| Soldiers from the "New iraqi Army" stand in line after an exercise at the US base of Kirkush, 90km east of Baghdad. (AFP)
Halabja (Iraq), Sept. 15 (Reuters): US secretary of state Colin Powell said at the mass grave of Iraqi Kurds killed in a 1988 gas attack that the killings showed the world should have acted sooner against President Saddam Hussein.
Powell and leaders of Washington’s Kurdish allies lit candles at a memorial for the 5,000 victims whose fate the US often cited as proof of their accusation Saddam was involved in developing weapons of mass destruction.
Powell, the second top US official to visit Iraq since US-led forces ousted Saddam in April, heard high praise from Kurds in the northern town of Halabja where US occupiers enjoy sympathy denied them in Sunni areas to the south.
The words of thanks will be gratefully received by President George W. Bush, whose conduct of the occupation is coming under growing criticism at home and on the international stage.
Only hours after his arrival in Halabja by helicopter, a US soldier was killed in the more hostile area of Baghdad, the 73rd victim of a bloody guerrilla war that broke out after Bush declared major combat over on May 1. In Khaldiya, west of Baghdad, unknown attackers shot dead an Iraqi police chief today at a flashpoint town in the heartland of resistance to the US-led occupation, police and witnesses said. Colonel Khudair Mukhlif, chief of police in Khaldiya, was shot while driving his car
The US cited Iraqi involvement in weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear arms — as the prime motive for the invasion of Iraq. No such weapons have been found since the US occupation began.
“What can I tell you' I cannot tell you that the world should have acted sooner. You know that,” Powell told a crowd of several hundred Kurdish families.
“What I can tell you is that what happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again,” he said at the site, where about 1,000 identical gravestones are inscribed with the names of victims and Kurdish flags are posted before each grave.
The attack on Halabja took place towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, at a time when Washington was sharing intelligence with Iraq and was anxious to save Iraq from defeat.
The US did not protest when reports of the attack emerged through Iran. But after the 1991 Gulf War, it wrested control of mainly Kurdish northern Iraq from Baghdad and brought it under Western protection.
Powell said Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Iraqi general blamed for the attack and widely known as Chemical Ali, would stay in jail until an Iraqi court decided his fate.
The former President would also be caught. “Saddam is running and hiding. He is going to keep running or hiding until we catch him or he dies,” he said.
Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, speaking to relatives of the victims at the mass grave, offered public words of praise for the US, rare of late both in Iraq and on the international scene.
“I’m proud that now after so many years of loneliness in our struggle we have friends in you,” he told Powell. Asked how he explained the failure of US forces to find chemical weapons in Iraq, he said: “(Saddam) hid many things in Iraq, in tunnels and caves. I’m sure we’ll find them.”
Talabani and Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, are among five Kurdish representatives on the 25-member Iraqi governing council, established in July as a first step towards democracy in Iraq. Powell dismissed pressure yesterday for a swift handover to an Iraqi administration.
Nations led by France, demanding a stronger role for Iraqis, have so far rejected a draft American UN resolution to broaden international involvement in Iraq.
“We can’t just say: ‘You are a government, fine, go, you have full authority’,” Powell told a Baghdad news conference.