1987 chemical attack still haunts Iran

Iraq's deadly assault on the town of Sardasht continues to color the debate about Tehran's defenses.

By Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times

March 19, 2007

SARDASHT, IRAN — The roots of Iran's nuclear ambitions wind through this mountaintop town of pine trees and streams along the Iraqi border. Here, on a crystal-clear afternoon 20 years ago, Saddam Hussein's warplanes unleashed a poisonous rain of chemical weapons, killing as many as 113 civilians and injuring thousands more.

The victims gasped and vomited on rusting buses as they were rushed to hospitals. They dropped dead on the cobbled streets of the town center. They cried out as their eyes burned and skin bubbled.

At the United Nations, Iran protested vehemently, to little avail, about the use of the weapons, which were banned under international treaties. The world's superpowers had little patience for complaints from the Islamic Republic, which supported attacks on U.S. Marines in Lebanon as well as on Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Once the war ended, an indignant Iran stockpiled chemical weapons and embarked on a crash nuclear program that is now at the center of a global dispute.

"We should at least think about [weapons of mass destruction] for our own defense," Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of Iran's parliament, said two months after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. "Even if the use of such weapons is inhumane and illegal, the war has taught us that such laws are just drops of ink on paper."

For the West, Sardasht is a forgotten footnote in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. But to many Iranians, the stricken town looms large in the debate about the country's defenses.

"If Iran is developing nuclear weapons, this would derive directly from its experience in the Iran-Iraq war: the knowledge that Iraq would use whatever weapon against Iran and that the international community would close its eyes to it," said Joost Hiltermann, a Jordan-based researcher and author of the upcoming book "A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja," about the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

The attack and the worldwide lack of concern that followed haunt this Kurdish town.

"I always thought that it is necessary for the world to understand what occurred," said Mostafa Asadzadeh, who lost every member of his immediate family in the attack on Sardasht. "It was a gigantic crime."

Throughout the war, the U.S. contended that each country was using chemical weapons against the other. But a heavily redacted wartime U.S. government assessment details only examples of Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction, including a chemical attack against Iraqi Kurds that is now the subject of a genocide trial in that country.

"Iraq appears to have become more competent in its capability to integrate chemicals into its conventional battle strategy," says the undated document, which was declassified in 1996 and is now posted on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. "As chemical weapons have become more available … military leaders appear to have accepted them as a tactically useful and effective weapon."

Hussein invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, lured by the prospects of seizing long-disputed oil-rich regions of Iran and beating back a new Shiite Muslim government in Tehran that vowed to spread its recent revolution across the region.

The Iraqi president, whose Sunni-dominated regime suppressed Iraq's Shiite majority, expected a quick victory. Instead, Iraq became bogged down as Iranians rallied behind Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Fighting a country nearly three times more populous than his and facing the prospect of losing the war, Hussein began using chemical weapons to fend off the swarms of fighters on the southern front around 1983. Though banned under international law since 1925, the weapons effectively stopped the juggernaut and killed an estimated 6,500 Iranians during the war.

"Nothing could have stopped us," said Shahriar Khateri, a Tehran physician and war veteran now recognized as his country's foremost authority on the effects of chemical weapons. "The only thing that broke our spirits were the chemical attacks."

First shells, then odors

Sardasht, a run-down but scenic town of 40,000 people, has changed little over 20 years. A single mountain pass along a perilous cliff road leads up into the town, 10 miles from the Iraqi border. Some homes are carved into the surrounding mountain walls. Evergreens and grassy fields coat the hilltops. Faded government propaganda along brick walls exhorts residents to pray. Men in traditional Kurdish baggy pants and cummerbunds walk through busy downtown Sarchawe Square.

It was about 4 p.m. on June 28, 1987, when Iraqi warplanes began circling the town and dropping bombs. Iraqis frequently strafed the town, which housed Iranian troops and was a suspected stronghold of Iraqi Kurdish insurgents. Eight bombs struck the city.

Residents thought little of the bombing. Then the odors came.

"It smelled of garlic and had the color of dried cement powder," said Mohsen Panahi, who devotes most of his time to bringing attention to Sardasht's victims. "Afterward it smelled of apple."

One of the shells had struck a paint store, and some thought the strange odors were coming from the shop. Instead of fleeing, many went to inspect the bomb damage.

"At first people did not take the attack seriously," said Hossein Mohammadian, president of the Organization for Defending the Victims of Chemical Weapons and a resident of Sardasht.

Experts believe the shells were loaded with mustard and possibly nerve gas agents.

Symptoms began within minutes — nausea and irritated eyes. "I wanted to vomit," Panahi said. "My eyes burned. They were very red."

The few doctors in town had no idea how to treat the patients' bizarre burns, bubbling skin and blindness. They scraped the crumpled skin off patients with razors. They tried to calm panicked patients with dwindling supplies of morphine.

Escape to higher ground

Parvin Karimvahed and her relatives crammed into three cars and fled for higher ground up a mountain road, rinsing their bodies and eyes whenever they reached rivers and streams. Her nephew's torso began reddening and blistering. Her sister began vomiting blood. Her uncle's wife, pregnant, moaned in agony.

She began to feel sick herself. "The burning feeling was horrible," she said.

Karimvahed eventually fell into a coma. She suffered burns on more than 85% of her body. When she was flown to Belgium for treatment, doctors were surprised that she had lived, and told her she would never have children.

But she had two sons, despite pains and burning that continue to run through her body and a badly damaged lung. Blisters caused by mustard gas still break out on her breasts.

"I call Sardasht a lost island," she said. "The people are losing their families in front of their eyes like burning candles."

At the time of the attack, Iranian authorities kept relatively quiet, eager to keep up morale in a nation fighting an exhausting war that would ultimately prove unwinnable. They worried Iranians would abandon border towns for fear of further chemical attacks.

"They were worried it would cause a panic," Mohammadian said.

Still, word of the attack rippled across the country. Mostafa Asadzadeh, performing his military service in Tehran, was heading back to Sardasht for a visit when he received a call from the city of Tabriz. One of the shells had struck near his house, the caller said. His mother and father, the caller said, were recovering at the hospital there.

At least 700 crying patients crowded the hospital and its courtyard. By the time Asadzadeh got there, his parents had died. He found his 14-year-old brother, Hadi, wheezing and coughing with a tube in his throat.

"He couldn't speak," said Asadzadeh, calmly recalling his tale over tea and sweets at his family's two-story home in Sardasht. "I didn't know where my other siblings were."

He began visiting hospitals. At one, he was directed to a morgue, where he saw the body of his 19-year-old brother, Ali. He scoured the hospitals of northwestern Iran, eventually finding his grandmother and other brothers and sisters, all dead.

He borrowed a truck and moved the bodies to Sardasht.

Within four months, his brother Hadi's life had inched away too. Asadzadeh was alone, and began to lose his mind.

"I felt very lonely," he said. "I had hallucinations. I spoke aloud to my family."

Friends came to his aid and helped him climb out of despair. He married, had children and moved back into the house near the bomb site. Last year, he and workers began scraping the plaster off to repaint. Their eyes became red. They began to cough.

"You see, even 20 years later," he said, "they remain, the traces."

Victims' complaints

Sardasht's victims complain that the Tehran government has done little to help them or even publicize their plight. But the attack on the town continues to infuse Iran's rhetoric about its security policies. Iran's defense minister last year demanded that the U.S. pay Sardasht victims compensation as an "accomplice" in the attack.

"Why did the world remain silent after Saddam Hussein's regime dropped its chemical bombs on the defenseless people of Sardasht and Halabja and, against international treaties, cruelly targeted innocent people with his chemical weapons?" a 2005 editorial in the conservative daily Resalat said.

"The Sardasht attack had a profound psychological effect on Iranians," said one Iranian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "and definitely colors the country's view of international law and the U.N. as a protector."

By the mid-1990s, Iran acknowledged that it had developed a sizable chemical weapons stockpile. It also began aggressively pursuing nuclear energy technology. By 2002, it had become clear that the program was part of an effort to develop more advanced technologies that could potentially be used to make weapons-grade nuclear materials.

Although Iran insists it is developing nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes, some say the 1980s war experience convinced the country's leaders that they needed a deterrent against another Sardasht.

"Iran drew the conclusion that the only way to protect itself," Hiltermann said, "was to develop its own weapons of mass destruction."


Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Tehran contributed to this report.