HALABJA, IRAQ — HALABJA, Iraq - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell finished a two-day visit to Iraq yesterday by paying homage to the victims of one of Saddam Hussein's most notorious atrocities.
Powell journeyed by cargo plane and helicopter to Halabja, a Kurdish town in the northeastern corner of Iraq where 5,000 people died during a chemical weapons attack that Hussein's air force launched on residents in 1988.
At a memorial for victims, Powell spoke to several hundred relatives, most of them women dressed in traditional black headscarves and some of them holding up pictures of lost husbands and children.
"What can I say to you?" Powell said, standing in front of a graveyard of 1,076 neatly arranged white headstones, each representing a local family that lost someone in the attack. "I cannot tell you that choking mothers died, holding their choking babies to their chests. You know that."
At a time when the Bush administration faces waning enthusiasm for its policies in Iraq, a high-profile visit to the site of the massacre focuses attention on Hussein's record of human-rights abuses, a justification for overthrowing the dictator that has resonated with the American public.
The nerve and mustard gas attack on Halabja also serves as a reminder that while the administration has been unable to find evidence that Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction in violation of international sanctions, he did at least once possess chemical weapons and used them.
In introducing Powell, Barham Salih, prime minister for the autonomous region that includes Halabja, argued that the 15-year-old massacre is evidence enough to support the administration's claims.
"Here's the proof. Halabja is the proof," Salih said. "These doubters live in a state of denial."
In addition to those killed in the attacks, countless others suffered loss of eyesight, respiratory ailments and cancers. Reports of birth defects attributed to the attacks are common.
Some of those gathered for Powell's remarks held signs with slogans in English making the point. "My family was lost to Saddam's WMD," read one sign, which Arab-speaking audience members said were distributed by a local civic organization.
Afterward, Powell reinforced the theme with reporters.
"If you ever needed greater evidence of the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any more reaffirmation that what we did was the correct course of action, you could see it in the faces of the people who were in the crowd," he said.
At the time of the attack, Iraq was at war with Iran and the United States provided Iraq some military assistance.
Iraq also used chemical weapons against Iran a number of times going back to the early 1980s.
Powell, who served on the National Security Council during that period, brushed aside any suggestion that the United States was indifferent to the attack on Halabja at the time.
"It was roundly condemned," he said. There was "no effort to ignore or not take note of it."
The use of chemical weapons on Halabja is a well-documented atrocity. The town is just seven miles from the Iranian border, and authorities in Iran quickly allowed photographers to document the attack.
Copies of some of those photos are exhibited at a local museum, which Powell also visited.
The attack was part of a long, ferocious campaign that Hussein waged against the Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic minority that dominates northern Iraq and has rebelled several times against the Iraqi central government.
The U.S. State Department said it has confirmed that Hussein used chemical weapons on at least 40 Kurdish towns and villages from 1986 to 1988. Throughout the 1980s, Kurds were forcibly removed from their towns, large parts of the region were declared off-limits to the local population, and there were mass executions of men and boys of military age.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.