Condemning 'Chemical Ali' is not enough

Monday, June 25, 2007  | By Amir Afkhami and Michael Soussan

HALABJA, Iraq - In a few days, "Chemical Ali" will face death by hanging. Ali Hassan al-Majid earned his nickname after he ordered the use of chemical weapons to eradicate the population of Halabja, a Kurdish town located near Iraq's northern border with Iran.

A day before the Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced Majid and two co-defendants to death for committing genocide against the Kurds, we visited Halabja, the scene of some of the most heinous crimes perpetrated by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The chemical attacks on this border town was followed by the complete destruction of every building and the mass execution of fleeing refugees. The town was then burned and the surrounding area heavily mined.

Halabja has since come back to life, but its future stability and welfare are still at risk. The conviction of Majid does not absolve the international community, which did nothing at the time to help the victims, from investing in these people's future today.

Their needs are dire. Halabja has yet to recover from the physical and psychological destruction it suffered at the hands of Saddam's regime. It remains one of the poorest and most rundown urban areas in the otherwise prospering Kurdish region of Iraq.

Social services are quasi non-existent. Trash and sewage abounds in the city center. Piles of blackened bricks haunt every corner, every street. Access to basic medical care is severely limited by the dearth of supplies and equipment. This, in a town that must grapple with record levels of cancers, congenital deformities and other incalculable long-term repercussions linked to chemical exposure.

A tour of the Halabja hospital leaves the visitor in no doubt that this town is at the bottom of the international community's agenda for Iraqi reconstruction. Except for the Swedish government, which helped erect this modest building in 1999, few international donors appear to show much interest in improving this population's future.

The desperation of Halabja's citizens came to a boil two years ago, when an angry mob, frustrated by the lack of government services, burned down the very memorial dedicated to their own tragedy. This shocking act was a protest against a sad reality. The outside world appeared to care more about Halabja's past than about its future.

This should be a warning to those who believe that the execution of Chemical Ali means the job in Halabja is done. While the perpetrators of mass murder deserve punishment, we have both an ethical and a practical responsibility to steer the victims towards a brighter tomorrow.

From an ethical standpoint, the West bears substantial responsibility for this tragedy. Chemicals and mines were provided to Saddam Hussein by European companies (including Dutch and Italian firms), and Washington's lack of a meaningful response to this atrocity allowed the Iraqi dictator and his henchmen to move forward with their campaign of extermination.

On a practical level, the danger of inaction is illustrated by recent history. As late as 2003, the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Ansar al-Islam was able to prey on the desperate population of Halabja and its surroundings to gain a foothold in the region.

A coalition of U.S. special forces and Kurdish Peshermgas were eventually able to uproot this threat after the invasion of Iraq. The challenge is to ensure that Halabja, and the rest of the region, remain free of extremist and destabilizing groups which are diametrically opposed to the coalition's mission in Iraq.

It has become obvious over the past several years that the war in Iraq is being fought battle by battle on a regional level. In the case of this province, there is an opportunity to cement a lasting victory against the forces of terror. This fight will require a sustained and targeted commitment to the region's social and economic development.

As Chemical Ali's sentence was being read out on Iraqi television, the Halabja residents who stood besides us showed little emotion.

When questioned, they explained that they had waited a long time for this moment but that true justice, for them and their town, should go beyond this man's execution.

In their eyes, Halabja deserved to be returned to the community it was before the deceptively sweet scent of the first chemical weapons reached them on that morning in March 1988. The international community has a duty, and an interest, to help them see this vision through.

Amir Afkhami teaches at the School of Public Health and Health Services of the George Washington University Medical Center. Michael Soussan, a journalist and lecturer at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, is a former program coordinator for the United Nations Iraq Program.