Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During and immediately after the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of Kurdish villages and towns in Kurdistan.

Summary of Event

From the time Saddam Hussein became president of the Republic of Iraq in 1979, he seemed bent on eradicating the Kurds in the northern part of his country. With a population of more than twenty-five million, the Kurds represent the largest ethnic group in the world without its own state. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, struggled to break from Iraq and create an autonomous Kurdish state, but this was not to be. Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical Iraq;chemical weapons Al-Anfal campaign[Al Anfal campaign] Racial and ethnic conflict;Iraq [kw]Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds (Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988) [kw]Poison Gas Against Kurds, Iraq Uses (Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988) [kw]Gas Against Kurds, Iraq Uses Poison (Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988) [kw]Kurds, Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against (Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988) Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical Iraq;chemical weapons Al-Anfal campaign[Al Anfal campaign] Racial and ethnic conflict;Iraq [g]Middle East;Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988: Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds[06420] [g]Iraq;Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988: Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds[06420] [c]Government and politics;Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988: Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds[06420] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988: Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds[06420] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Apr., 1987-Sept., 1988: Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds[06420] Hussein, Saddam Majid, Ali Hassan al- Barzani, Masoud Talabani, Jalal Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;human rights

Iraq was at war with Iran from 1980 to 1988. Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran-Iraq War] Iraq narrowly won that war; its success was attributable to support received from Western allies, notably France and the United States. Both countries, along with the Soviet Union, faced critical petroleum shortages should the security of the Persian Gulf be compromised. The Western countries with the most to lose if oil shipments were cut off rallied behind Iraq—despite its obvious human rights violations—providing air assistance, access to information secured by Western intelligence agencies, and help in reflagging tankers carrying oil to the West.

In April, 1987, Hussein appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (who came to be known as “Chemical Ali”) head of the Northern Bureau and commanded him to deal with Kurdistan. On March 29, Majid was officially given total discretion in dealing with the Kurds. Kurds had been warring with other powerful factions in Iraq since 1961, and Hussein now sought a way to eliminate the problem altogether.

From April 15 onward, Majid experimented with deadly chemicals, such as sarin nerve gas, mustard gas, VX nerve gas, and biological chemicals to infect people with such diseases as anthrax or smallpox. Small amounts of such chemicals could wipe out entire populations. Biological weapons

A chemical attack in the Balisan Valley killed some 400 Kurds. When 286 survivors struggled along the road to Erbil seeking medical attention, the Iraqi army shot and killed most of them. Meanwhile, on June 3, 1987, Majid signed a proclamation declaring an area containing more than one thousand Kurdish villages out of bounds for the delivery of food and machinery, completely cutting off thousands of villagers from the necessities of life.

Early in 1988, Iraqi forces launched the al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds. Anfal is a Qur՚ānic term meaning “spoils of war” and is used to justify the annihilation of infidels. This campaign lasted from February to September and was carried out by more than 200,000 ground troops with substantial air support. In a nine-month period, more than 100,000 Kurds fled to nearby Turkey, where they were not welcome.

The town of Halabja, with a population of approximately 60,000, was a cultural hub in Kurdistan. On March 15, 1988, the town fell to Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The following day, Iraqi bombers flew over Halabja and dropped cluster bombs on the city, causing its inhabitants to rush into air-raid shelters. Iraqi Migs and Mirages soon followed the bombers. They dropped bombs containing chemicals on the civilians now huddled in the shelters. Before the day was over, more than 5,000 civilians—many of them women, children, and infants—were dead. The streets were clogged with their lifeless bodies, and more than 3,000 were then buried in mass graves.

Photographs of this atrocity were distributed widely throughout the world and shocked the international community, but Chemical Ali cared little about worldwide criticism. He said that he would kill all the Kurds, declaring that he would drop chemicals on them not only on one day, but also on fifteen consecutive days. At this point, with the collective fate of the Kurdish population in his hands, Majid seemed mad with the power that Hussein had bestowed on him. Even after Hussein revoked Chemical Ali’s absolute powers on April 23, 1989, he appointed him governor of Kuwait and, eventually, Iraq’s minister of defense.

In July, 1988, Iraqi armed forces razed Halabja to the ground, annihilating this important Kurdish cultural center. The destruction continued well into 1989. In June of that year, the city of Qala-Diza—near the Iran-Iraq border and with a population of 120,000—was evacuated and, like Halabja, razed.

At the time that the gassing of Kurds in Halabja was revealed, Iraq had previously been viewed as a bastion against Iranian aggression by most of the Arab and Western world. In August, 1988, the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Rights voted eleven to eight not to cite Iraq for violating human rights. Only the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and Canada dissented.

U.S. sanctions against Iraq for human rights violations were proposed in a congressional resolution. Passed by both houses of Congress, the resolution was vetoed by President George H. W. Bush. Soon afterward he approved a loan of one billion dollars to Iraq.

On April 25, 1988, eight days after the Iran-Iraq conflict officially ended, Iraqi war planes dropped four bombs on Birjinni, a Kurdish village of approximately thirty houses, a mosque, and a school. Noxious fumes filled the air, causing many people to vomit and to become disoriented. Four people died as a result of this attack. The Iraqis claimed that Iranians had carried out the attack; the accusation was accepted by the United States and its allies.

Finally, in 1992, a forensic team that assembled in Birjinni took samples from the site of the bombings. The team also took bone and clothing samples from two of the victims who had been buried there. These samples pointed unequivocally to the presence of toxic chemicals of the sort that Chemical Ali had been developing in Kurdistan. Clearly, the attack that Hussein attributed to Iran was the work of Iraq.


Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens shocked the world. Thousands of Kurds had no recourse except to flee from the places where they had lived, in some cases, for generations. When the genocide perpetrated by Chemical Ali finally ceased, 90 percent of all Kurdish villages had vanished and more than twenty small towns and cities had been razed. The area was laced with land mines, which made farming and other activities virtually impossible.

The Kurdish delegation at peace talks in Baghdad, in May, 1991, demanded to know what had happened to more than 182,000 Kurds who had simply disappeared. Chemical Ali exploded in anger when this matter was broached, saying that no more than 100,000 had been killed. He justified burying the bodies in mass graves by saying that there were too many to account for.

In 2002, as the United States prepared to attack Iraq, the fear that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that might be turned against the West became the justification for going to war. Although many people thought the term “weapons of mass destruction” referred only to nuclear weaponry, President George W. Bush clarified that chemical weapons—which unquestionably existed in Iraq—should also be classified as weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical Iraq;chemical weapons Al-Anfal campaign[Al Anfal campaign] Racial and ethnic conflict;Iraq

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bird, Christiane. A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan. New York: Ballantine, 2004. Discusses the Kurds’ anguish in trying to establish themselves as an independent group.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, George. Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993. Presents shocking revelations about Saddam Hussein’s campaign to annihilate the Kurds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDowell, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004. Provides a comprehensive history of the Kurds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKiernan, Kevin. The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. A thorough presentation of the difficulties the Kurds have experienced in their quest for autonomy. Includes shocking pictures of atrocities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yildiz, Kerim. The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present, and Future. London: Pluto Press, 2007. A compelling overview of the Kurdish situation by the executive director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project.

Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq

Iran-Iraq War

Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Persian Gulf War

Categories: History