Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Suspect Held Over Halabja

Sixteen years after the Kurdish town was hit by a poison gas attack, a man alleged to have supplied the chemicals could be brought to justice.
By Amanj Khalil

Alwan Ali has daily reminders of the horrific day in 1988 when she lost seven members of her family members following a chemical attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja.


Even now, 16 years on, she still has difficulty breathing and trouble with her eyesight.


But for Alwan and thousands of others, closure on the issue could be just around the corner, following the December 6 arrest of 62-year-old Frans Van Anraat, a Dutch citizen taken into custody in the Netherlands to answer allegations that he supplied Saddam Hussein with the means to make chemical weapons.


Alwan is one of more than 6,000 Halabja residents who have signed a petition calling for Van Anraat’s prosecution. He is now likely to be charged with participating in genocide and war crimes.


In the now infamous attack, which took place during the Iran-Iraq war, the government military dropped chemical weapons on Halabja, close to the Iranian border.


The March 16, 1988 attack killed more than 5,000 people and left an additional 10,000 with long term injuries.


"We have collected a lot of visual documentary evidence on the Halabja tragedy that indicates that Van Anraat was able to supply chemical materials to Saddam," said Alwan, now 26.


Victims of the chemical attack and their relatives welcomed the news of the recent arrest, with many saying they want to be present in court during Van Anraat's trial in the Netherlands.


A majority have also volunteered to testify against Van Anraat, who is accused of selling Saddam’s regime thousands of tons of the materials needed to make mustard and nerve gas between 1984 and 1988.


Former Halabja resident Dalia Ali has said she will do whatever she can to assist the case against Van Anraat.


Like many of the victims, Dalia still bears physical and mental scars from the mustard gas attack.


"I have many diseases and I get sick quickly because of the chemicals I inhaled that day," said Dalia, who now lives in the Netherlands.


In a bid to strengthen the prosecution’s case, a group of Halabja victims are now trying to record the names of all the people who died in the attack.


Another committee has been formed to visit towns across the border in Iran in an attempt to gather more evidence of chemical attacks.


"The Iranians have better records than the Iraqis, as they were able to film in Halabja a few days after the chemical attacks," explained Ibrahim Hawrami, manager of the Halabja Memorial Directorate, and the man responsible for maintaining records of the attack. "Left wing political parties in Holland have promised to cooperate with us on this."


Halabja residents have been pressing for Van Anraat's arrest since the US-led invasion of Iraq last year.


In November 2003, Halabja officials submitted a request that Van Anraat be prosecuted to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqi Governing Council, and the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Sulaimaniyah administration, Hawrami told IWPR.


It is not the first time an attempt has been made to bring charges against Van Anraat for his alleged involvement in the Halabja attacks. At the request of the United States, he was arrested in Italy in 1989 but managed to escape to Iraq where he lived until the 2003 invasion. He then fled to the Netherlands, where he has now been arrested.


Amanj Khalil is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.


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