers died as a result and others were
hospitalised due to their exposure to the mustard
gas within the graves,” Dr Yasin Kareem Amin, the
director of the Forensic Laboratories in Erbil,
"The people in the mass graves were buried soon
after the chemical attack and due to this there is a
high risk of residual contamination. Therefore it is
extremely dangerous to exhume these bodies without
military standard chemical protection gear,
equipment, expertise and training,” explained Hamish
de Bretton-Gordon, the CEO of British company
SecureBio, which sent a delegation to Iraqi
Kurdistan late last year to assess the situation
with Halabja’s mass graves. "If our project goes
ahead, we will ensure that nobody else is killed or
injured as a result of the Halabja genocide.”
At a conference held in London last week - The
International Exhibition and Conference on Mass
Graves organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Human
Rights to discuss and highlight human rights
violations committed by the previous Iraqi
government, led by Saddam Hussein - it was announced
that SecureBio had submitted a plan for further
exhumation and decontamination of the Halabja sites.
The plan is due to go to Iraqi Kurdistan’s
parliament for approval shortly.
De Bretton-Gordon said that when he visited Halabja
in November 2011, tests that SecureBio, a company
specialising in what is known as CBRN (chemical,
biological, radiological, and nuclear) training and
consultancy, had carried out indicated there were
still “traces of mustard gas" present.
"SecureBio has already forwarded plans to the
Kurdish government on how to safely exhume bodies
from Halabja mass graves,” de Bretton-Gordon
continued, “as well as a comprehensive plan on how
to identify the bodies by taking DNA samples on the
scene, without spreading contamination wider.”
SecureBio’s proposals have been forwarded to Iraqi
Kurdistan’s Ministry for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs,
an authority founded to look into ongoing issues of
the genocidal Anfal campaign, during which close to
200,000 were killed and of which the Halabja gas
attacks were a part. According to the plans, the
project will be made up of four stages and will
include the training of local experts in
de-contamination and body identification.
After the safe exhumation of the mass graves in
Halabja, the following phases of the planned project
in Halabja would involve collecting DNA samples from
the relatives of the missing in order to help
identify victims’ remains. Then there would be a
survey of the Halabja area, followed by
decontamination of cellars and buildings.
As yet the SecureBio plan has not yet been approved
but it already has the support it needs. As Aram
Ahmed Mohammed, the state’s Minister for Martyrs and
Anfal Affairs, told Niqash, “we are supporting the
project fully and we will make sure that the
residents of Halabja get the maximum benefit from
it. The project will be presented to Cabinet and
Parliament and at the appropriate time, a budget
will be allocated for it when we are satisfied with
“We want this project to go ahead because we want to
bring closure to the families who are still waiting
to find out about their missing relatives, and we
want to give the bodies a dignified burial in
Halabja – this will serve as a reminder for next
generation and the world about the crimes committed
against our people,” Mohammed concluded.
The mass graves are far from the only issue that the
people of Halabja are still living with. People here
are still suffering from emotional trauma and living
with the consequences of the historical attacks. As
building begins on many new projects in the town,
some of the projects have been delayed because of
ongoing issues with contamination.
A source inside the Ministry told Niqash that a
local newspaper had recently reported on builders
taken ill while digging foundations. Many basements
are also still contaminated and when locals are
exposed, they have suffered burns and other health
problems, some of them fatal.
Another aspect of the new Halabja project is
chemical attribution; that is, finding out where the
chemicals that Saddam Hussein used against the town
came from originally.
"Once we start exhuming the bodies, we will
certainly find traces of the chemicals that were
used,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “And theoretically
speaking, we can trace the chemicals back to the
factory that produced it, by looking into the
chemical signature of the substance and the
manufacturing process used.”
Previously companies in several countries in both
Europe and further afield have been accused of
selling the ingredients and equipment to Iraq that
allowed the manufacture of the poison gases used
against Halabja’s civilians. Some court cases have
been brought but with relatively minor results. So
although the SecureBio project will help to clean up
Halabja and to bring emotional closure to local
families, it may also provide evidence that is
needed to finally bring those companies that
knowingly sold chemicals to the former Iraqi
dictator, to account.
It would be hard to predict the outcome of any court
cases that result from the latter. Nevertheless the
one thing that is guaranteed, if chemicals can be
traced back to their suppliers, is that at least
those companies responsible can be named and shamed.
This article first appeared on niqash.org
Shwan Zulal, is a
political and security analyst. London &
Kurdistan/Iraq. oil and gas sector, specialising in Kurdish PSCs
and Hydrocarbon Law and advising investors in the
Kurdistan Region and Iraq with legal background.
Zulal is a regular contributing writer for ekurd.net.
He also runs a blog on to the same subject
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