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Halabja’s Lessons

Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

The German government has been dragging its feet for more than 20 years now and systematically plays down its responsibility for the build-up of the Iraqi chemical weapons program. Yet, German assistance in building up a chemical weapons production was essential: Without German economic aid the Iraqi chemical weapons production would not have been possible… Many documents and sources, though, not only suggest that German cooperation was essential for the Iraqi poison gas program. They also show that there was already some awareness about this in Germany back then. All the same, the relevant goods were delivered… 70 percent of the equipment for Iraqi chemical weapons plants were delivered by German companies. German foreign intelligence service personnel had been present in at least one of these companies. Most parts to enhance Iraq’s rockets, grenades and missiles were delivered from Germany. The military-economic cooperation was backed politically by export credit guaranties. The armament of Iraq was wished for.

Western officials—and human rights activists—should push for the German government and German businesses to acknowledge their role in making possible Saddam’s weapons program if only because the same pattern appears to be repeating today with regard to Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may talk a good game, and German Green Party members may cynically shroud themselves in the rhetoric of human rights, but when push comes to shove German officials across the political spectrum appear to put profits above the fight against the most genocidal autocrats. Hence, rather than curtail German businesses investing in Iran, Berlin seems to be encouraging them.

It is time to shine light on Germany’s dangerous cynicism. That German officials and businesses continue to shirk responsibility for their role in enabling Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign suggests the West can have no confidence that German officials are serious about denying a potentially genocidal regime the weaponry to act upon their ideological impulses.


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