Saddam's Secret War

A journey through Kurdistan is like turning over a succession of stones in the rubble of Saddam Hussein's secret war against the Kurds. From 1988 to 1990, not satisfied with having defeated the Kurdish guerrillas, the Peshmerga, Saddam went on a mostly undocumented rampage to wipe Kurdish villages from the map. The Kurds have said he used chemical weapons on hundreds of villages, and systematically blew up and bulldozed thousands more. Then he rendered their fields unworkable with land mines and their orchards unproductive with chemical defoliants. "I was in Sweden telling people this," says Karim Sanjari of the Kurdish Democratic Party, "and nobody would believe it. It's something incredible, like from ancient history." Now, with nearly a third of Kurdistan in allied hands, and the rest split between Peshmerga guerrilla and Iraqi government control, outsiders can see for themselves.

Up close there's not much doubt. The "Pesh" guide who is traveling with us on the first leg of the trip, 250 miles across northern Iraq, pauses near the top of a steep knoll to pick wild roses. "This area used to be famous for its honey," says Hassan Ahmad, shouldering his AK-47. Below, piles of stones mark the 50 houses of Beduh (population: 500). Not even a remnant of wall is standing; the lanes are overgrown with grass and wild wheat. The limbs of all the apple trees are black and barren, late in spring. "Beduh defended itself against Alexander the Great, but not against Saddam." The guide stops us from going on ahead. "There are mines," he says, proceeding with care. Elsewhere in Kurdistan, two allied soldiers have been killed recently, and at least one other was maimed by old Iraqi mines in Kurdish fields. "I can see why no one believed he destroyed 4,000 villages like this--who could believe it?" the guide says. "But I, Hassan, will take you to any place on the official 1960 map of Iraq and show you the stones."

A chemist has come from Saddam-held Iraq on a sentimental journey to his home village of Bebad in the security zone, destroyed when he was a college student. Bebad is in Saddam's valley of summer palaces, built after the local villages were destroyed. "He killed our children, separated our families, destroyed our homes-to build these for himself," the chemist says. He points out the home of his grandfather, next to the ancient Nestorian church of St. Simone. Only the size of the two piles of stones differentiates them. "We weep when we think how our life was then." He won't give his name; he now lives in Baghdad-- praying, he says, for Saddam's early death. The English teacher remembers fleeing his village in 1988; he watched through binoculars from the mountain above as the Iraqis razed Aspendar Kalfo and his school with it. "First they burned all of the houses," says Kamal Hussein, now working as a Pesh interpreter with the British Royal Marines in Amadiya. "After two days of that, the bulldozers leveled all the houses to the ground. Where the bulldozers couldn't get to, they planted explosives in each house. " He joined the Pesh. Later that year, he says, his best friend was killed in a chemical attack at the village of Sherana.

Leaving the allied security zone for Peshmerga-held territory to the east, we pass through the Barzan Valley--the home of the Kurdish Barzani clan, whose leader, Masoud Barzani, is in Baghdad now negotiating with Saddam for autonomy. The valley is famous among Kurds because they claim the Iraqis rounded up every male between the ages of 12 and 50-8,000 in all-and took them away, never to be seen again. The Kurds believe the captives were bound together and buried alive in a massive ditch in the Iraqi desert. We pass through the village of Barzan and never even see it. The Kurds are mountain people, and most of their villages aren't near roads. The 100 destroyed villages we do see along the way were destroyed as long ago as 1975, but most in 1988.

Many of the million Kurds who took refuge across the border in Iran are returning now--but to their original homes rather than to the government-controlled resettlement camps they fled after March's failed rebellion. An old farmer is one. In the destroyed town of Choman (former population: 10,000) Ahmad Muhammad Rasoul is rebuilding his six-room house, exactly as it was, stone by stone, "I feel like I have just been born again," he says. "Saddam, he even destroyed our dreams. Coming back is the only way to defeat him."

Fifty miles away, in the Balisan Valley of Sulaimaniya province, the stones finally produce voices. The 16 villages of this valley were the first attacked by Saddam with chemical gas--in 1987, a year before the better-known Halabja was gassed, killing 5,000 Kurds. Afterward, the villages of Balisan Valley were razed by demolition teams and Iraqi Army engineers in bulldozers--all wearing chemical-protection suits and gas masks. Now, for the first time, the survivors are returning to rebuild their communities--and tell what happened.

Worst hit was the village of Sheikh Wasanan, perched between a pyramid-shaped hill and a towering mountain, in a place of stunning beauty. About dusk on April 16, 1987, 16 Sukhoi bombers made three passes over the village of 800 people, dropping scores of chemical bombs. "Those close to the gas explosions died very fast," says Karouc Khader, a 32-year-old laborer who says he lost 90 relatives that night, among the 238 who died in Sheikh Wasanan. "Some went blind and died after 10 minutes. Some began convulsing and spitting blood and something yellow and died in two minutes. Others took hours or days to die, and their lips and eyes would swell until they were huge and then they died."

Peshmerga guerrillas came down from the mountain and evacuated the survivors, but those too sick to walk had to be left behind. Iraqi soldiers soon arrived and loaded them into dump trucks. "My brother was one of them," says Karouc. By coincidence, Rasoul, the farmer from Choman, was in a nearby town and saw the sick from Sheikh Wasanan come through, 180 in two trucks, mostly women and children with swollen faces. None was seen again.

In all, 2,000 persons died in the Balisan Valley; many others were injured. It's only one of many such valleys attacked with chemical weapons, according to Kurdish accounts. We visited another, the Ako Yan Valley, near the town of Rawanduz, where returning residents recounted similar attacks on 12 villages there. Kurdish leaders say the villages were typically bombed with a combination of mustard gas and nerve gases--Tabun and Sarin--which would explain why some died quickly and others lingered. Western scientists who have examined blood and urine samples from victims confirm that analysis.

Further down the road is Qalaa Diza. This is no village, but a small city. No one knows for sure how many lived there in 1989, since earlier refugees had swollen the population, but estimates range from 65,000 to 100,000. Every one of its 15,000 buildings has been demolished. "This must have been what Hiroshima looked like," says Eric DeWilde, a nurse with Medecins Sans Frontieres. Qalaa Diza is now home to more than 10,000 returning refugees, who are clearing makeshift homes amid the collapsed walls. Amin Khader, a shopkeeper, came here from Iran last week with his family of seven rather than return to the resettlement camp he had lived in since 1989. "If I weren't happy to be back, I wouldn't choose this rubble to live in. At least nobody is asking me what we're doing or where we're going. We're free now." He set to work piling scavenged stones into four unmortared walls on which to hang his blue plastic refugee-camp tarp.

Allied troops holding the security zone have uncovered more evidence of Saddam's secret war. "This was total random destruction," says U.S. Army Maj. William Gawthrop, an aide to the American military commander in Iraq. U.S. Marines at what had previously been the Iraqi Army headquarters compound in Zakhu found a mass grave last month while digging a hole for a tent pole; military officials say they decided not to exhume the bodies because it might embarrass the Iraqis who were negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees. Conservative U.S. aerial reconnaissance estimates of the destruction put the number of destroyed villages in the region at 3,000 or more, Major Gawthrop says, and villages gassed at "a modest estimate" of several hundred.

The major sees little hope for the Kurds. "We're going to withdraw and I'm not confident we're going to leave behind a security force to protect these people. I'm afraid we're just transients in their history, doing them a good turn on the way by. There is no bright star on their horizon. The minute we leave all these people are going to get massacred." Bakir Khader Mohammad, an office worker from Qalaa Diza, shared that fatalism-even though he's rebuilding his old home. "Before, we did nothing and he killed thousands of us. Now that we have stood against him, imagine what he will do." The Kurds need only look at the stones all around them to know.

In southern Iraq, the terror of Saddam Hussein is not just a memory. Saddam's men in the city of Karbala are erasing all signs of the Shiite rebellion that raged two months ago. Around the golden-domed mosques of Imam Husayn and Imam Abbas, still bullet-pocked from battles between rebels and Saddam's soldiers, bulldozers churn up white dust as they clear the remains of apartments hit by government artillery. "The people rose up against Saddam Hussein, and they did to us like they did to Kuwait," whispers a middle-aged shopkeeper. "People are scared."

As U.S. forces hurry home, Saddam is rebuilding his power over the ravaged country, mounting an all-out effort to restore the appearance of normality. Electricity is returning to Baghdad and other areas; drinkable water is flowing in many areas; food is increasingly available, albeit at exorbitant prices. Almost half a million phones have been restored. On Iraqi TV, footage of hollow-eyed rebels "confessing" to sabotage drives home the message: rebellion doesn't pay. Saddam appears to be "in high spirits," says Azzam al-Ahmad, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Baghdad, who recently met with the president. "I felt he was very comfortable with the present situation in Iraq."

Most Iraqis can't say the same. Rations of essential foods like rice are cheap, but too small to provide a healthy diet. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says nearly 10 percent of the children in southern Iraq are malnourished. Sewage-treatment plants aren't operating, so raw waste is flowing into the rivers. Scores of cases of cholera and typhoid have been reported. A team of Harvard University-based public health researchers recently estimated that 170,000 Iraqi children under 5 will likely die from diarrhea and other gastrointestinal diseases over the next year--twice as many as would have died under prewar conditions. Shortages of medicines and other hospital supplies hamper relief efforts. In Karbala, the two top floors of the four-story hospital were destroyed in the civil war.

Iraq's looming health disaster is one unintended consequence of the allied air campaign. Direct damage to civilian targets was relatively minor. But the indirect damage was devastating, since the bombing was aimed at "strategic" targets with both military and civilian functions. Says a new Greenpeace study: "Destruction of civil installations such as electrical generating, oil supply, roads and bridges, and of industrial research and production, all [had] a profound effect on the population's ability to sustain modern life."

Iraq says economic sanctions are the main barrier to reconstruction. Washington wants to keep them in place to prevent Saddam from rebuilding his war machine and to encourage Iraqis to overthrow him. But that seems increasingly unlikely--in part because the United States did not help the last rebellion. The Baath Party elite and the Army (once seen as likely to stage a coup) have thrown in their lot with Saddam. Even many Iraqis who oppose the regime resent the sanctions--and expect to see Saddam in charge for years.


JOHN BARRY in Washington