A Stricken Land in the Cross Hairs

Times Staff Writer

At the rim of the cotton fields below the foothills, the melting morning frost makes mud of the roads. Men with prayer beads in their hands and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders walk beside mass graves of past atrocities. Then they point to the mountains, where this town's newest threat lurks in crevices and bunkers beyond the snowline.

Halabja is a place of sorrow and peril. In 1988, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces dropped bombs of mustard gas, sarin and other poisons, killing 5,000 ethnic Kurds and leaving a legacy of birth defects and cancer. The town worries it will be struck again by a desperate Hussein seeking to turn the land of his Kurdish enemies into ashes during an American invasion.

"Hussein poured his anger out on a people he hated before," said Hushiyar Kareem Afrasyab, who lost 36 relatives in the attacks 15 years ago. "We expect it to happen again. We have nothing to save us. No gas masks. No chemicals suits. No medicines. We have only the experience of what happened the first time."

Now a new enemy faces Halabja -- and to a broader extent the United States -- from the heights above town. Between 500 and 700 guerrillas known as Ansar al-Islam are camped on the ridges with mortars and sniper rifles. The mostly Kurdish Islamic militants are battling pro-Western Kurdish fighters over the soul of northern Iraq, where religious fundamentalism seeps in from Iran and the U.S. is attempting to shape democracy in mountain hamlets controlled by tribes and clans.

"There is much at stake," said Baba Hama Hassan, a Halabja fireman who lost most of his family in the 1988 chemical attacks. "A deep religious Islamic thinking is trying to control the region. They are spending money on mosques to encourage their dominance. We are fighting this backward idea, but the Islamic militants are betting that the West won't help the Kurds in their dream of independence. They are saying, 'The West will abandon you, and then you'll come back to us.' That would be a big problem for the U.S."

Iraqi Kurdistan is the rugged northern territory controlled by two rival political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Home to about 3.5 million Kurds, the region is an autonomous statelet protected from the Iraqi army by a "no-fly" zone patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes. It's also a potential route for U.S. forces invading Iraq.

The Kurds enjoy 13% of Iraq's oil revenues under the U.N. "oil-for-food" program and have long sought independence. But under U.S. pressure, and fearing reprisals from Turkey and Iran if they form their own nation, Kurdish leaders have agreed to take part in an Iraqi federation government if the Hussein regime falls.

The troubled history and tenuous future of Halabja are in many ways a metaphor for Kurdistan. The town bustles with fruit sellers, butchers and tailors. Women in chadors billow through alleys flecked with the sparks of metal grinders and the wood smell of carpenters. Kids play marbles in the dirt. But it is also sullen, a place of monuments to biological and chemical attacks and a place to wait for and weather the dangers of tomorrow.

"I have seen the village change," said Dr. Fouad Baban, who moved from Halabja to the nearby Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. He treats hundreds of cases of blindness, cleft palates and cancers that have resulted from the 1988 attack. "I was born and schooled there. When I go back there now I see a different people. Their trust has changed. Their way of life has changed.

"The people see themselves as sacrificed for nothing," he added. "A Kurdish poet once said, 'If you have lost everything, you have nothing to do but pray.' "

Aras Abid Akram lost his parents, seven sisters and three brothers in the attacks. He found his loved ones in the scoop of a front-end loader hauling away bodies after Halabja was coated with chemicals and nerve agents, including VX and Tabun. Their bodies were blistered and swollen and "a smell I can't describe, like fumes, came out of their mouths," said Akram, director of Halabja's Save the Children chapter.

His office is cold, its walls covered with murals of death -- a child suffocated and lying in a road, a clump of bodies near a doorstep. A wiry man with a thin nose and a full mustache, Akram spoke of March 16, 1988. Hussein's forces, who were shelling the Iranian army near the border that day toward the end of an eight-year war, decided to test chemical weapons on Kurdish villages, including Halabja's population of about 50,000. Conventional bombs were dropped first to frighten people into their basements, where their breathing space would be limited. Then came the "damp sounds," said Akram, whose story lasted through three cups of tea.

"First the air smelled of kerosene and apples and then it changed to a garlic scent," he said. "We were all in basements. We didn't know what to do. We feared going outside because of the bombs, but we knew if we stayed below, the chemicals would drop down on us. I was separated from my family."

He crawled out of the basement at 8 p.m. His eyes were burning; his head had been pierced by shrapnel that had gotten into the room. He felt his way along cinderblock walls.

"I walked over bodies," he said. "There were so many. The thing I remember most was a dead child lying at the belly of a cow, as if it were huddling against its mother. Some people were bleeding and laughing uncontrollably. I didn't know why, but I heard later that sometimes the gas affects you like that."

He and about 500 others ran toward a stream. Most were vomiting and could barely see. A man stuck him with a needle.

"He said, 'It's OK. It's for the chemicals,' " said Akram, who was treated by rescue workers and sent by helicopter to a hospital in Iran. Two days later, he returned.

"There were dead bodies in the roads and in the streams," he said. "I went to my house. Lunch was on the table from two days earlier. My family wasn't there. I went to a neighbor's house and saw a front-end loader lifting bodies out of a basement. I jumped into the scoop. I saw a dress I noticed. It was my grandmother. I went further down into the bodies and saw my sisters. I fainted."

In the narrative of Halabja's suffering, where burned sparrows fell from the sky and babies suckled the breasts of dead mothers, Akram's story does not stand out.

"Every single moment of that day we cannot forget," said Afrasyab, who lost 36 relatives. He is a big man with graying hair who leaned over an electric heater in the office of the Society for Victims of Chemical Attacks, a local group. "We can't forget it. It's in the faces of everyone we know. Hopefully, if Saddam only has a little time to retaliate after an American attack, he'll launch his missiles at Kuwait or Israel and not at us."

If chemical weapons do whistle this way, Halabja and the rest of Kurdistan are not prepared.

"We know we are the nearest for such attacks, but we have nothing we can do now," said Abdul Razaq, the foreign affairs minister for the PUK, which controls the area of northern Iraq that includes Halabja. "We're planning to start an awareness campaign to teach people what to do. Washington and the West have listened to us. They are sympathetic, but we are still waiting to hear the results. It's urgent, but it's not too late.

And then there is the other threat to Halabja.

Ansar al-Islam emerged in the region in late 2001 as a militant challenge to the more secular pro-Western Kurdish parties. Its fighters, for the most part Iraqi Kurds, have been joined by about 100 fighters from Afghanistan and other countries.

Some were trained in Osama bin Laden's camps. They line the ridges outside town and sporadically battle bands of the PUK's fighters, known as the peshmerga, who are dug in along mountains and valleys less than 10 miles from the Iranian border.

Mortar and machine-gun fire often echoes across the area. A U.S. intelligence team recently traveled through Halabja and accompanied a peshmerga unit into the highlands to view Ansar positions. If there is a war in Iraq, a Western intelligence official said, Ansar would be targeted by U.S. and allied planes and missiles.

The firefights between Ansar and the peshmerga have unnerved the town, where a memorial to the 1988 victims cannot always be visited because it's within mortar range.

Throughout its history, Halabja has been a defiant mountain outpost. There was once passion among residents for communists. Another time there was fervor for tribal warriors. People here say they are mainly against whatever forces try to control them. Islam long has had roots here. A fundamentalism emerged in the 1990s as mosques built by charities from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rose over the tin- and mud-roofed skyline.

There is a saying here: "A bird can have many wings, but only one peck." Ansar is an offshoot of organizations known as the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and Komaly Islami. The groups have lost some influence in recent years as the PUK has sought to prevent Halabja from becoming a base for extremism. The battle is often grisly. Ansar has shot videos of its beheadings of peshmerga prisoners.

Some say Halabja has been numbed by the violence that for decades has stained its streets and littered its hillsides.

"The Islamists are trying to capitalize on this," said Baban, the doctor, whose sister died of breast cancer some years after the 1988 attacks. "They are saying the poverty, the chemical attacks, the failure of the Kurdish movement to attain real success are all part of God's punishment for turning away from the faith. I really think the Islamist movement is another form of chemical war."

Hapsa Faraj is not so eloquent about such things.

Wearing a sweater and a black veil, she walked through Halabja's cemetery recently, navigating wide circles of crude stones that mark the graves of families killed by chemical weapons. There weren't many flowers. She stopped at a small mulberry tree near a small grave. There was no marker. Faraj didn't need one.

Her son, Nariman, was 8 when he breathed Hussein's poison and died. Faraj, who also inhaled the gas, was unconscious when friends buried Nariman in a neighbor's yard before she and many other residents fled the town. When Faraj returned seven months later, Nariman's remains were moved to the cemetery.

"He was buried in just his clothes," said Faraj, her face a mask, betraying no emotion. "It was chaotic back then, and nobody had time to wash his body and put him in the white coffin of a child."

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