Kurds marked the 30-year anniversary on Thursday of Saddam Hussein’s gassing campaign against the people of Kurdistan–which killed 140 civilians and wounded thousands more–as the region prepares to hold a referendum on its independence.
On June 28 and 29, 1987, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein ordered a chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Sardasht and its surrounding villages, which killed more than 100 civilians instantly and left thousands of others with their health heavily compromised, including serious lung, eye, and skin diseases.
Despite Kurdish forces being allied with the Iranian government in the fight against Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, Iran is yet to fully recognize the extent of the attack, as just 1,380 victims have been officially registered by Iranian authorities, while up to 8,000 suffered from the attack.
“Thirty years after the incident, a large number of those affected by the chemical attacks have not yet been registered by the Iranian Disabled and Martyrs Department,” read a statement from the Sardasht Chemical Victims Society.
Despite international treaties banning the use of chemical agents, the international community did not act upon Iranian protests at the United Nations, with American representatives contending that both sides of the war were using chemical weapons against each other.
Hussein escalated his attacks on Kurds just nine months after the Sardasht atrocity, using poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in the March 1988 Halabja massacre, killing between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injuring 7,000 to 10,000 more. The Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal has since defined the incident as a “genocidal massacre.”
In 1995, Iran pledged to build a specialist hospital to treat victims of the massacre, but such a promise never came to fruition. According to Rudaw, just 400 out of the 1,380 registered people have received necessary benefits stipulated under Iranian law, which include the monthly allowance, employment benefit, free tuition fees, health insurance, and distribution of lands.
The anniversary comes weeks after Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani announced the region will hold an independence referendum later this year, seeking a popular mandate to establish a sovereign nation of Kurdistan. However, the move has upset the ruling Shi’ite coalition, who fear it could lead to the annexation of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Previous opinion polls suggest that a “yes” vote is highly likely and could win by a landslide, which Kurdish leaders have claimed will strengthen their negotiating position in talks with Baghdad and other affected regions such as Turkey and Syria.