U.S. gift may bring new grief to Kurds

Iraq: Schools are being built on sites that might be contaminated from poison gas attacks under Saddam Hussein.

December 16, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In what was intended as a humanitarian gesture, the United States provided $1 million this year to build two schools in Halabja, the town in northern Iraq that was the victim of poison gas attacks in 1988 that the Bush administration has held up as a prime example of Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

But some U.S. officials and advocates for the region's Kurdish residents fear the gift could bring further grief to a town where the attacks killed 5,000 people, maimed and blinded thousands, and left a legacy of serious disease and birth defects among survivors.

Preliminary soil tests conducted by the Washington Kurdish Institute, a private aid and advocacy organization, indicate the sites where the elementary schools are being built could be contaminated by toxic material. Despite the institute's appeals to U.S. and Iraqi officials for more conclusive studies, none has been performed.

`An urgent cry'

Given the history of poison gas attacks, the test results should have been viewed as "an urgent cry to do further testing," said Linda Greer, a toxicologist who directs the environment and health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

The episode offers a look at the uneven progress of reconstruction in Iraq, where efforts to correct the country's huge health and environmental problems have lagged behind visible, popular public works projects and a rapid turnover of U.S. officials causes problems to fall through the cracks.

A spokesman for the State Department office that handles Iraq affairs promised to check into the matter after being contacted by The Sun but has not responded.

The $1 million gift was announced March 16, the anniversary of the gas attacks, during a visit by L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. official in Iraq before the official handover of sovereignty to Iraqi leaders at the end of June.

"For those in my country and elsewhere who unaccountably still ask if it was worth ridding the people of Iraq of Saddam Hussein, I say: `Come to Halabja,'" Bremer said.

Chemicals and Kurds

Human Rights Watch described the 1988 gas attacks on the city of 80,000 as part of a "campaign of extermination" against the Kurds, who had long sought autonomy from Baghdad.

The official believed responsible for the attacks was one of Hussein's closest aides, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who became known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in attacks against the Kurds and was captured last year. He is expected to be one of the former leaders to appear in court for hearings next week.

The possibility of lingering contamination had long been a concern to local officials and outside health experts, who have reported high rates of cancer and birth defects.

Army testing

Two units of the Army's 101st Airborne Division conducted environmental tests in Halabja in the summer of 2003, using battlefield equipment for detecting radiation and chemical weapons. Soil and water samples were sent outside Iraq for testing.

"The purpose was to put away all these rumors that it wasn't safe to live there," said retired Col. Richard Nabb, then the Coalition Provisional Authority's coordinator for northern Iraq. The authority controlled Iraq until the end of June.

An officer who participated, Lt. Col. Brian Lynch, said in an e-mail that the results "came back with no concerns." However, he acknowledged that tests at other sites or with different equipment could yield varying results.

Concern about sites

Whether many U.S. officials knew of the testing amid the chaotic early months of the occupation is unclear. When Halabja officials picked the sites for the schools last spring, a U.S. education adviser to the CPA, Dorothy Mazaka, expressed concern to American colleagues working with the Iraqi government.

"As I understand it, about 250 villages in the Halabja area were gassed by Saddam. It is conceivable that there could be a large residual public health/environ- mental issue here that needs to be properly investigated and addressed," Mazaka wrote in an April 11 e-mail that was obtained by The Sun from another source. "The site they have chosen is right in the middle of town and it may not be a good idea if the ground is still contaminated."

In this and other e-mail messages, Mazaka urged that the Environmental Protection Agency be brought in. "Would appreciate any effort you could make to contact EPA to see if they can send a team soon to conduct an environmental study of this area," Mazaka wrote.

Her concern was echoed by Tim Krawczel, then a U.S. adviser to Iraq's Environment Ministry. In addition to contacting the EPA, Krawczel raised the issue with Iraq's then-environment minister, Abdulrachman Sideeq Kareem, a Kurd from northern Iraq.

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