Published September 15, 2003
HALABJA, Iraq – Secretary of State Colin Powell visited a mass grave Monday to highlight perhaps the single biggest human-rights abuse of Saddam Hussein 's brutal regime — the chemical-weapons murder of some 5,000 people in March 1988.
Powell flew here from Baghdad to take part in the formal dedication of a memorial and museum to commemorate those who lost their lives here 15 years ago.
Powell traveled in a military C-130 transport aircraft to Kirkuk, then transferred to a helicopter, flying over dusty plains and barren hills to get to this Kurdish-dominated town.
The Halabja massacre (search) has been cited repeatedly by President Bush as an example of Saddam's brutality.
It was here that Saddam took revenge on the population for its perceived backing of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war (search), bombing them with deadly gas.
Many of those attending the ceremony lost seven to 10 family members in the slaughter.
Powell stood before long rows of simple headstones where the remains of more than 1,000 victims of the conquered regime lie.
Powell told the gathering of several hundred: "I can't tell you that Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant — you know that. What I can tell you is that what happen here in 1988 is never going to happen again."
His remarks drew enthusiastic cheers and applause.
Powell added that Saddam is "running and hiding. He's going to be running until we catch him or he dies."
Many who attended the ceremony under a hot midday sun carried signs praising the United States for ousting Saddam.
"Thank you President Bush for liberating Iraq," said one. "Halabja is proud to host Secretary Powell," read another.
Also addressing the gathering was Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (search). He said the mass graves in Halabja "validate the morality of your intervention. ... Like Hitler, the Butcher of Baghdad miscalculated."
Many in attendance were women, clad in black and carrying pictures of family members killed in the attack. When Powell mixed with the crowd after his brief remarks, many broke into tears as he approached and thrust bouquets of flowers at him.
Later, Powell and his party drove to the museum for the dedication ceremony. Surrounded by black marble circular walls bearing the names in Kurdish of those who perished, Powell lit candles in their memory.
According to a State Department account of the attack on Halabja, Saddam's air force dropped sarin gas and other deadly chemicals on the city, immediately killing 5,000 people and injuring 10,000 others.
Choking victims were unable to escape the gas and many bodies were found alongside the local water source, a reflection of a vain effort to quench their thirst, the account said.
"Entire families of victims were found dead in their homes and in the streets curled up together, and many homes were destroyed in the bombardment," the summary said.
On Sunday in Baghdad, Powell spent 12 hours in talks with the team of American officials guiding Iraq in the postwar period and with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
He also attended a Baghdad City Council meeting, met with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and joined the U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, at a joint news conference.
Powell described impressive moves toward self-government and seemed invigorated by what he heard as he made his rounds.
"There is vibrancy to this effort, a vibrancy that I attribute to the winds of freedom that are now blowing through this land," he said after the city council meeting.
He said the United States is committed to having Iraqis run their government, but wants to cede power after a "deliberative process" rather than the early transfer advocated by some fellow members of the U.N. Security Council. France has pressed for seating a provisional government within a month.