The Attack on Halabja
The poison gas attack on the Iraqi town of Halabja was the largest-scale chemical weapons (CW) attack against a civilian population in modern times.
Halabja was a bustling city in Northern Iraq with a population that was predominantly Kurdish and had sympathized with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The population at the time of the attack was about 80,000 people. Troops from the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) entered Halabja on 15th March 1988 amidst heavy resistance from Iraqi security
and military forces.
Halabja fell to the PUK troops (accompanied by Iranian revolutionary guards) four hours later. The Iraqis responded with heavy artillery fire and an early wave of six aircraft bombarded an area near Halabja with ordinary high explosives. The civilians had been prevented from leaving the town by the PUK, hoping that the Iraqis would not attack a town with civilians in it ? thus providing a human shield.
The CW attack began early in the evening of March 16th, when a group of eight aircraft began dropping chemical bombs, and the chemical bombardment continued all night. According to Kurdish commanders on the scene, there were 14 aircraft sorties during the night, with seven to eight planes in each group, and they concentrated their attack on the city and all the roads leading out of Halabja. The chemical attacks continued until the 19th. Iraqi planes would attack for about 45 minutes and then, after they had gone, another group would appear 15 minutes later.
This was not the first chemical attack by Saddam Hussein. Previous attacks had been launched by Iraqi aircraft against 20 small villages in 1987. However, the scale and intensity of the chemical campaign against Halabja was entirely different? This was the first time that chemical weapons had been used on a major civilian population of this size. The victims of the attack included women, children and the elderly.
Saddam Hussein’s Chemical "Cocktail"
There is something else that sets Halabja apart from other known chemical weapons attacks?including the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The Halabja attack involved multiple chemical agents, including mustard gas, and the nerve agents SARIN, TABUN and VX.
Some sources report that cyanide was also used. It may be that an impure form of TABUN, which has a cyanide residue, released the cyanide compound. Most attempts directed to developing strategies against chemical or biological weapons have been directed towards a single threat. The attack on Halabja illustrates the importance of careful tactical planning directed towards more than one agent, and specific knowledge about the effects of each of the agents.
The demands of developing effective treatment regimes for children, the elderly and infirmed are daunting. And the task is ever more daunting when having to treat a chemical weapons "cocktail."
Saddam Hussein clearly intended to complicate the task of treating the Halabja victims. At a minimum, he was using Halabja as part of the Iraqi CW test program. Handbooks for doctors in Iraqi military show sophisticated medical knowledge of the effects of CW. The Iraqi military used mustard gas in the "cocktail" for which there is no defense or antidote. And it is also worth noting that Saddam did not use the nerve agent SOMAN. This is noteworthy because it shows that Hussein’s experts were also well aware that pyridostigmine bromide?one of the chief treatments against nerve agent?is relatively ineffective against TABUN, SARIN and VX, but highly effective against SOMAN when given as a preventive.
Source: The 1988 Chemical Weapons Attack on Halabja, Iraq - Promotion