Iranian gas victims want justice from Saddam tribunal

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The Independent Online

Tehran promised last week to present a dossier to the tribunal documenting Saddam's use of poison gas in the 1980-88 war with Iran. So far, the only charges Saddam will face are those relating to crimes inside Iraq and during the 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait. Western countries offered Saddam tacit support during his war with Iran, refusing to blame Iraq for its invasion and the subsequent use of poison gas. Although Iran possessed chemical weapons from the mid-1980s onwards, it did not use them.

Some 45,000 veterans and 7,000 civilians are still being treated for injuries inflicted by Iraqi chemical weapons. Chronic lung, eye and skin conditions are common among those exposed. Every year, more of Iran's chemically wounded die when their lungs collapse after years of painful breathing and coughing.

In late June 1987, Parvin Vahedi lost 11 members of her family when Iraqi jets bombed the mountain town of Sardasht in Iranian Kurdistan. Townspeople were terrified as they realised they had been attacked by poison gas, which drifted down into the bomb shelters where they hid.

"Loudspeakers said mustard gas had been dropped and told us to put wet cloth over our noses and mouths," she said. "I started tearing up clothes and drenching them in the pool in our courtyard to hand out to my family."

She did not know the water was already contaminated. She poisoned most of her family, including young nephews and nieces. Parvin fell unconscious that night and woke up six weeks later in a Belgian hospital suffering 85 per cent burns. Now aged 35 she spends months in hospital each year with terrible damage to her lungs and recurring blisters that eat into her body. Several hundred people had gathered in the courtyard between the houses of her parents and her uncle and at first Parvin shouted: "See how God is kind! A bomb fell so close and nobody is hurt." But her brother knew about the gas and said: "By tomorrow, we will all be dead."

Parvin had only been married for one month before the attack and her husband was badly injured too. He thinks others share Saddam's guilt but will never be punished. "Other countries like Germany helped [Saddam] get the weapons and the Arabs paid for the war," he says. "The Americans defended him. That's why they're keeping quiet about it. Justice is not just a simple question of punishing Saddam."

Washington gave Baghdad political support in the war long after Iraq's use of chemical weapons had been made public. At that time, Iran was in the throes of revolution and was seen as more dangerous than Saddam's Iraq. During his visit to Tehran last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari pinned blame for the war entirely on Saddam.

"Why has all this been forgotten? How can weapons of mass destruction be an excuse to attack Saddam while the victims of his attacks do not count enough to be taken into consideration?" asked Shahriar Khateri of the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims' Support, an Iranian non-governmental organisation. As a 14-year-old boy, Dr Khateri was exposed to mustard gas while fighting on the front line.

Iran complained several times to the UN Security Council after Iraq began using chemical weapons in 1983 but it never secured a specific condemnation of Iraq.

"We were used to terrible weapons like tanks and bombs, but this one created awe," said Dr Khateri. "When we saw people who had died without signs of injury on their bodies, it made us far more frightened than when someone was hit by a bullet and you knew what had happened."