Thursday, July 10, 2008

My TLS review of Joost Hiltermann's account of poison gas use in Iraq

My review of Joost Hiltermann, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Oxford 2007), has just appeared today in the July 9, 2008 Times Literary Supplement, “America, Iraq, and Poison Gas.”

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Despite their limitations, chemical weapons are eminently suited to another purpose – spreading terror among civilian populations. Iraq broke the moratorium early in the Iran–Iraq war that began in 1980, but chemical weapons gained their most notorious use as a weapon against civilians in the later 1980s, when Saddam Hussein turned them against his own Kurdish population in the infamous 1988 Anfal campaign. The veteran human rights campaigner Joost R. Hiltermann has written an indispensable book on the use of chemical weapons by the Saddam regime, and the reactions and responses of the international community, focusing on the largest and most lethal of the attacks in Kurdistan, the gassing of the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. This is far more than simply the twenty-year-old history of yet another atrocity. The death sentence pronounced in September 2007 by an Iraqi court on one of the principal architects of the Anfal campaign, so-called Chemical Ali, is evidence of that. And the larger political repercussions of chemical weapons use by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s are still palpably with us today – as a monumentally mistaken ground for the US invasion in 2003, as an ongoing anxiety of governments fearful of terrorist use of chemicals, as a test of international law and its ability to make good on prohibitions on their use by states or other parties. And it is finally, as Hiltermann makes central to this book, a marker of the gap between American foreign policy realism and idealism, between the accommodation of dictators in conflict with other dictators, America in the 1980s between the regime of Saddam Hussein, on the one hand, and the Islamist regime of the Iranian mullahs, on the other – all in the midst of one of the most brutal, long-running and yet largely ignored, conventional state-to-state wars of the latter half of the twentieth century.

As a former senior staffer of Human Rights Watch, which did much of the early research, Hiltermann is well positioned to present the story of Halabja and the rest of the Anfal chemical campaign (Hiltermann is currently with the International Crisis Group). But his extraordinarily extensive interviews – with Iraqis following the US invasion, with Iranians, with US government staff current and past, with UN officials and many others – have produced a seamless record of what transpired, far beyond the research of the early 1990s. As someone who had a minor role in all this – I preceded Hiltermann as the director of the Human Rights Watch Arms Division and co-directed some of the early field research into chemical weapons attacks in Iraq in 1992 – I can say that this is the best-researched and documented account of events in 1988. And it brings to bear the best judgement available on vexed collateral questions – did the Iranians, for example, use gas weapons in the war? Perhaps future historians, with access to insider Iranian government files, will say something different; but Hiltermann’s conclusion, “not impossible, but unlikely”, is likely to remain the correct answer.

Several thousand people perished in the Halabja attack; the exact number, Hiltermann says, remains unknown. How they died, recounted through interviews with survivors, is unsparing and yet never sentimental or overwrought. It recalled to me my own interviews with survivors who watched their loved ones die from nerve toxin exposure, spasms resembling, one said, cockroaches doused with bug spray. But the larger question that Hiltermann seeks to answer is the response of the international community. His conclusion is that the world turned aside and ignored the particular crimes as well as the breach in international law and the dangerous precedent laid for the future.