There was outrage before, or so it seemed

Thousands of civilians died in a chemical attack in Halabja in 1988.
Thousands of civilians died in a chemical attack in Halabja in 1988.

Condemnation of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria has come from all points on the political spectrum.

There has been repeated mention of the most obvious precedent - the chemical attack by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship on the town of Halabja on March 16th 1988 in which at least 5,000 civilians died.

But there has been little mention of the precedent set by the response of the major powers.

The Halabja massacre came during the Iraq-Iran war. The town, population 60,000, lies just a few miles inside Iraq. It had been captured the previous day by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, at that time in alliance with Tehran. Saddam’s response was swift and merciless.

At dawn on March 16th, Iraqi bombers sharked across the sky, dropping chemical bombs from Migs, supplied by Russia, and Mirages, supplied by France. The town was smothered in a fog of death.

The first journalists to arrive were from Iran. The photographs which shocked the world and which are still regularly re-used were by photo-journalist Kaveh Golestan, later killed covering the US invasion of Iraq for the BBC.

An Iranian reporter described the scene in Halabja: “The streets were strewn with corpses. People had been killed instantaneously by chemicals in the midst of the ordinary acts of everyday life. Babies still sucked their mothers’ breasts ... In the space of a few hours, 5,000 people had died.”

There was outrage across the world. Or so it seemed. A resolution was introduced in the US Senate calling for sanctions on the Saddam regime. It was vetoed by George Bush Snr. Bush then authorised a billion-dollar loan to Saddam - to build a chemical plant.

In August 1988, the UN sub-committee on human rights rejected by 11 votes to eight a resolution condemning the Saddam dictatorship for human rights violations. Of Western-orientated powers, only the Scandanavian countries, Canada and Australia held out against US pressure and supported the resolution.

Throughout this period, Saddam’s Iraq was seen as a secular bulwark against Islamic Iran. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad for “constructive” talks with Saddam. It was later established by the Scott Inquiry that the British Government had secretly encouraged the Matrix Churchill company to break UN arms sanctions to re-supply Saddam’s army.

It was the invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, not the gassing of 5,000 Kurdish civilians two years earlier, which prompted the West to break with Saddam.