In the course of a few minutes on March 16, 1988, Saddam Hussein's regime murdered thousands of civilians in poison gas attacks on the town of Halabja in an ethnic cleansing campaign against Iraq's Kurds.
In this rich and detailed study of the incident and its aftermath, Hiltermann, deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group, argues that the Iraqi government interpreted the absence of unequivocal international condemnation as tacit approval to escalate its chemical weapons program and to develop a biological weapons capability. Washington's tepid response remains, indeed, a shameful manifestation of U.S. foreign policy realism.
Hiltermann recounts the events surrounding the Halabja massacre in detail, highlighting the confusion that followed the attacks; he notes, for example, the Iranian government's manipulation of journalists in the aftermath of the incident. But his focus is on the Reagan administration's chilling indifference, and Hiltermann shows how both the State Department and the White House sought to mute condemnation of the Iraqi government, allowing Iraqi officials to use U.S. statements to deflect criticism. Nor does Hiltermann hold U.N. officials above reproach. Iqbal Riza, who would later become a close aide to U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, saw evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks on civilians during a visit to a town in Iranian Kurdistan but did not pursue the issue. "This was not really within our mission's terms of reference," he blithely explained in an interview.
While providing an important chronicle of events and a window into the U.S. policymaking debate, Hiltermann's study is derailed by his passion. His argument that the Halabja bombing opened the door to the Anfal genocide and heightened Kurdish nationalism and separatism is unconvincing. Had not the Kurds been fighting a secessionist struggle since 1961? Nor, unfortunately, was the Halabja chemical bombing either the first or the last to which the Kurds were subjected. He argues that international acquiescence to the massacre fueled Iran's desire for weapons of mass destruction. But this is anachronous: Iran and Iraq had used chemical weapons against each other years before Halabja.
Hiltermann's overreach may reflect a conscious limitation in sourcing. While he makes ample and valuable use of declassified U.S. documents, he does not incorporate Iraqi documents seized after Saddam's fall or sources from the Iranian press, both of which might have undermined his sweeping conclusions about Iranian weapons proliferation. Hiltermann conducted several dozen interviews with Iraqi Kurdish figures, some of whom provide firsthand knowledge and insight, but many of whom are simply politicians expounding a not always accurate narrative. Other interviews are bizarre or irrelevant, and many of Hiltermann's secondary sources are unrelated to learning about Iraqi, Iranian, or U.S. thinking.