Letters

HELL IN HALABJA

It is unfortunate that The Village Voice has chosen to put itself on the side of those who deny that the 1988 chemical attack on Halabja was carried out by Iraq ["Fighting Words," Roger Trilling, May 7].

I, too, find it distasteful that the Bush administration is using this atrocity as a justification for a new attack on Iraq, but this should not be allowed to stand in the way of a dispassionate analysis of the available facts. The only argument the deniers bring to the table is the unsubstantiated claim that blood agents killed the Kurds in Halabja, and that since Iran was known to have these and not Iraq, Iran must have been the culprit.

I know from interviews with Dr. Stephen Pelletiere [co-author of the report "Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War"] and sources in the Defense Intelligence Agency that this claim is based on their viewing of photographs of the victims, which showed a blue coloration of the extremities. These photographs were brought out of Halabja by Western journalists shortly after the attack.

I could understand why Trilling didn't believe me when he spoke to me before he filed his story, as I'm merely a researcher. But why did he not spend a few minutes on the phone with chemical weapons experts? They would have swiftly disabused him of the notion that blue coloration necessarily suggests the use of blood agents. If anything it is indicative of the use of nerve agents, and Iraq at that point already had a record of nerve gas use, as incontrovertibly shown by UN missions of chemical weapons experts who took samples in preceding years.

Secondly, I have not found a shred of evidence that Iran ever used blood agents, or indeed any chemical agents, during the Iran-Iraq war.

There is plenty of evidence that it was Iraq that carried out the attack, not least in the form of testimonies of those who were in Halabja that day. Moreover, in 18 metric tons of Iraqi secret police documents I found many documents that make reference to chemical attacks by Iraqi forces, including the one on Halabja, but none that makes any mention of an Iranian role in gas attacks. I have also interviewed Iraqi defectors with first-hand information about the attack, who confirmed the Iraqi role.

Finally, whence this fiction that Cheney et al. need Halabja as a justification for going to war? They are going to war, and they will do it with or without the Halabja fig leaf. If we can counter the war juggernaut, we should not have to distort carefully documented history to do so.

Joost R. Hiltermann,
Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: The writer was the principal researcher for Human Rights Watch on the attack on Halabja in the early 1990s.

Roger Trilling replies: Hiltermann seems so fixated on Saddam Hussein's sole guilt for Halabja that he will disregard any argument to the contrary. Far from denying Iraqi guilt, I affirmed it repeatedly. I also indicated that claims for Iranian involvement came not from photojournalists but from informants' accounts, field reports, and signal intelligence. As for Iranian use of gas, Hiltermann might start with the "chemical weapons atlas" by Human Rights Watch researcher E.J. Hogendoorn, which mentions a DIA report that Iran used phosgene and mustard gas. So what is being denied is not Iraqi complicity, but the existence of a debate around it. If the administration does indeed take us to war with Iraq, they should do so without the fig leaves proffered by Hiltermann.


EYELESS IN GAZA

Nat Hentoff, while justifiably decrying anti-Semitism among certain elements of the opposition to the Israeli military actions in the Occupied Territories, falls short in his column headlined "'Who's an Anti-Semite?" [May 14]. Hentoff notes that several of the suicide bombers came from the refugee camp at Jenin devastated by the IDF, but he fails to mention why that camp exists more than 50 years after the creation of the state of Israel.

Until Israel accepts the right of the Palestinians to a real nation and permanently withdraws from the areas it illegally occupies in the West Bank and Gaza, there will be continuing hatred and ugly prejudice on both sides. While neither side can ever forget the past (nor should they), it is high time they begin to forgive.

Ron Jacobs,
Burlington, Vermont

Nat Hentoff replies: I have long supported an independent Palestinian state. The camps are deplorable. But there is no justification for suicide bombers or for the continuing duplicity of Arafat, which betrays his own people.


FINE ARTS AND LETTERS

M.F.A. is another word for discrimination ["Young, Gifted, and Workshopped," Taylor Antrim, VLS, May 7]. Those writers whose talent is native, as opposed to cookie-cuttered, and who nevertheless cannot afford an education, are not going to be published without those sinister initials. The next generation of genius is not writing from life but from the profit motive of publishing houses seeking to eliminate risk in the riskiest business there is. At least I do not need an M.F.A. to write a letter to the editor . . . yet.

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