Halabja Protest Turns Violent

One person is killed as thousands voice their anger at authorities who they believe exploit their misery and do nothing to help them recover from Saddam’s gas attack.

Halabja Protest Turns Violent

One person is killed as thousands voice their anger at authorities who they believe exploit their misery and do nothing to help them recover from Saddam’s gas attack.

The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan faced a major challenge today, March 16, as residents of Halabja – scene of a chemical attack 18 years ago - took to the streets in anger at what they said was cynical exploitation of their plight by local politicians.

A 17-year-old boy was killed and dozens more injured in clashes with Kurdish security forces after around 2,000 locals – mostly young men – staged street protests to prevent officials getting into Halabja and taking part in ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the 1988 gas attack by Saddam Hussein’s military, in which 5,000 people died.

Officials from Halabja, in Sulaimaniyah province, had rolled out red carpets for the day of mourning. Earlier in the week, protest organisers had promised a peaceful sit-down action designed to embarrass the visiting dignitaries and block their access to the town.

But a build-up of security forces in the town suggested the authorities were determined to ensure everything went according to plan.

International delegates from Hiroshima and Italy visited the memorial on March 15, the day before the official anniversary.

On March 16, the ceremonies were called off after three hours of unrest during which demonstrators burnt tires, rolled rocks into the road or lay down there themselves to prevent officials driving into the town.

One group of stone-throwing demonstrators stormed the monument to the victims of the chemical attack, torching it and sending black smoke billowing over the town. Some said the memorial was no more than a “bank" which helped officials raise cash to line their own pockets.

Protesters also set fire to a museum honouring victims of the gas attack after smashing furniture and windows and ripping down photos there.

"Is this a place of martyrs or a bar?" asked Kameron Aziz, emptying out a refrigerator stocked with drinks including beer for the visiting officials. "Why shouldn't we set it on fire? This is a day of mourning, and our officials want to drink."

IWPR reporters witnessed Kurdish security forces opening fire on those who had stormed the memorial. Kurda Ahmed, 17, was hit in the abdomen by a police rifle bullet, said eyewitnesses, who also alleged that a member of the security forces shot him again in the side, firing a pistol at close range.

Ahmed died in Halabja hospital. A doctor who treated him but asked not to be named confirmed that he was hit by two different bullets.

Ten others were treated for injuries, the doctor reported, including four who were still in critical condition with gunshot wounds. Demonstration organisers said at least 100 people were beaten by security forces.

"This is a repeat of the Halabja tragedy," said Mariwan Halabjaee, one of the organisers. "What police and security have done is the same as the Baathists."

A security official who asked to remain anonymous said police responded with gunfire after demonstrators fired at them first. He said several protesters were detained briefly but all had been released.

The northern Kurdish territories have largely been immune from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Police in Baghdad found 25 bodies of men shot execution-style on march 15 and 16, while to the north of the capital, United States and Iraqi forces launched major air assaults on Samarra.

Kurdistan may be the safest part of Iraq, but young people here have grown increasingly angry at the regional authorities who should be looking after them but whom they accuse of inaction, complacency and corruption.

As the placards carried by protesters made plain, there is a strong sense in Halabja that officials quietly ignore the real needs of survivors at the same time as playing up the town’s terrible history, which is emblematic of Saddam’s oppression of the Kurds and thus serves justification for a strongly decentralised Kurdish entity.

Year after year, politicians from the two leading Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, come to pay tribute to the victims and pledge help to regenerate the town. But local people say nothing gets done – infrastructure is in a state of collapse, the roads are unpaved, houses still bear the damage they suffered in Saddam’s war with Iran, and healthcare provision is poor even though the attack left thousands of survivors with a legacy of respiratory disease, cancer and other problems.

"I want compensation," said Ali Hassan Saleh, who lost two children in the chemical attack and accuses the PUK of failing to provide the house it promised him. "The government hasn't paid attention to this town. We need proper services."

The authorities in Sulaimaniyah, the seat of one of Kurdistan’s two administrations, appeared unrepentant, with the PUK branding the protestors as "terrorists" and deputy prime minister Emad Ahmed saying, "This is an act of sabotage, and we are investigating."

Mahdi Mahmood, who represents the Islamic Union of Kurdistan in Halabja, said all the main political parties had agreed to investigate the violence and also to form a committee to address residents' demands.

It may take more than that to rebuild public confidence.

"We were just asking for our rights," said Habi Taoufiq Abdullah, who was treated in hospital after being shot in the hip. "We didn't deserve this response."

Reporting by IWPR Kurdish editor Mariwan Hama-Saeed and IWPR trainee journalists Amanj Khalil, Ayub Karim and Ismail Osman in Halabja.

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