WASHINGTON -- The number of Kurds killed in Iraqi poison gas attempts to crush their separatist movement may have reached hundreds of thousands, Senate investigators report.
Two staffers from the Foreign Relations Committee, joined by a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, managed to talk to more than 200 of the Kurdish rebels who fled to Turkish refugee camps in late August.
The investigators, Peter Galbraith and Christopher Van Hollen Jr., said in their report Wednesday that based on their interviews and other information, they believe 'a compelling case exists that Iraq used chemical weapons on a broad scale against its Kurdish population beginning Aug. 25.'
Many of the Kurds, an ethnic minority in Iraq, had symptoms associated with chemical weapons -- vision defects, vomiting or diarrhea - and gave graphic descriptions of planes and helicopters dropping bombs on their villages that produced a sour smell.
Ekrem Mai of the village of Dahok told the Senate staffers that Iraqi planes dropped chemical weapons in the Ahmadiye valley Aug. 25.
'A yellowish cloud was created and there was a smell of rotten parsley or onions,' Mai was quoted as saying. 'There were no wounds. People would breathe the smoke, then fall down and blood would come from their mouths.
'They killed everything -- animals, ladies, children. Young and old died from the weapons. We couldn't even bury them.'
Bashir Shemsseddin said as many as 300 people died in the village of Vermil.
'All the trees dried up,' he told the Americans. 'It smelled like something burned. The whole world turned to yellow.'
Iraq has denied such charges, though they also have been made directly by the United States through Secretary of State George Shultz. U.S. Embassy officials in Turkey reported to the State Department earlier on similar interviews with Kurdish refugees, and other information was said to corroborate the reports.
The Senate investigators said information is available only on attacks taking place in a narrow band of territory along the Iraq-Turkey border and virtually no refugees have been able to escape from deeper inside Iraqi Kurdistan.
'If the same kinds of military operations are taking place there as in the border region, the Kurdish death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands,' they warned. 'Casualties among women and children appear to have been very high.'
The apparent bid to crush the Kurdish separatists, who have been fighting for independence for decades, was launched after the declaration of cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq's foreign minister last week insisted his nation is abiding by international treaties that bar the use of chemical weapons.
The State Department welcomed that statement but is pressing for an international investigation, which Iraq has rejected.
Following an administration campaign to circulate the charges against Iraq, the Senate voted to impose trade sanctions against the Iraqis -- a move the department has opposed. The House has not acted on the bill.
The Senate investigators said the physical evidence of chemical weapon use is limited but the Kurdish refugee accounts of attacks on more than 30 different villages were compelling.
'Obviously, the leaders of the Pesh Merga, the Kurdish insurgents, have an interest in portraying Iraq in the worse possible light,' they noted. 'To dismiss the eyewitness accounts, however, would require one to believe that 65,000 Kurdish refugees confined to five disparate locations were able to organize a conspiracy in 15 days to defame Iraq.'