Hundreds protest as Kurds remember Halabja gas attack

Outraged at Kurdish government neglect hundreds of Kurdish demonstrators in Halabja yesterday set fire to a memorial to the 1988 poison gas attack by the Iraqi armed forces in which 5,000 people died.

Kurdish security forces shot dead one man and wounded at least eight others when they opened fire on protestors on the 18th anniversary of what became the most notorious atrocity of Saddam Hussein. "The Kurdish government exploited Halabja to draw attention to the plight of the Kurds and get donations that have never reached us," said one angry protestor.

Although the poison gas attack on Halabja is frequently invoked as a symbol of their people's suffering by Kurdish leaders the inhabitants of Halabja complain that their houses are dilapidated and supplies of water and electricity are poor. They had earlier announced that officials would be banned from attending the meeting commemorating the gas attack.

"We plan to block any official from entering because every year they came and make empty promises," said Zakaria Mahmood, a 22-year-old organizer of the protest, according a report by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. "Officials visit Halbja just for publicity," said Mohammed Kareem, 61, a shopkeeper five of whose children were killed by the gas. "Halabja looks the same as the day it was attacked."

When the memorial meeting started at about 10am local people were infuriated when a Kurdish government official called Shahu Mohammed Saed tried to address the crowd. They shouted him down and stormed the one-storey circular museum where they set fire to displays reconstructing the gas attack on 15 March 1988 as well as photographs of victims and glass cases containing the clothes of the dead.

By the time the demonstration ended people in Halabja had a fresh victim to mourn. "We have received one body and eight wounded people," said a doctor in Halabja's Malabar hospital adding that the dead man was 18 years old.

Halabja, south east of the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, was sealed off after the shooting by Pesh Merga and police of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They confiscated video film showing what had taken place. Adnan Mufti, the Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament and a PUK leader, told The Independent in Arbil yesterday that part of the problem was that before 2003 Halabja was partly under the control of Islamic parties and had received little aid. Mr Saed, whose ill-timed speech provoked the riot, claimed that neighbouring states, presumably Iran or Turkey, were responsible for the violence.

The riot in Halabja is likely to prove embarrassing to Kurdish leaders who are often accused of corruption and greed for power by their own people. The violence was clearly not spontaneous since a month ago residents had demonstrated to demand better services. A protest was planned at which participants would simply carrying blank white banners bearing no slogans but as a sort of mute protest.

The Iraqi army fired gas shells into Halabja on 15 March 1988 after the town was captured by the PUK and Iranian forces. Soon the gas, smelling of apple and garlic, was seeping everywhere, even into air raid shelters. Soon the streets were filled with the dead bodies of animals and towns people. In addition to the 5,000 dead another 10,000 were severely injured. A complaint of the protestors is that the latter receive little help from the government.

As the riot erupted in Halbja many of the Kurdish leaders were attending the opening of the Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone in Baghdad. To allow the meeting to take place traffic was banned from the streets of the capital and all shops were closed. Even during the short 30 minute meeting there were signs of rancour with disagreement even over the oath to be taken by the 275 lawmakers who were chosen in an election on 15 December.

The US is pushing for a national unity government but the length of time it is taking to create one underlines that a future administration will be anything but united. The US, Kurdish and Sunni parties are trying to oust Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shi'ite prime minister, but the Shi'ite coalition sees this as an attempt to roll back their election victory.

The three Kurdish provinces in north have hitherto been the only peaceful part of Iraq but the demonstration in Halabja shows that Kurds are also dissatisfied with their rulers. In all parts of Iraq there is a growing feeling that government is simply a patronage machine through which politicians enrich themselves.

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