The Dead Bombers of Halabja

In the 1980s, the city of Habbaniyah in western Iraq was the site of one of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons plants. With the Kurds in northern Iraq in uprising, in 1988 Saddam ordered Iraqi Air Force units to drop chemical weapons on the rebel town of Halabja. Weapons were trucked from Habbaniyah to nearby Al Taqaddum air base. The subsequent gas bombing of Halabja killed 5,000 people.justice_planes.jpgI've been to Halabja. I've seen the massive cemetery and the recently-built memorial and I've talked to attack survivors and people who lost friends and family there. Now I've seen Habbaniyah, from a distance, and Al Taqaddum close-up. In a remote corner of the air base, now a Marine Corps logistics hub, there is a row of derelict Soviet-built Il-28 Beagle bombers from the former Iraqi Air Force, quite possibly the very bombers that attacked Halabja 18 years ago.I'm a huge aviation buff, and the Il-28 with its clean lines and anachronistic rear turret is one of my favorite Cold War aircraft. Under any other circumstances, I'd be thrilled to see these museum pieces and appalled at their neglect. But with Halabja on my mind, I feel only a sense of justice -- and anger -- entirely misdirected at these lifeless pieces of metal.In the first Gulf War we bombed the snot out of Habbaniyah and Al Taqaddum. Twelve years later we occupied the air base and found its resident aircraft either buried in sand or, like the Beagles, abandoned. Their pilots were dead or, at the very least, no longer pilots. Their engines were rusted out. Their windscreens were clouded over. Their turret guns drooped.The machines that killed Halabja were dead.--David Axe

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