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Monday, 22 July, 2002, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Kurds look back with fear
As Washington continues to assert its determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, the country's four million or so Kurds are nervous that they may pay a high price for involvement in the campaign if it goes wrong.
The abiding fear is that Iraqi forces may use chemical weapons against them, as they did many times before.
For many, what happened is more than just a bad memory.
Hundreds of Kurds, especially in the town of Halabja, are still suffering and dying from the effects of the chemical bombs dropped on them.
Halabja was hit by Iraqi bombs containing a mixture of mustard and nerve gases on 16 March 1988. Estimates of the number of civilians killed range between 3,200 and 7,000.
Increasing incidence of birth defects in Halabja and elsewhere has convinced doctors that the chemicals may be having a lasting genetic impact on the Kurds.
Preliminary results from surveys have shown that in affected areas, many more babies are being born with deformities than in other places.
Every day, Omar Ali Mohammad sits on the veranda of his small house in Halabja and with his one good eye, watches his daughter-in-law Delkhwas making bread.
Omar, who is 82 now, was caught in the 1988 chemical attack and his eyes were affected, but later appeared to be all right.
Then cancer appeared around his right eye. It has transformed that side of his face into an ugly wound that is eating deeper every day and cannot be stopped.
"He has had four operations, and there's nothing more we can do," said his doctor, Adil Fatah. "It's the end stage of his condition. It has penetrated the interior parts of the face, so he will die soon."
"One of the effects of the chemicals is the higher incidence of the cancers," adds Dr Fatah, who is director of the Halabja hospital.
"Cancer of the large intestine, colon, lungs, breast cancer, and blood malignancy in children are particularly common. By the time they are diagnosed, it is usually too late."
At the hospital, I met 22-year-old Chia Hardi Hiwa. She and her two younger brothers were also caught in the attack and their eyes were affected.
They need cornea transplants, which are not available in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Their mother Chinoor, who was also in Halabja during the 1988 attack, developed colon cancer and died, although she was only in her 30s.
But I also met children born after 1988, suffering from congenital defects which doctors strongly believe stem from the effects of the poison gases on their parents.
Huda Fazel was still in her mother's womb when the family were caught in the attack.
She was born with a cleft palate and harelip and remains disfigured and with a speech impediment despite six operations.
She needs specialist plastic surgery which cannot be done here.
Didar is more than three-years-old, but has only recently learned to walk. He too was born with a cleft palate and is mute. His father Gora was exposed to the chemicals.
Such defects may occur in any society. But doctors say the incidence here and in other places affected by chemical attacks is abnormally high.
Two surveys have been done, one comparing Halabja with another town, Chamchamal, which was not attacked with such weapons, and the other making a similar comparison between affected and unaffected areas throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.
"We found that there is definitely a much higher percentage of medical disorders in Halabja compared to Chamchamal," says Dr Fouad Baban, director of the Halabja Centre which took part in the surveys.
Other cancers, respiratory ailments, skin and eye problems, fertility and reproductive disorders are measurably higher in Halabja and other areas caught in chemical attacks, Fouad Baban and other doctors say.
"There is scientific evidence that chemical weapons effect the DNA, so it is natural that we should expect many of these disorders to be apparent in the generation to come," says Dr Baban.
"There is evidence that the levels of infertility and miscarriages are affecting the demographic structure of our population, which may be around 10% smaller than it would have been. This is really a national tragedy for our people," he adds.
A meticulous, 18-month study conducted by Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s concluded that Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on at least 60 Kurdish villages in addition to Halabja.
Kurds say over 200 villages were hit throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.
From Halabja I travelled 800 kilometres to the north-western city of Dohuk, where doctors are also reporting increased numbers of the same kind of disorders.
The chemical attacks were part of a wider campaign against the Kurds ordered by Saddam Hussein and overseen by his cousin Ali Abd al-Mejid - who was dubbed "Chemical Ali" by the Kurds.
In all, around 4,000 Kurdish villages were systematically destroyed and scores of thousands of Kurds were killed, many of them liquidated in mass executions.
All this gives the Iraqi Kurds every reason to want to see the end of Saddam Hussein.
But it also gives them more reason than most to fear the consequences of being associated with a botched operation to oust the Iraqi ruler.
"We're still frightened that if they attack Saddam, he may lash out at us again. We want the outside world to protect us, and make our future safe," said Kerim Abdur Rahman, a vegetable seller in Halabja.
The message is not lost on the Kurds' political leaders as they weigh up the pros and cons of joining an American attack on the Baghdad regime.
"What will happen to our people if we participate with the Americans in fighting against Iraq?" asked Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main factions which have been running the Kurdish area under western air protection since 1991.
"Will Iraq use chemical weapons, biological weapons against these people? How can we defend them? These are very important issues for us. We must know the answer. Then we can decide if we are taking part or not."
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