Halabja, Iraq – Just a few days ago, the Kurds in northern Iraq and I stood to commemorate the 25th anniversary of one of the most barbaric war crimes since WWII: Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons to commit mass murder of his own citizens.
Within months of the March 16 attack, after a fact-finding team dispatched to interview refugees along the Turkey-Iraq border pieced together eye-witness accounts to reconstruct an accurate account of the events, the United States Senate determined that the chemical attack against the city of Halabja by the Iraqi Air Force was a "genocide."
The Halabja chemical weapons attack killed between 3,000 to 5,000 civilians, according to eyewitness accounts. It came midway in a two-year long campaign with the explicit goal of eradicating the Kurds from northern Iraq; Saddam Hussein and his henchmen called the slaughter "Anfal," a Koranic term meaning "spoils of war."
Some 4,000 Kurdish villages were bulldozed, bombed, or otherwise destroyed by the Iraqis during the "Anfal," along with 106 Assyrian Christian villages that were targeted because their inhabitants were believed to have supported the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam.
Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government, told a conference in Erbil last week that of the 182,000 Kurds who disappeared during the "Anfal," researchers and families have so far only been able to discover the remains of 3,000 persons. The others, Barzani said, are still believed to be "lying in the deserts of Southern Iraq."
"The people of Kurdistan," he said, "need to be compensated, especially by many of the companies and the countries that helped the regime of Saddam Hussein to build these chemical weapons."
Just three years after the Halabja attack, I identified more than 400 Western and Third World companies that had delivered equipment, built factories, or otherwise contributed to Saddam Hussein's vast WMD infrastructure, and published many of the names of these companies in The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq in 1992.
While companies worldwide eagerly profited from building Saddam's war machine, the overwhelming majority of the technical expertise, know-how, and design information for the Iraqi dictator's chemical weapons plants came from German companies. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, none of these companies or individuals has paid any price for their role in the Kurdish genocide.
Post-World War II German governments have paid reparations to Israel for the genocide of the Jews carried out by Nazi Germany. And in 1992, the German government again chose to acknowledge guilt toward the state of Israel when it offered to provide free of charge two Dolphin-class diesel-powered submarines, worth around $650 million, to compensate Israel for Iraqi attacks using SCUD missiles that had been modified and improved by German companies.
A similar arrangement with the Kurds may be brewing today. In February, the German Minister of Transport, Building and Urban Development led a delegation of German businessmen to the Kurdish areas of Iraq to seek expanded commercial ties. According to Kurdish officials, he said that Germany had "missed an opportunity" to make amends to the Kurds for German involvement in Saddam's chemical weapons programs by not taking part in the 2003 war to liberate Iraq.
Further, last week, on March 14th, just as the Kurdish government was holding a conference in Erbil to commemorate the genocide, the German parliament held a special session in Berlin to discuss the massacre. All parties in the parliament, including the ruling Christian Democrats, called on the German government to negotiate a broad reparations agreement directly with the Kurdish Regional Government that would bypass "any third parties," including representatives of the victims. But the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly rejected the resolution and refused to assume responsibility for the actions of German companies.
The horror of the Halabja attack was first revealed to the world by Iranian photographer Ahmed Nateghi, who had been embedded with an Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit fighting on the front lines with Iraq.
Several days before the chemical weapons strike, the Iranians had "liberated" the Kurdish town near the border, and had paraded through the city streets in uniform, accompanied by Iraqi civilians.
When Nateghi and a few colleagues prepared to enter Halabja on a victory tour on the afternoon of March 16, as they approached the city, they noticed aircraft dropping bombs, and further along, they came across abandoned houses and dead animals; then corpses: men and women slumped over children, whose bodies they had apparently been trying to protect, seemingly struck down by some monstrous event that sucked the life out of them.
A few days later, the Iranian regime brought in photographers and TV crews from around the world to document the murders. Because of these photographs, the world now knows what happened at Halajba.
The nerve and mustard gas used by Saddam's Air Force in Halabja was produced in German-built factories in Samarra and Fallujah. It was delivered for the most part in Spanish-made bombs, from Russian, French, and Swiss-built aircraft.
Gavi Mairone, a human rights lawyer working with the Global Justice Group -- and more than a thousand survivors and relatives of thousands more victims of the Halabja and other chemical weapons attacks -- announced on March 14th in Erbil a strategy to get justice for the victims and their families.
"The victims want to return hatred and death with compassion," he said. "They want to give the companies involved in building Saddam's chemical weapons factories an opportunity to make amends at a truth, reconciliation, and reparations conference on October 1-3 in the Hague. If they decline, we are prepared to file lawsuits against 20 companies, nine in Germany, two French, two Dutch, two Spanish, 1 Indian, 1 Japanese, and 1 American."
Mairone's firm, MM-Law of Chicago, has been working on the case for three years and has assembled more than 10,000 documents. Most of the companies have been identified in declassified documents from the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Adalat Omar, 43, a Kurdish researcher who has spent much of the past 13 years documenting the genocide of the Kurds, used the official Iraqi government census. "I compared the list of villages in Kurdish areas from 1977, to 1987 and then to 1997, and found more than 4,000 villages that were erased from the map during the genocide."
Omar also found the orders, signed by Saddam Hussein as early as 1983, to use "special weapons" against the Kurds. Many of Omar's documents were used in the trial of Saddam Hussein by the High Iraqi Court that ultimately sentenced him to death in 2006.
"We want to make sure that the companies who profited from building chemical weapons in Iraq are never able to do this again," said Mairone. "We're looking for an end to impunity."
Kenneth Timmerman is a New York Times best-selling author, a former Congressional candidate, and president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran. His books and articles are available at kentimmerman.com. He is also working as a consultant to MM-Law in Chicago in the Halabja case.