HALABJA, Iraq - Baghdad powerbrokers struggled last week to hammer out a new constitutional government, but outside the capital, the country's ethnic leaders bridged a longstanding political divide-at the site of the largest chemical-weapons attack in modern history.
Arab and Kurdish leaders from eastern Diyala province, long struggling to rule an ethnically diverse area near the Iranian border, together traveled to Kurdistan where Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical weapons 17 years ago. The attack on Halabja-now installed in the annals of WMD history-killed more than 5,000 and wounded more than 10,000.
The 20 Iraqis, split evenly among Arabs and Kurds, drove to the site April 22 with several U.S. humvees in tow as security. Halabja is a shell of its former self, but many residents still remember the day in 1988 when Saddam's Air Force, then in its eighth year fighting the Iran-Iraq War, dropped napalm on the city. Residents fled to their cellars, expecting aerial bombardments. Instead paper fell from the aircraft (testing wind direction and speed) before a sulfur-sweet smell enveloped its 80,000 inhabitants. Halabja survivors said they first smelled apples in the air, or garlic, or rotten eggs. Within minutes their animals-first birds, then livestock-were dead and many people were blind, some for good. It was the beginning of a six-week campaign of poison-gas attacks in the region that today has left thousands of Iraqi Kurds incapacitated.
Halabja, now at 30,000 people, remained cut off from most Iraqis for years and has never been hospitable to Arabs. Ansar al Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate, set up activities not far from Halabja before the most recent war, a site that was actually the start of the U.S. campaign in 2003, when U.S. forces bombed a suspected chemical factory run by Ansar. "We have heard a lot about Halabja," said Mohammed Authman Ismael, the Arab mayor of As Sadiyah, making his first tour here like all the Arabs on the trip. Many Arabs don't believe what happened at Halabja, he said. "They have just heard. I wish everybody could visit and see for themselves."
The convoy of Arabs, Kurds, and Americans drove past a sign at Halabja's memorial entrance warning in English, "It is not allowed for Baaths to enter." During an hour-long guided tour of the circular museum, whose roof sprouts gigantic metal fingers cradling a silver ball in a symbol of unity, the group learned about the carnage in the aftermath of the chemical bombing.
The memorial depicts scores of dead and wounded using photos, mannequins, paintings, and sculptures. Arab and Kurdish Iraqis lingered together at the photos of the dead infants and children, as well as pictures showing scores of bodies in nearby rivers and streams where frantic people fled in vain attempts to avoid the spreading gasses.
"We brought them here to show them why we have fought all this time," said Salman Mohammed, a leading Kurdish sheik from a town near As Sadiyah. "We gave them a history lesson." Halabja's monument to its day of horror includes a cemetery containing 1,100 symbolic white tombstones. Here the Arabs and Kurds prayed together.
"It was basically a cleansing of their souls," said U.S. Army Capt. Matt Smith, who commands the unit overseeing As Sadiyah.
The unprecedented step toward unification between Kurds-long oppressed by Saddam's Baathist party-and Arabs began about three weeks ago when rumors circulated in As Sadiyah concerning a Kurdish assassination plot on the city's Arab mayor. Capt. Smith said a group of Arabs and Kurds on their own came up with the journey into Kurdistan after "a lot of screaming and shouting" at a meeting set up by American soldiers. That it actually happened sent shockwaves throughout As Sadiyah, a town with a population that is 60 percent Arabs and 40 percent Kurds.
Word spread like wildfire last week that the city's Arab mayor, deputy mayor, police chief, and sheiks from the area's two largest Arab tribes ventured about 60 miles past the Green Line, once the boundary of the no-fly zone, to visit a memorial museum and gravesite commemorating the March 16, 1988, attack. Capt. Smith said other Arabs in the city of 25,000 now want to go to Halabja to learn more about their Kurdish neighbors and the gassing Saddam told them never took place.
"This signifies four months of hard work, long hours, and constant negotiations getting people to sit at a table and become brothers," Capt. Smith said.
The day ended with a mountain picnic of freshly slaughtered sheep served with cucumbers and tomatoes on bread. The men prepared the meal together at a spot where the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga freedom fighters once fought. "Even after all they did to us we will still work with them," said Ata Mohammed Faraj, a Halabja resident and member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party led by Jalal Talabani, now president of Iraq. "We have love in our hearts."
Kurds spending a day socializing with Arabs was once unheard of. "We don't have to carry weapons anymore," said Mr. Faraj. "Instead of killing each other we can talk."
But Mr. Faraj said he did take the opportunity to preach to the Arabs about the Kurds' love for democracy and thankfulness for the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. "We understand 100 percent why they are here," he said, referring to U.S. troops.
Several visiting Arabs said the trip into Kurdistan gave them a vision of what their city could be like in a few years. "I pray to God that one day all of Iraq has freedom like what you see in Halabja," said Asakra, one of the Arab sheiks.
The Kurds' laid-back lifestyle did not go unnoticed either by the U.S. soldiers on hand for security. With a lack of terrorist activities here, the Kurds could be unrestrained in their displays of support for the Americans. Shouting children ran alongside the humvees, women snuck peaks from behind courtyard doors, and teenagers honked horns and cheered as they tried to speed by the humvees, something the U.S. drivers are not accustomed to further south. U.S. escorts from Diyala slid down the ballistic glass windows on their humvees, sticking their hands out to wave back. "It's like trying to go to a Fourth of July barbecue by the creek," said Sgt. Mark Halliday.
Mr. Faraj said patience is the key for As Sadiyah and other cities trying to shake the aftereffects of Hussein's regime. Kurdistan, he said, has had 14 years of practice governing as an autonomous region protected by the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone after the 1991 Gulf War. As Sadiya officials acknowledged the hurdles in their hometown. "People are miserable because they have no money," said Mohammed Kider, a Kurd from As Sadiyah.
Easing tensions between the Kurds and Arabs also will take more than one pleasure ride and cookout. Kurds continue to move south to reclaim land and homes lost when Saddam kicked them out during his forced Arabization of Iraq. Arabs are reluctant to hand over property they have occupied for years, forcing Kurds to live in improvised tent cities on the outskirts of their homelands.
Capt. Smith said the Halabja outing did not change a volatile and unstable situation. His unit conducted night raids and detained two suspected insurgents in As Sadiyah on April 26. But for Arabs and Kurds "this is the beginning of what we hope is a stabilizing period," he said. "They need each other."
-with reporting by Mindy Belz; Edward Lee Pitts is military affairs correspondent for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, currently embedded with the Tennessee National Guard 278th Regimental Combat Team in Iraq