Kurds Say Iraq's Attacks Serve as a Warning ; as Bush Considers Toppling Saddam Hussein, Victims of Hussein's 'Gassing' Tell of His Tactics

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As American military planners consider ways to bring down Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds warn that the Iraqi leader will likely respond to any such attack by deploying weapons of mass destruction - as he has done in the past.

The memory of every Iraqi Kurd is seared with vivid images of Baghdad's 1988 genocide against its own ethnic Kurds when troops loyal to the Iraqi strongman were under orders to kill every Kurdish male in northern Iraq between the ages of 18 and 55. During the Anfal campaign, rights groups say more than 100,000 men disappeared, 4,000 villages were destroyed, and 60 more villages were subject to chemical weapons attack.

Some 5,000 Kurds died during the gassing of Halabja alone. The photograph of a man shielding an infant with his body - both killed by gas - has become an icon of Kurdish suffering and of Iraqi war crimes.

The Kurds - armed opponents of the Baghdad regime for decades - could play a key role in US plans, and therefore be singled out again for retribution by Mr. Hussein. But Kurds say not only they are at risk: Anyone taking on Hussein's armies, as far away as Israel, could be targeted.

"There is no hesitation of the regime to use such weapons against any country, anywhere, against any army," says Fouad Baban, head of the Halabja Medical Institute. "[Saddam Hussein] doesn't keep weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent - but to use them."

Washington's plans

President Bush has made clear he wants to topple the regime. The Pentagon is considering military options - possibly timed to begin early next year - that would overthrow Hussein with a heavy US air campaign and a ground invasion.

Kurds in northern Iraq say that would serve justice for the man who has harmed them for decades. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch, after a three-year investigation of 18 tons of captured Iraqi documents, forensic examination of several mass graves, and hundreds of eyewitness accounts, concludes of the 1988 campaign: "The Iraqi regime committed the crime of genocide."

And survivors do have stories to tell that add up to war crimes.

Abdulsalam Khalil-Mohamed says he was one of six men who survived a mass shooting during the 1988 attack on the Kurdish village of Koreme. After they witnessed the gassing of a nearby village - the helicopters dropping chemical munitions, survivors say - they were surrounded by Iraqi troops. The 33 men were separated, Mr. Khalil- Mohamed recalls. Amid a chorus of wailing, Khalil-Mohamed's brother handed over his two-year-old son to his wife. Shortly after the women and children were marched away, he recalls, the men were forced into a crude line.

One Iraqi lieutenant called Mohamed told them to move closer together. "They told us: 'Don't be afraid. Soon you will be back with your families,' " Khalil-Mohamed says.

But then the soldiers opened fire. "The one next to me was shot in the head and fell on me," he recalls. Lying wounded amid the carnage, he was then shot in the back, as Iraqi soldiers moved in to finish the job. His brother was dead. But Khalil-Mohamed survived - and learned a lesson that he says the US should heed.

"If the US is going to attack Saddam Hussein, and if Saddam has a chance to attack the Kurds with chemical or other weapons, he will not hesitate," the gray-mustachioed survivor says.

Any such reaction will be a key calculation by American military planners, as they weigh the risks of attempting to overthrow Hussein. While targeting Israel with Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, it is widely believed that Iraq did not use nonconventional warheads, because of explicit warnings of a possible US or Israeli nuclear response.

Today, Iraq's exact chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities remain unknown, since United Nations weapons inspectors were kicked out in 1998. While they made broad progress up to that point, few dispute that Iraq's programs and expertise were among the most sophisticated in the Middle East. …