By Kristina Houck
The Kurdish people want the United States to recognize the former Iraqi government’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Halabja as genocide, and a local company is helping them make it happen.
An official Kurdish delegation on Aug. 14 presented Carmel Valley-based Imani Lee, Inc. with documents related to the March 16, 1988 attack on Halabja, a town in northern Iraq.
“When I was doing research on Halabja and seeing the pain and suffering that people went through, in a lot of ways, it reminded me of what we felt on 9/11. It’s horrible what they went through. They were innocent villagers and Saddam Hussein just decided he wanted to commit genocide,” said Lee Martin, founder and owner of the language and translation services company. “It makes me proud that Imani Lee can be involved in something so important that’s going from San Diego to the national stage to the international stage.”
A project of the Kurdistan regional government in coordination with the Philadelphia-based Dialogue Institute of Temple University, Imani Lee was selected to translate the Arabic documents to English. The materials include official government and military documents as well as eyewitness accounts of the attack.
“The content of the documents are proof of the involvement of the Iraqi government back at that time,” said Bakir Hama Sidiq, a member of the Iraqi parliament, through translator Raid Behnam, Imani Lee’s project manager and Arabic linguist.
A Halabja native, Sidiq was a law student at the University of Baghdad when the attack occurred. He lost 23 family members in the attack. A practicing attorney, today Sidiq is seeking reparations for the families of the victims.
“From the beginning in the ’80s, Saddam ordered those documents not to be signed by himself,” explained Sidiq, who prepared witness testimony used in the trial proceedings of Hussein. “They are signed by other agencies like military agencies, intelligence agencies. But it is well known that the only two persons authorized to order the use of mass destruction weapons were Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali (Ali Hassan al-Majid, Hussein’s cousin), or the chief of staff, if it was authorized.”
The attack, which Hussein ordered in the days preceding the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, killed about 3,000-5,000 Iraqi Kurds and injured about 7,000-10,000 others. The post-Hussein Iraqi government executed al-Majid in January 2010 for his role in the attack on the Kurdish town and other crimes against humanity.
The delegation will present English translations of the documents to the U.S. Congress before the end of the year in an attempt to get the legislative body to officially declare the deadly attack as genocide.
“There was a saying that we only had God in heaven and we had mountains on the ground,” said Khder Hassan Muhammed, a Kurdish Appeals Courthouse judge, through Behnam. Also a law student at the University of Baghdad at the time, Muhammed lost relatives in the attack. “Now we don’t only have God in heaven and mountains on the ground, but we have friends. We need for these friends to know about this atrocity so they can tell the world about it so that we can gather all efforts in order for it not to happen to any other nation or people around the world.”
In 2011, a majority of the Iraqi parliament voted to officially recognize the attack as genocide.
“Despite the differences of Iraqis, for this massacre and these pains that happened to the Iraqi people, they gathered together and voted for it,” said Sidiq, who participated in the vote. “I hope the U.S. Congress will go over whatever differences they have and vote for Halabja as genocide. If the U.S. Congress votes on this, they will have the love of all of the Kurdish people.”
In addition to pursuing a congressional vote, the delegation plans to present the documents for display in the Library of Congress and the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I remember the Kurdish exodus,” said Huner Aswer, senior U.S. Embassy liaison. Just 5 years old at the time of the attack, Aswer and his family fled about 80 miles to Iran. “I don’t want that again — not just for my family, but any other family.”
A roughly 10-member team will translate, certify and notarize more than 100 pages of documents, which Martin said would likely be finished late October. The project may bring in $1 million to $2 million, which is being funded by the Kurdistan regional government.
“It’s great that our company is doing it,” said Bahar Martin, vice president of Imani Lee and Martin’s wife. Bahar Martin lived in Sulaymaniyah at the time of the attack, which is about an hour away from Halabja. “We’re honored to do this project. It feels good because we want the world to know about it.”
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