Kurds destroy monument to victims of Saddam's gas massacre

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The Independent Online

Smoke was still rising yesterday from the burned out monument on the outskirts of the Kurdish town of Halabja where 18 years ago some 5,000 people were killed in a poison gas attack. Enraged by what they see as official neglect of survivors local people had set ablaze during a demonstration the museum commemorating the victims of Saddam Hussdein's most infamous atrocity.

I was hit in the leg by a bullet while I was protesting," said Othman Ali Gaffur, a 29-year-old-man, his face creased with pain, as he lay in a hospital bed. "We were demonstrating because the government says we are martyrs but does nothing for us. We do not even have streets in Halabja but only laneways of mud."

It is a measure of the misery in which so many Iraqis live that here in Halabja in the heart of Kurdistan, in one of the safest places in all of Iraq, several thousand protestors were so angry at the conditions in which they live that they destroyed the monument to their own suffering. Mr Gaffur was already injured before he was shot having lost an eye and part of his left hand to a mine in 1992. He had joined the demonstration to demand high compensation for the disabled.

Very little is left of the museum which once contained photographs and clothes of those who died when the Iraqi army made a poison gas attack on Halabja on 15 March 1988. From the distance the wrecked building looks like a miss-shapen mosque, its dome surmounted by a pinnacle which rises from its roof and on top of which there hung a shriveled Kurdish flag yesterday.

"We were all hit by stones," said Kana Tewfiq, one of the guards describing the moment when some 2,000 angry protestors reached the monument. "I myself was hit in the spine. We tried to hold them back and fired our weapons in the air, but there were too many of them." Inside the round-shaped museum, opened by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003, were life sized models of the Kurdish men, women and children who had died gasping for air on the streets of Halabja soon after inhaling the apple-and-garlic smelling. Inscribed in marble at the centre of the hall were the names of the victims who died while another 10,000 were seriously injured.

The guards described how the demonstrators, some of whom they said were Islamic militants, had torn steel bars from the railings to attack them and had then taken oil and gasoline from the museum generator which they used to burn down the museum. Yesterday strips of plastic from the burned out ceiling were hanging down by the entrance and the structure itself was too damaged to enter.

By Mr Gaffur's account the riot, which started at about 11am, was sparked off by protestors' anger over the presence of government officials. The demonstrators had said earlier in the week that Kurdish government officials were banned from the memorial ceremonies on the 18th anniversary of the gas attack because they had repeatedly failed to do anything for survivors.

It is true that many of the houses in Halabja appear to be little better than huts with plastic and earth roofs.

The shooting of the demonstrators took place when the museum guards were reinforced by a second group of pesh merga (Kurdish soldiers) who opened fire. A 17-year-old man called Kurda Ahmed was killed by a bullet in the stomach. At least half a dozen other demonstrators were wounded, some being removed to hospitals in Sulaimaniyah, and others to the Halabja hospital. Elsewhere in the town young men set fire to tires, threw rocks and lay down in the road in protest.

A different account of the riot was given by Shaho Mohammed, the Kurdish Regional Government representative in Halabja, who arrived with two vehicles full of bodyguards as I was looking at the burned out museum. He said that local people underestimated the difficulty of rebuilding Halabja because Saddam Hussein had not only gassed its people but had had utterly destroyed the town. "He did not just blow up the houses but they tore up the water and sewage systems. Until we have installed these we can't build the roads." He also pointed out that Halabja had been under strong Islamic influence before 2003 and this had limited the ability of the authorities in Sulaimaniyah 50 miles to start reconstruction.

Shaho Mohammed said he had negotiated with the organisers of the protest four days ago and had presented their demands to the government. He was suspicious that Islamic militants were involved in the protests and had ensured that it had taken a violent turn. Even so he admitted that he was astonished at what had happened. "We didn't expect people to set fire to such a holy place."