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Under a Chemical Cloud

10/04/2013 15:16 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

Halabja is one of those place names, like Srebrenica and Katyn, that are etched into the collective memory of the extremes of man's inhumanity. In the spring of 1988, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the bombing of the small Kurdish town of Halabja with chemical weapons, as part of his so-called Anfal campaign of genocide against Iraqi Kurds. After the bombs had fallen, a white cloud smelling sweetly of apples rolled along and over the streets and through the open doorways and windows, enveloping every living being and slaughtering them on the spot. When the Iranian photo-journalist Kaveh Golestan arrived by helicopter on the scene shortly afterwards he found bodies of humans and animals everywhere. 'It was life frozen,' he later recalled. 'Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. You went into a room, a kitchen and you saw a body of a woman holding a knife where she had been cutting a carrot.'

Galestan's iconic images of the Halabja massacre were distributed by the Iranian news agency IRNA and spread around the world. I was working at BBC World Service in Bush House at the time and remember trying to make sense of it all, editorial confusion compounded by the fact that the Iraqi government was claiming that it was the Iranians who had dropped the bombs. Iran and Iraq had been at war for nearly eight years, millions of soldiers had died in the worst stalemate carnage since the First World War and chemical weapons had certainly been used on the Iran-Iraq front line. Besides, Saddam Hussein was then the West's friend, fighting an extremist Islamic revolutionary government that had seized power after the downfall of the Shah. It was not conceivable that he would use chemical weapons against his own people, was it?

Alas, it was. Subsequent analysis showed that the Iraqi military had used a cocktail of chemical horrors from their extensive arsenal, including mustard gas, and nerve agents such as sarin, tabun and VX. Some of the victims were covered in blisters, others coughed up green vomit. After the Iran-Iraq war ended later the same year stories about the true nature of Saddam's regime began to filter out. He completely burned his boats with the West, of course, when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Though the Iraqis were evicted from there by an international Coalition force the following year - the Iraqis setting fire to over 700 oil wells as they left - it was not until 2003 that George W Bush decided to topple Saddam. The official pretext was Saddam's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction - including chemical weapons - but in the event it transpired that he had used or destroyed them all. That was not enough to save his life, as he was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court for his crimes and hanged. So too was Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, or 'Chemical Ali' as he was dubbed by the Kurds who knew that he was personally responsible for the worst excesses of the Anfal campaign against them. In that campaign a total of 182,000 Kurds died, according to official records.

All these recollections were in my mind as I travelled recently to Halabja, along with Kaveh Golestan and other journalists who had covered the aftermath of the massacre, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the chemical attack. 'The aftermath was worse,' Kaveh recalled at the time. 'Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the Press sat there and we were handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl's mouth and she died in my arms.'

Some of the children who did survive were there to welcome us at the 25th anniversary commemoration. In the genocide museum we were shown a mock-up of a Halabja street in 1988, clearly based on one of Kaveh's photos. In a huge marquee the children sang ballads of bereavement, all the more poignant for their cloying sentimentality. the Vice-President of Iraq's Kurdistan region - which has a substantial degree of autonomy from the central government in Baghdad - made a speech along the lines of 'never again', but he was interrupted by a silent demonstration of students and other young activists who held up placards demanding the creation of a Halabja governate and economic aid, more jobs for young people and other calls familiar from the Arab Awakening that has swept across North Africa and the Middle East since the itinerant fruit-seller Mohamed Buazizi set fire to himself outside the town hall in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia in December 2010. One of the students thrust a tract into my hands that they had had translated roughly into English. 'In memory of the Halabja comical weapons attack,' it was headed. At most times this linguistic error would have prompted laughter, but in the emotional circumstances of the occasion, at which many people were crying, it was hard not to weep myself.

'Never again.' That snappy statement that so clearly summed up the feeling after the First World War - and which was so cruelly undermined just a generation later - now resonates in conference halls when chemical weapons are discussed. Partly as a result of the Halabja massacre, new impetus was given to the international Conference on Disarmament which presented to the UN General Assembly a draft text for a Chemicals Weapons Convention (CWC), or, to give it its full title, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The CWC came into force in April 1997 and is managed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Only six states had at the time of writing failed to sign the Convention: the brand new country of South Sudan (which maybe has other priorities on its mind), Somalia, North Korea, Angola, Egypt and Syria.

The last-mentioned in particular should sound alarm bells. Israel, which has signed but not yet ratified the CWC, is understandably nervous about having two neighbours who have not yet officially renounced chemical weapons but Syria is the bigger danger of the two. The Arab Awakening reached Syria later than it did in most of the MENA region; by coincidence I was there when the demonstrations started in March 2011, before being politely but firmly escorted out of the country. The brutal way the Assad regime cracked down on the dissenters finally blew away any pretence that Bashar al-Assad was a reformist, a man the West could do business with. Over the intervening two years, things have got much worse. At least 70,000 people have been killed in what has turned into a very messy civil war, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, and millions have been internally displaced. Syria has become a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions and the international community is at a loss about how this could be brought to an end.

Moreover, the Assad regime - not just Bashar, but his thuggish younger brother Maher, Commander of the Republican Guard, who reportedly lost a leg in an assassination attempt, plus various in-laws and hangers-on - seem determined to hang on at whatever cost. The fabric of the country is being destroyed, the historic souk of Aleppo just one of the World Heritage sites that have been trashed. What was perhaps the most successful multicultural society in the Middle East has been poisoned by sectarianism. No-one's future is secure. If all that were not bad enough, chemical weapons are the joker in Assad's pack.

There is no doubt that the Damascus regime has them. CWC experts believe the stocks include mustard gas, sarin, tabun and VX - exactly the same agents used against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988--and that they were based at as many as five sites, two of which also have Scud missiles. It admitted this on 23 July last year, while claiming that these were being held purely as a last resort for use against a foreign enemy. According to an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel last September, chemical weapons were tested by the Syrian army near Aleppo over the summer. On the 28th September, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared on the basis of intelligence that Syria has moved its chemical weapons in order to 'secure' them. Syria's close ally, Russia, moved quickly to get assurances for the Americans from the Syrians that their chemical weapons facilities were secure. But early in December President Barack Obama expressed his increased concern that Syria was preparing its chemical weapons stockpile for use. The then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton warned that such use would be a red line which, if crossed, would trigger international intervention.

In order to evaluate the scale of the danger that Assad might authorise the use of chemical weapons let us remember what his father, the late President Hafiz al-Assad, did in Hama in February 1982. His Ba'ath regime - from the same political family as Saddam Hussein's, though they were bitter rivals - was feeling under increased pressure from dissidents , in particular from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement that originally started in Egypt (where it is effectively now in power). The historic city of Hama, famous for its giant wooden water-wheels, was a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activity and it order to suppress this Assad sent in the army on a punitive mission. There was wholescale slaughter as tanks fired down narrow streets and people were dragged from their beds and killed. It was some time before clear details of the massacre became known, this being in an age before mobile phones and social media. Robert Fisk, the seasoned Middle East correspondent, estimated 20,000 dead. Some Syrians claim the figure was even higher.

The Hama atrocity certainly put the lid on dissent for quite some time. And that is what Bashar al-Assad is trying to do now, though most international observers believe the civil war is now so complex and bloody that neither the ermine nor the rebels can win militarily. His army and airforce have shown no restraint. But he wouldn't use chemical weapons against his own people, would he? Alas, he might.