From the lead jet in the skies over Halabja came the voice of the Iraqi pilot, crackling over the radio: “Rain! Rain! Rain!”
In a makeshift monitoring station atop Mount Zimnako, an Iraqi intelligence officer who was listening for the code words pulled on his gas mask and gazed down at the valley as Saddam Hussein’s Air Force began raining deadly nerve gas upon 80,000 fellow Iraqis.
“I saw people inside Halabja through binoculars,” recalled the intelligence officer, telling his story years later to American television producer Ginny Durrin for the 2003 PBS documentary series “Avoiding Armageddon.” (I was managing editor of the series about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism and wrote a book of the same title.)
“... I told my superiors that there were families and children,” the intelligence officer continued. “But there was no response.”
Today, events in Syria require that we remember the suffering of March 16, 1988, the day Saddam conducted the world’s only massive gassing of a civilian population. Saddam turned Halabja into a living hell, killing most gruesomely some 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children.
Syria possesses a huge arsenal of chemical weapons. And world leaders are now working desperately behind the scenes to prevent a Halabja-type horror from happening in Syria. Or perhaps elsewhere on the planet, if Syrian “loose chemicals” fall into terrorist hands.
Leaders of the United States, NATO, the Middle East and, yes, even Syria’s longtime ally, Russia, are concerned that another despot, the desperate President Bashar al-Assad, may use chemical weapons against his countrymen, women and children.
World leaders are aware they cannot rule out the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons could end up being used elsewhere. Would-be terrorists are now fighting alongside Syrian freedom fighters. In the chaos that could follow the collapse of Assad’s regime, they could possibly get their hands on warheads from Syria’s arsenal of sarin (a nerve agent), mustard gas and cyanide.