The Halabja poison gas attack (Kurdish: کیمیابارانی ھەڵەبجە Kîmyabarana Helebce), also known as Halabja massacre or Bloody Friday, was a genocidal massacre against the Kurdish people that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War, when chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government forces in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people, and injured around 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians; thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack. The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq, was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.
The Halabja attack has been recognized as a separate event from the Anfal Genocide that was also conducted against the Kurdish people by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi High Criminal Court recognized the Halabja massacre as an act of genocide on March 1, 2010, a decision welcomed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The attack was also condemned as a crime against humanity by the Parliament of Canada.
It was an event that is historically separate from the Operation Anfal (the 1986-1989 campaign conducted by Saddam Hussein‘s regime’s in order to terrorize the Kurdish rural population and end the peshmerga rebellions by brutal means), as the Iranian troops allied to the rebels were also involved in the Halabja events. Nevertheless, the victims of the tragedy are often included in accounting the deaths attributable to the Anfal campaign, which was characterised by the widespread and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by Iraq.
The five-hour attack began early in the evening of March 16, 1988, following a series of indiscriminate conventional (rocket and napalm) attacks, when Iraqi MiG and Mirage aircraft began dropping chemical bombs on Halabja’s residential areas, far from the besieged Iraqi army base on the outskirts of the town. According to regional Kurdish rebel commanders, Iraqi aircraft conducted up to 14 bombings in sorties of seven to eight planes each; helicopters coordinating the operation were also seen. Eyewitnesses told of clouds of smoke billowing upward “white, black and then yellow”‘, rising as a column about 150 feet (46 m) in the air.
Survivors said the gas at first smelled of sweet apples; they said people died in a number of ways, suggesting a combination of toxic chemicals (some of the victims “just dropped dead” while others “died of laughing”; while still others took a few minutes to die, first “burning and blistering” or coughing up green vomit). It is believed that Iraqi forces used multiple chemical agents during the attack, including mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX; some sources have also pointed to the blood agent hydrogen cyanide (most of the wounded taken to hospitals in the Iranian capital Tehran were suffering from mustard gas exposure).
The first images after the attack were taken by Iranian journalists who later spread the pictures in Iranian newspapers; a film of the atrocity was also shown worldwide via news programmes. Some of those first pictures were taken by Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan. Recalling the scenes at Halabja, Golestan described the scene to Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times: he was about eight kilometres outside Halabja with a military helicopter when the Iraqi MiG-23 fighter-bombers flew in. “It was not as big as a nuclear mushroom cloud, but several smaller ones: thick smoke,” he said. He was shocked by the scenes on his arrival in the town, though he had seen gas attacks before during the brutal Iran-Iraq War:
It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw the body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot. (…) The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth and she died in my arms.
Saddam Hussein’s government officially blamed Iran for the attack. The international response at the time was muted and the United States even suggested Iran was responsible. The United States government, which at the time was allied with Iraq in its war with Iran, said the images could not be verified to be the responsibility of Iraq.