HALABJA, Iraq – Clutching pictures of relatives they lost, survivors of Saddam Hussein's (search) 1988 chemical weapons attack gathered in this northern town Tuesday to remember the thousands who died.
They were joined by the top administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer (search), at a ceremony marking the 16th anniversary of the infamous bombing. The memorial was the first since Saddam was toppled by the U.S.-led coalition and it resonated with references to the war.
"This day reminds us of our grief ... (But) it's also a day of happiness because the dictatorship has collapsed," said Drakshan Kakasheik, who lost her husband, brother and three children, including a 5-month old son who died in her arms.
"We smelled a foul smell and my brother went out and said: 'We're doomed. These are chemical weapons,"' she recalled tearfully.
An estimated 5,000 people were killed and another 10,000 injured by the poisonous bombs Iraqi forces dropped on Halabja on March 16, 1988.
"For those in my country and elsewhere who ... still wonder if the war was worth fighting, I say, 'Come to Halabja,"' Bremer said. "Look in the faces of the survivors here today. See how a peaceful village was turned into a hell overnight by evil."
Bremer said the coalition would establish a $1 million fund for Halabja, where Saddam Hussein's "government turned its own power and might on its own people."
Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish parties, said the attack on Halabja is proof of the use of "mass destruction arms by the Iraqi dictator."
"I call all those who are not believing in it, 'Please come to Halabja to see how mass destruction arms (were) used,"' he said. "We are now free ... thanks to the coalition forces."
Bremer, surrounded by families clutching photos of relatives they lost, said those behind the attack would be held accountable.
"I can promise you that justice will be done against the men who committed these acts," Bremer said. "At the appropriate time, Saddam Hussein ... and all the other criminals will face justice before the special tribunal."
Bremer was speaking outside the Halabja Monument, built in honor of the victims. He chatted with relatives of those killed and toured the building, looking at photos of disfigured residents and lifeless children piled on top of each other.
In one room, statues replicate scenes from the attack. One shows a man using his own body as a shield to protect his baby. Both were lying dead at a doorstep next to a dead sheep. The names of victims are inscribed in white on the black marble walls of a circular hall.
During the ceremony, Kurdish forces surveyed roads leading to Halabja from atop rolling green hills and squat brick houses. Others manned checkpoints and searched vehicles.
Two suicide bombers killed 109 people at the offices of the two Kurdish parties in Irbil on Feb. 1. A little-known group, Jaish Ansar al-Sunna (search), claimed responsibility for the attack. Some officials linked the group with Ansar al-Islam (search), a Kurdish extremist movement with alleged ties to Al Qaeda.