Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

February 5, 2006
By: Jonathan Dworkin

HALABJA....The road from Sulaimania to Halabja passes through a region called the Shahrizur, which was once one of the great agricultural centers of Iraq. It makes for pleasant scenery, with broad grassy plains ringed by foothills and tall mountains in the distance. The towns along the road Arbat, Say Sayach, and Sirwan appear mere reservoirs of poverty, but to my Kurdish hosts each is a metropolis filled with acquaintances and family history.

PUK peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) operating in the Shahrizur were the chief target of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime during the Anfal Campaign of 1988. The campaign against them included multiple chemical weapons attacks, of which Halabja is only the most notorious. In part this is because the peshmerga and the Iranian Army occupied the town and allowed observers to record the atrocity. Victims in other towns were simply swept away by the Iraqi Army.

To speak meaningfully of what happened in the Shahrizur, first you must follow the shadow of American foreign policy. The 1975 Algiers Accord, endorsed by Henry Kissinger, settled the border (temporarily) between Iraq and Iran. Part of the agreement was a sudden and unexpected end of American and Iranian support for the peshmerga, an event that was the defining disaster for the Kurdish independence movement. The KDP collapsed and Mustafa Barzani, the nationalist leader, fled the country. The socialist PUK continued to fight, which is why the Baath regime disproportionately targetted the Shahrizur in the 80s.

Kissinger's name is a curse word in Kurdistan, and the Algiers Accord is the one topic that can cause sentiment to turn anti-American. In the arc of Kissinger's career a geographical list that includes Cambodia, Chile, and East Timor Kurdistan may not draw much attention. But the damage done to American credibility in this country was almost fatal, and all of this was done in the name of "realism."

In the Shahrizur the politics of the past mix with the poverty of the present. I am working with Dr. Ako, the healthcare administrator for the region, and our goal is to obtain clinical data about the population in Halabja. We hope to demonstrate an association between exposure to chemical weapons and ongoing disease, and we hope to better define the incidence of common diseases in the community. Because there are few publications on Halabja in the medical literature, even simple facts, like the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), are unknown. Many other diseases are also reported, including malignancy, polycystic ovary syndrome, pulmonary fibrosis, and a wide range of opthomological and dermatological illness. But without data all of this is anecdotal.

The work in Halabja also illuminates one of the central differences between myself and my Kurdish colleagues. In New York research is a basic feature of medical education. In the wake of September 11th doctors enrolled 60,000 patients in prospective trials. Everything that happens to them will be recorded, and the information will be used to obtain resources for them as they age. In Kurdistan, by contrast, there is no research infrastructure. Medical education is antiquated, consisting of the memorization of long lists of syndromes. Skill sets like research that are essential parts of modern medical education have not yet entered the curriculum. The result is a group of intelligent, clinically skilled doctors who are ill-equipped to publish about their patient population. In Kurdistan this work seems a fantastic luxury, not a crucial piece of advocacy.

One thing that surprises me about Halabja is that it is still beautiful. Entire neighborhoods are rubble, but amongst the hills and mountains it retains its charm. This disconnect between the setting and the recent history makes it an emotionally taxing environment to work in. As I discuss my plans with the Kurdish doctors and nurses, all are friendly and eager to work with Americans. But as I think about the debate back at home, cynical and self-serving on both sides, I wonder how much more politics this place can survive.


Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. Other posts in this series:

February 5: Halabja
January 25: Kurds and Jews
January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

So let's see. It's all, umm, America's fault! Well done.

Posted by: am on February 5, 2006 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for posting this series, it's very interesting. Sounds like Kurdish-controlled areas are more stable than the rest of Iraq. Are there NGO's operating in the area? Anywhere we should be sending donations?

Posted by: Librul on February 5, 2006 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

Thoughtful, well-written post. Thanks, Jonathan.

Posted by: Joel on February 5, 2006 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think Jonathan is saying it's "all America's fault." He describes accurately a failure of "nuanced, pragmatic" politics in this area. Kissinger's name is a curse word in more places than Kurdistan.

Kurdistan stands out in Iraq as the place where, compared to most of the rest of the nation, the U.S. and the war are supported quite highly.

Hopefully, they will not get screwed over again, either by their own nation, or us.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 5, 2006 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

drives me nuts.

I know I can do better than the moron. Can't do any worse. At least I listen to all concerned, then consider even those who do not speak.

Why is 'Merica so afraid?

Posted by: Sky-Ho on February 5, 2006 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

Why those ungrateful Kurds!!! Gosh am, what's your alternate view? That America is the most perfectest, perfectest of any and all nations on Earth no matter what, no matter cause, cause, cause it's mine, mine, mine??? That it's better than all those nasty Denmarks and C-C-Canadas and don't even touch on those despicable Swedes.

Or perhaps in reality there are grounds for views other than "it's all good" or "it's all bad" and that this is where most of us stand? Indeed it's where the Kurds are. See the quote: the Algiers Accord is the one topic that can cause sentiment to turn anti-American. Hardly a blanket condemnation of all things American. So please for once get it through your thick skull: a criticism of one aspect of the States is not equating America with evil incarnate. You are a mix like the rest of us. Is that really so difficult a logical step for you?

Posted by: snicker-snack on February 5, 2006 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, I see tbrosz has made my point in a far less snarky manner.

cheers

Posted by: snicker-snack on February 5, 2006 at 8:53 PM | PERMALINK

We hope to demonstrate an association between exposure to chemical weapons and ongoing disease

The US military and Russian military did controlled experiments on this subject. In Halabja you can't control for dosage or even the nature of the chemical.

In Kurdistan this work seems a fantastic luxury, not a crucial piece of advocacy.

What would the Kurds rather have you working on?

Stay safe and keep your distance from sick birds.

Posted by: ? on February 5, 2006 at 10:00 PM | PERMALINK

It is so sad and tragic that the Reagan Administration and then-VP George H.W. Bush, sold Saddam the precursor chemicals, Bell helicopters and crop-spraying equipment that enabled Hussein to carry out the genocide in Halabja. In a way, thanks to these sick and misguided men, and men like Hank Kissinger mentioned in the story, every American is an accomplice after the fact, to Saddam's mass murder...

Posted by: Stephen Kriz on February 5, 2006 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

Thirty years on and cities are still rubble...?

What the hell do American have to complain about?

Posted by: Darryl Pearce on February 5, 2006 at 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, tbrosz makes the point, and makes it well. It's so much more fun to have straw men to flail at, isn't it am?

Posted by: craigie on February 5, 2006 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

Do you think either of these were better alternatives?:

1) Letting Iran invade Iraq
2) Putting troops on the ground to defend Iraq, diverting resources from winning the Cold War and freeing Eastern Europe

Posted by: McA on February 5, 2006 at 11:47 PM | PERMALINK

Stephen:

It is so sad and tragic that the Reagan Administration and then-VP George H.W. Bush, sold Saddam the precursor chemicals, Bell helicopters and crop-spraying equipment that enabled Hussein to carry out the genocide in Halabja.

So the idea is that you can't sell crop-spraying equipment and pesticide chemicals to someone without being implicated in their conversion to weapon use years later? Oddly, after the invasion of Iraq, large quantities of "dual-use" materials were instantly dismissed by the Left as evidence of WMD intent. Of COURSE the pesticides stored near military facilities and in ammo dumps were for farm use.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 6, 2006 at 12:34 AM | PERMALINK

The 1975 Algiers Accord [...] was a sudden and unexpected end of American and Iranian support for the peshmerga [...] and all of this was done in the name of "realism."

In current political parlance, people who speak disparagingly of "realism" are generally liberal hawks/Iraq war supporters (or conservatives grasping at whichever ideology sanctions their bloodlust).

Completely aside from the author's laudable humanitarian efforts in Iraq, I wonder if he has seen anything which lead to a reconsideration of his former positions on the war (whether for or against).

I doubt a realist, in the classical sense, would have gone to war in Iraq.

Posted by: luci on February 6, 2006 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

pesticides stored near military facilities and in ammo dumps were for farm use

If you gave me a link to the pesticides in question I could tell you whether there was a reasonable synthetic route to a chemical weapon or associated emetic.

Posted by: chemist on February 6, 2006 at 1:15 AM | PERMALINK

Well, Jonathan, I see you're still lapping up the Kurdish agitprop and nationalist mythology.

Kurdish nationalism was not going to win in 1975. Anyone selling that line is engaging in gross revisionism. Of course it makes a good nationalist myth.

But the damage done to American credibility in this country was almost fatal, and all of this was done in the name of "realism." Iraq? Or the mytholgical country of Kurdistan?

Either way, Kissinger did a deal that made sense and still makes sense. Whatever mythology is being pimped, there is no way Turkey or Iran would have let a Kurdish state emerge then - although funneling money to screw with the Iraqi Arab nationalist regime and enabling a quixotic cycle of violence to keep the same off balance was certainly kosher (or halal).

The notes on medical research are frankly navel gazing. You could well be writing about 75 percent of the globe and its medical care.

Lounsbury
aqoul.com

Posted by: collounsbury on February 6, 2006 at 1:18 AM | PERMALINK

Collounsbury: Sure, he could be writing about 75% of the globe. But he's not in 75% of the globe. He's in Iraqi Kurdistan. So it makes sense that he's writing about it, no?

Posted by: Kevin Drum on February 6, 2006 at 2:02 AM | PERMALINK

As I remember it, Kissinger used Mustafa Barzini and screwed over the Kurds royally in the process. As I recall, he promised CIA and other aid to the Kurds in their uprising against Iraq. Of course, the whole thing was merely to pressure a lovely future ally into doing our wishes. So just when Barzini and the Kurds needed our aid most, Kissinger abandoned them to their bloody fate at the hands of our new Real Politik partner. Guess who that was.

Whether Kurdish nationalism was going to win or not is irrelevant to how Kissinger screwed them. I remember the story at the time, and I'm neither revising, nor pimping, anything. Of course, for some, it's either all down the memory hole, or just our way of spreading freedom and democracy by enabling a quixotic cycle of violence. Good times.

Posted by: R.Porrofatto on February 6, 2006 at 2:20 AM | PERMALINK

tbrosz:
We knew damn well what Saddam was going to do with those chemicals - in fact we encouraged him to used poison gas on the Iranian army. Why are we surprised when a madman uses a loaded gun we hand to him? No, this is a monster of our own creation and if the Bush family had the slightest bit of integrity (which they don't), they would admit it.

Posted by: Stephen Kriz on February 6, 2006 at 6:44 AM | PERMALINK

"Why don't those people die fast? The worst thing that could happen would be for them to linger on." - Kissinger on the South Vietnamese, to White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen.

Posted by: Red on February 6, 2006 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

No, Kevin, it does not make sense to write about it, in my opinion, in that "Gosh they don't have research here" tone. No bloody kidding. Of course my teeth are already on edge by the simple-minded regurgitation of nationalist mythology and spin.

Gullible Americans of various stripes lapping up cynical spin has already done quite enough damage in region, thank you very much.


Posted by: collounsbury on February 6, 2006 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

Collounsbury:

Perhaps you'd like to post something enlightening for us to read, rather than a series of snotty retorts that only succeed in proving what an ass you are.

Posted by: KW on February 6, 2006 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

Shorter Collounsbury: Why don't these primates graciously accept their expendability in serving US interests? If they were meant to have a homeland, they'd look whiter.

Posted by: Mysticdog on February 6, 2006 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

Dr. Dworkin, I'm all in favor of good medical research, but I have to raise a rhetorical eyebrow when you "hope to demonstrate an association between exposure to chemical weapons and ongoing disease" - I would hope that yoy think of it as "examining the data to test for any significant association between ...." rather than hoping to find an association. Just sayin' ...

Posted by: dcbob on February 6, 2006 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

dcbob beat me to the punch. I also noticed that phrase and also hope Dr. Dworkin will not a good story get in the way of the facts.

Posted by: Charles on February 6, 2006 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Dr. Dworkin, I'm all in favor of good medical research, but I have to raise a rhetorical eyebrow when you "hope to demonstrate an association between exposure to chemical weapons and ongoing disease" - I would hope that yoy think of it as "examining the data to test for any significant association between ...." rather than hoping to find an association. Just sayin' ... Posted by: dcbob on February 6, 2006 at 12:32 PM

dcbob, Dr. Dworkin's phrasing is known as a "working hypothesis". He has expectations that there will be an association between chemical exposure and disease.


No scientist goes into any research with no preconceptions about what they think they will find. You have to have a working hypothesis in order to conduct effective tests.

Typically you test for the opposite, or "null hypothesis". For instance, Dr. Dworkin would conduct experiments or run statistical analyses to show that there was no association between chemical weapon exposure and disease. If the null hypothesis fails then you can assume that there is such an association.

Nevertheless, there's nothing wrong with expectations as long as he doesn't force the data to fit them.

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on February 6, 2006 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding Data:

Dr. Morpheus hits the nail on the head. The association is merely the finding we are looking for. If we find no such association, than the study will say so. At the very least the incidence of disease data should prove illuminating.

Regarding Agitprop:

My own opinions, and frankly less nauseating than the alternatives I've read above. But I'll leave that to the readers.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin on February 7, 2006 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

What saddened me the most was the last line, where Jonathan comments on the debate "back home" in America as "cynical and self-serving on both sides." I wish I could answer that charge in a positive way, but I am involved as well in this problem. I am a partisan in this domestic squabble (calling it a "debate" is, I think, not quite accurate as there are no rules here, no common ground for civil discourse). As a partisan, I view those I am opposed to as cynical and self-serving, whereas I feel sincere and if not altruistic, at least compassionate towards wanting to help others. The estrangement is that deep. I can see how while viewing such suffering in Iraq, as well as here in the US after Katrina or the 9/11 attacks, partisanship seems shallow in the face of immediate devastation.

The tragedy is, I feel, neither cynicism nor self-serving attitudes. Those qualities are unfortunately part of human nature everywhere, not just in the US and I don't believe the majority of Americans can be defined by them. It is that there is no common ground to actually have a debate. Regular American citizens have been locked out of discourse in the public square. A debate would be welcome indeed.

Posted by: Kitty on February 7, 2006 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

I must be coming late to the party; maybe everyone else has already seen the posted photo "Gas Rising over Halabja, 1988" somewhere else. But I haven't.

1. Has it anything to do with the well publicized gas attack on Halabja?

2. Who took the photo? Has it been used in evidence anywhere? What's the source of this particular graphic? Is there a higher resolution copy? A link?

3. I can't make out a town. Does there exist a similar photo with identical orientation but without the gas?

4. From the locations of the gas cloud pattern, is it possible to tell the mode of delivery (planes, artillery, etc.)?

5. Are there any troops or military equipment visible?

Any help at all would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Ellen1910 on February 7, 2006 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Ellen,

I obtained the photo at the Halabja Monument, the major memorial in the town (there's a photo of Colin Powel visiting the monument posted prominently as you walk in). This photo was part of a book of photos given freely to all visitors. Most of the pictures are of victims and are quite gruesome, but there are a few other "bomb" photos present.

I asked about the photo above and was told by several Kurds that it's a "peshmerga photo" taken from the nearby mountains during the attack. I have no way of corroborating that - I'm just taking their word for it.

It's worth pointing out that many eye witness accounts state that planes were used to drop the gas. The aftermath is well-documented by many sources, and the peshmerga and Iranian Army were active in the area. This is why I thought it reasonable to believe the photo is legit.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin on February 7, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly