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Documents show Saddam approved chemical weapons strike on Kurdish positions in 1987

Monday, March 20, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein ordered plans drawn up for a chemical weapons attack on Kurdish guerrilla bases in northern Iraq in 1987, according to a letter signed by his personal secretary that is among documents recently declassified by the U.S. military.

The documents -- a series of memos between Saddam's office, the military intelligence service and the army chief of staff found by U.S. troops in Iraq -- do not say whether the attack was carried out.

But a doctor who traveled with Kurdish troops at the time says some of them were injured in a mustard gas attack 10 days after the last memo.

The disclosure, as Saddam's trial on unrelated murder and torture charges is underway, could shed new light on the killings of Kurds that the former Iraqi leader might be tried for in the future.

Although Saddam has long been blamed for chemical attacks known to have been conducted by Iraq's military during the 1980-1988 war with Iran, the memos are some of the first documents to be made public that appear to directly link Saddam to the use of such arms, which has been banned by international treaty since the 1920s.

WMDs not found

President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq after citing, among other reasons, charges that Saddam's regime was hiding weapons of mass destruction, but no such weapons were found after his ouster in April 2003. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction appear to have been destroyed by U.N. experts following the 1991 Gulf War.

The memos are among hundreds of documents gathered by the U.S. military since the invasion of Iraq that are now being declassified. The U.S. military cautioned on its Web site that the government "has made no determination regarding the authenticity of the documents, validity or factual accuracy of the information contained therein."

The planned attack outlined in the documents appears to have been part of the 1987-1988 Anfal campaign that killed more than 180,000 Kurds and demolished hundreds of Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. In the most notorious attack, Saddam's army bombed the town of Halabja with mustard and nerve gas on March 16, 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.

The memos date to about a year before the Halabja attack and concern an area about 120 miles to the northwest. A March 11, 1987, report from Iraq's military intelligence chief outlined a number of bases for Kurdish rebels and Iranian troops in the area.

Saddam's office responded with a March 12 letter signed by his personal secretary, saying, "The leader Mr. President has ordered that your department study with experts a surprise attack with special ammunition in the areas of Barzani's gangs and the Khomeini Guards."

"Special ammunition" is the phrase used throughout Saddam's regime for chemical weapons. Later documents in the series of memos mention specifically the nerve agent sarin and mustard gas.

The order set off discussions among military commanders over how best to use the weapons. The military intelligence chief recommended in one memo that any attack on the joint Kurdish-Iranian bases be put off until June because snow in the area would reduce the effect of sarin and mustard gas.

Then in a March 31 letter, the intelligence chief recommended two alternative targets: Kurdish guerrilla bases near the towns of Balisian and Qaradagh, "considered suitable because they are in a low-lying area, which helps chemical agent sedimentation."

It recommended using two-thirds of Iraq's stores of sarin and a third of the stores of mustard gas and said the attack could be done by mid-April.

A message from Saddam's office, signed by his secretary, approved the strike.

Two final memos, dated April 5 and 6, from the chief of military intelligence and the then army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Saadeddine Aziz Mustafa, ordered the army's 1st and 5th corps to draw up plans for the strike within days.

There were no documents saying the strike was carried out.

However, Faiq Mohammed, a Kurdish doctor who accompanied guerrillas in the north, told The Associated Press on Sunday that warplanes dropped mustard gas bombs on Balisian that April 16. A number of Kurdish fighters were wounded, some of whom Mohammed said he treated.

Mohammed, who now has a clinic in Sulaimaniyah and heads a small group called the Kurdistan Solution Party, said he heard of a similar attack in an area called Balakjar near Qaradagh during the same period.

According to the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center think tank, there were two documented Iraqi chemical weapons attacks in 1987. One was in April in the southern province of Basra, killing or wounding 5,000 Iranian soldiers. The other was in October in the southeast province of Wassit, killing or wounding 3,000 Iranians. Both are far from the Kurdish regions of the north.

Saddam and seven of members of his regime are now on trial for alleged involvement in the killing of 148 Shiite Muslims in a crackdown on the town of Dujail in 1982 after a failed assassination attempt there on the Iraqi leader. The case does not involve the use of chemical weapons.

But Saddam and others are likely to go on trial later for charges related to the Anfal campaign and the Halabja gas attack, and prosecutors have said they hold documents related to those charges. Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid -- better known as Chemical Ali for overseeing the use of chemical weapons on Kurds -- commanded the Anfal campaign and is now in U.S. custody.

None of the newly declassified documents appear to bear Saddam's signature or mention al-Majid. The approvals for the attack came from Saddam's office and were signed by his secretary. The signature is not legible, but the man who held the post at the time was Hamed Youssef Hamadi, who is in custody and was brought to testify last month in the Dujail trial.


Associated Press writers Yahya Barzanji and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.


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