On June 28, Iran commemorated the victims of the Iraqi chemical attack in the northwestern Iranian city of Sardasht in 1987 that killed some 130 people and injured more than 8,000, mostly children and teenagers.
During the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988, Iraq used about 2,540 tons of chemical weapons in “more than 30 chemical attacks against Iranian non-military targets,” a United Nations investigation estimated in 2003.
More than 100,000 Iranians received emergency medical care, at least 7,500 Iranians died “directly and immediately” from chemical injuries and about 75,000 still require treatment for conditions caused by chemical weapons, the U.N. report said.
The people of Sardasht still suffer from “pain and torment” caused by the “brutal attack,” said Fernando Arias, Director General of the United Nations’ Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), on June 28.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons not only in Iran but also against Iraqi citizens, targeting the country’s Kurdish population. The U.S. State Department estimated in a 2003 report that, in 1987-1988, Iraq’s military used chemical weapons against 40 Kurdish villages, turning them into a “testing ground.”
The report said local victims suffered life-long health complications. A March 1988 attack in the city of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan killed about 5,000 people and injured more than 10,000.
On the Sardasht attack anniversary, Iranian government and military officials blamed Europe and the U.S. for helping Saddam obtain technology and components to develop chemical weapons. Iranian officials said the victims of those attacks are still waiting for justice.
"The crimes of the Europeans in the chemical attack on our country and even on the Iraqis themselves, like in the case of Halabja, were not sued in any courts,” said Brig. Gen. Reza Jalali, head of Iran's Passive Defense Organization (Cyber Defense Command).
The statement is misleading.
In fact, there have been investigations, and European and American companies and persons who supplied the Iraqis have been prosecuted in U.S. and European courts.
An international investigation into Saddam’s acquisition of chemical weapons led to the 2004 arrest of a Dutch citizen, Frans van Anraat, in the Netherlands. In December 2005, the International Court of Justice in The Hague found Van Anraat guilty of complicity in war crimes and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. In 2007, the Court of Appeals in The Hague increased his sentence to 17 years.
European prosecutors learned from U.S. officials that the Dutchman nicknamed “Chemical Frans” was Saddam Hussein’s source for raw ingredients. In 1989, the U.S. government issued an international request for Van Anraat’s arrest and extradition. He had become a suspect a year earlier, when an undercover U.S. customs agent discovered a supply chain created to hide the shipment of hundreds of tons of thiodiglycol, a.k.a. TDG, a key component of mustard gas.
According to U.S. prosecutors, the TDG cargo would first sail to Rotterdam or Antwerp, where the barrels were reloaded onto a different vessel and shipped to Jordan’s port of Aqaba. From there, trucks would drive the chemical cargo across the desert to Iraq.
Van Anraat, whom the U.S. investigators described as the last man in the network directly dealing with the Iraqis, operated the chain via an umbrella network of commercial firms. He used a New York City shell firm called NuKraft to order thiodiglycol from a Baltimore, Maryland, manufacturing company, Alcolac (a subsidiary of the British conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc), which sold TDG under the trade name Kromfax.
U.S. government agencies warned Alcolac about the restrictions on exporting thiodiglycol to Iraq, Iran, Syria, and other countries known to be pursuing development of chemical weapons, PBS reported. In 1987-1988, Alcolac sold NuKraft four shipments of Kromfax totaling more than 1 million pounds, the investigation concluded.
In 1989, Alcolac pleaded guilty to violating the U.S. Export Administration Act. However, it claimed it had not known that the thiodiglycol was ending up in Iraq, or that the Iraqi government was using it to manufacture chemical weapons, stating that TGB has many legal commercial uses, including ink production and textile dyeing.
In 2011, victims and surviving family members of the Kurdish chemical attacks filed a class- action lawsuit under a U.S. law known as the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), accusing Alcolac of genocide and war crimes. A U.S. appeals court ruled that the prosecutors were unable to provide evidence that Alcolac sold TDG to Iraq with the intention of supporting the regime’s manufacture of chemical weapons. Still, the court ruled that the facts presented were true.
Alcolac is now defunct, its assets having been sold off to Rhodia, a French chemicals concern. However, Alcolac remains a target of litigation. In 2017, Victor Alcaron, a U.S. Army Gulf War veteran, brought a new suit against Alcolac, claiming he was exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons while deployed in Iraq and that the poison gas seriously damaged his lungs.
U.S. investigators discovered a parallel supply chain, which prompted the German government to launch its own separate investigation and prosecution of Saddam’s dealers. In 1982, Alcolac sold 120 tons of Kromfax (thiodiglycol) to a German company, Colimex, and the order was transshipped through Singapore to Iraq.
According to “The Poison Gas Connection,” a report produced jointly by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a California-based international group for Holocaust remembrance, and Paris-based Middle East Defense News, 207 Western firms had sold chemical and biological weapons components to Iraq by 1989. Germany was the main supplier, the report concluded.
The German authorities investigated 170 domestic companies for aiding Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of chemical weapons, and 25 cases resulted in criminal proceedings.
Although Alcolac was the best-known supplier, a class action lawsuit filed in 2011 stated that 18 U.S. companies “provided Iraq’s weapons programs with assistance” in the form of computers and technology.
In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine, citing unclassified CIA documents, reported that the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported Iraq in the war against Iran and provided intelligence data about the location and movement of Iranian troops.
The U.S. has said, however, that it did not know of Saddam Hussein’s plans to use chemical weapons.