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Kurds destroy Halabja memorial in protest

Written by: Staff

HALABJA, Iraq, Mar 16 (Reuters) Hundreds of Kurdish protesters destroyed a memorial to the 1988 gas attack today in the Iraqi town of Halabja, setting the museum ablaze on the 18th anniversary of the deaths of 5,000 local people.

A hospital official said one man was shot dead when a gathering to commemorate the attack turned into a protest over poor local services.

A local journalist working for Reuters said he saw police and Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen fire shots to disperse the protesters after they rampaged through the one-storey, circular museum that serves as a potent reminder of the 1988 attack.

The violence is likely to embarrass Kurdish leaders, who have managed to keep the Kurdish north stable while sectarian killings and an insurgency have swept the rest of the country.

Immediately after the riot, Kurdish security forces sealed off the town and confiscated video tapes from some journalists.

''It's extremely painful that this is happening on the anniversary of the gassing, which is a symbol of the suffering of the Kurdish people,'' senior Kurdish politician Barham Salih told Reuters.

Halabja -- synonymous around the world with atrocities against civilians that are blamed on Saddam Hussein -- is near the Iranian border in Kurdistan, Iraq's largely autonomous region which has its own government.

As the protest turned violent, Kurdish leaders were in Baghdad for the opening of parliament, which was elected in December. Hajem al-Hassani, the outgoing speaker of parliament, called for a moment's silence to commemorate the Halabja attack.

POOR SERVICES ''The Kurdish government exploited Halabja to draw world attention to the plight of the Kurds and get donations that have never reached us,'' one angry protester said.

Witnesses said residents had gathered outside the museum to mark the attack but began shouting angrily when Shahu Mohammad Saed, a representative of the Kurdish government, appeared.

Residents complain many buildings in Halabja are dilapidated and that electricity and water supplies are poor. They said the museum was the only new building to have been constructed in the town by the regional government in more than a decade.

People stormed into the museum, pulling down ceilings and smashing displays reconstructing the gas attack. One rioter used a metal chair to smash the polished black stone memorial bearing the names of each of the 5,000 victims.

As flames licked through the building, sending huge clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky, security forces fired shots to disperse the crowd.

''We have received one body, a 19-year-old man, and eight wounded people,'' said a doctor in Halabja's Malabar hospital.

Kurdish official Saed blamed the riot on ''neighbouring states'', an apparent reference to Iran or Turkey, while Salih said there might be ''some elements trying to destabilise the situation''.

The Halabja gas attack is one of the criminal cases for which Saddam, now on trial for the killing of 148 Shi'ites in the 1980s, may be tried.

His cousin, General Ali Hassan al-Majid, is accused of launching the attack on Halabja. He has said the crackdown was to punish the town for its failure to resist Iranian incursions during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.


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