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'Never going to happen again'

International | IRAQ: The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit postwar Iraq, Powell also gets a firsthand glimpse of Saddam's prewar terror-and promises to work to keep history from repeating

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

Pelair Shukri's eyesight grows dimmer every year. He's 53, but the decline isn't middle-age farsightedness. Chemicals from a 1988 mustard-gas attack are burning through the cells in his eyeballs. About 100,000 Kurds died when Saddam Hussein trained his chemical weapons on them for supposedly aiding the enemy during the Iran-Iraq war. Mr. Shukri was one of the fortunate ones. He survived.

From his Michigan home he watched television images of Secretary of State Colin Powell standing over a mass grave in the border village of Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds died from the attacks. Mr. Shukri was 40 miles away when bombs also dropped on his unit of 700 Kurdish fighters.

Mr. Powell is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since major combat ended in May, and the first secretary of state in the country in 50 years. His two-day trip took him from Baghdad to the northern city of Kirkuk before stopping in Halabja, where the leaders of the Kurds' two main parties and Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer joined him at the graveside ceremony. "What I can tell you," Mr. Powell told family members of the victims, "is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again."

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Mr. Shukri and his wife Pershing rejoiced, and wept, as they watched. Mr. Powell's visit is symbolic of the fresh beginning the war has brought Iraq's downtrodden Kurds. "We knew it was going to be a liberation for Kurdish people," Mr. Shukri said. "We can say we've reached our goal."

While Mr. Powell's speech illuminated the goal of a stable and democratic Iraq, events the same day underscored the hard slog it will take to fulfill it. Gunmen shot dead the police chief of Khaldiya after ambushing his car. An American soldier also died when guerrillas launched a rocket-propelled grenade attack in central Baghdad.

A day before his visit, Mr. Powell could not break the deadlock with UN Security Council members in Geneva in a new resolution inviting more countries to help rebuild Iraq. France pressed for a timetable where America would hand over provisional authority to the Iraqis in a month and elections would take place next year, moves the United States considers too hurried. "The idea that you put everything in the Iraqis' hands tomorrow or in a month doesn't work if they don't have the capability, the structures, the processes, the institutions, the legal frameworks in place to do that," said Adam Ereli, deputy State Department spokesman.

So is UN cooperation worth pushing for? Only if France and other Security Council members can reach consensus. "If they have a UN resolution that just papers over the differences, the U.S. should just walk away," said Jim Phillips, a Heritage Foundation research fellow. However long it takes to piece together a new Iraq, the Shukris, who visited Iraqi Kurdistan after the war, already see the difference. "Everything is going so good," Mrs. Shukri said. "We are very proud of the American government. Without them we cannot see this day."

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