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Powell visits Halabja to remind world of Saddam regime's brutality

HALABJA, Iraq—Since Saddam Hussein's army bombarded this Kurdish city with a toxic cocktail of chemical weapons 15 years ago, Halabja has had many visitors.

Journalists came to chronicle the tragedy; aid workers, to give what relief they could; and medical specialists, to study a living, breathing laboratory for the long-term effects of poison gas.

Halabja got perhaps its most famous visitor on Monday in Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell, too, had a purpose: to remind a world that may be fast forgetting the ugly brutality of Saddam's regime, which the U.S. military crushed this spring.

"What happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again," Powell told several hundred Kurdish men and women, many in traditional dress, who lost loved ones in the attack on Halabja in northeastern Iraq.

He stood in front of a memorial with 1,076 symbolic headstones at a cemetery of mass graves.

After laying flowers at the site, Powell, accompanied by leaders of Iraq's Kurdish minority, helped dedicate a new monument to the worst chemical weapons attack on civilians in modern times. They lit candles in a circular rotunda whose walls were covered with black stone inscribed with the names of those who died, not unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

At 3:30 p.m. one day in March 1988, the Iraqi air force attacked Halabja with poison gases that were thought to include sarin, VX and other deadly compounds.

Five thousand residents died in one attack among many of Saddam's brutal campaign against the Kurds. Countless others suffered eyesight loss, respiratory ailments and cancers. Birth defects attributed to the attacks are common.

Powell's decision to stop here during a day and a half trip to Iraq, which ended Monday, appeared designed in part to counter criticism over the United States' failure to find caches of chemical and biological weapons since Saddam's regime collapsed in April.

Those weapons formed the crux of President Bush's argument for invading Iraq. Critics say he and his top aides exaggerated what was known about the state of Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs in 2003.

Powell brushed aside such questions.

"What happened over the intervening 15 years?" Powell said, referring to the period since the Halabja attack. "Did he suddenly lose the motivation? The international community did not think so."

The United Nations repeatedly demanded that Saddam disarm. The question is whether his regime destroyed the weapons during the 1990s.

David Kay, a former U.N. inspector who is head of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Iraq Survey Group, which has been scouring Iraq for signs of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs, is due to issue an interim report later this month.

There is no indication that Kay's team has made major finds of weapon stocks.

Powell, the first secretary of state to visit Iraq since John Foster Dulles in 1953, told reporters at a brief stop in Kuwait that the trip reinforced his view that the Bush administration should not significantly alter its plan for rebuilding Iraq.

Over the last few days, Powell has argued for a cautious approach to turning sovereignty back to Iraq.

A senior administration official in Washington said those views reflect in part Powell's concerns about the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim body composed of 25 Iraqis, and some of its members' commitment to democracy. The senior official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Powell, who met with the group on Sunday, called them "a group of people who represent every segment of society, who know they better work together to get the kind of international support they are now getting."

"They have their work cut out for them," he said.

But Powell also sought to shift the focus from the council, noting it is "embryonic." It is the Iraqi Cabinet ministries now being put in place, he said, that will have nationwide impact and responsibility for using billions of dollars in international assistance.

In Halabja, Powell could hardly have picked a more welcoming site to visit. While many Iraqis are ambivalent at best about the U.S. occupation, the Kurds, who repeatedly suffered Saddam's depredations, welcomed it.

"Fifteen years ago, much of the world doubted the evil of Saddam Hussein and refused to act," said Barham Salih, a leading figure in the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government.

Saying it is "painful" to hear world figures express doubt about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs, Salih said, "Here is the proof. Halabja is the proof."

Esmail Salih, not a relation to Barham Salih, was 12 at the time and was in the city the day of the attack. He lost his father, an uncle and seven cousins.

"It was a great tragedy. I can't describe it," said Salih, now 27. "We went to the mountains and hid ourselves in caves."

In the crowd at the cemetery, one sign read, "I am a victim of Saddam's WMD."

Yet in 1988, the Reagan administration, of which Powell was a part, issued what some critics said was a mild rebuke of Iraq, which the United States was backing in its eight-year war with Iran. Washington took no other action against Saddam.

Asked about that Monday, Powell said the Reagan administration "roundly condemned" the attack, and did not try to ignore it.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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