Smoke was still rising from the burnt-out monument on the outskirts of the Kurdish town of Halabja yesterday where 18 years ago some 5,000 people were killed in a poison gas attack.
Enraged by what they see as official neglect of the survivors, local people had set ablaze the museum commemorating the victims of Saddam Hussein’s most infamous atrocity during a demonstration.
“I was hit in the leg by a bullet while I was protesting,” said Othman Ali Gaffur, a 29-year-old-man, his face creased with pain, as he lay in a hospital bed. “We were demonstrating because the government says we are martyrs but does nothing for us. We do not even have streets in Halabja but only laneways of mud.”
Mr Gaffur said the riot, which started at 11am, was sparked by anger over the presence of Kurdish government representatives. The demonstrators had said earlier in the week that the officials were banned from the memorial ceremonies on the 18th anniversary of the gas attack because they had repeatedly failed to do anything for survivors.
It is true that many of the houses in Halabja appear to be little better than huts with plastic and earth roofs.
Now very little is left of the museum which was opened by the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in 2003 and which once contained photographs, clothes and life-sized models of those who died when the Iraqi army used poison gas on 15 March 1988.
The museum’s guards described how the demonstrators, some of whom they said were Islamic militants, had torn steel bars from the railings to attack them and had then taken oil and gasoline from the museum generator to burn down the building. The shooting of the demonstrators took place when the museum guards were reinforced by a second group of pesh merga (Kurdish soldiers), who opened fire. A 17-year-old man called Kurda Ahmed was killed by a bullet in the stomach. At least half a dozen other demonstrators were wounded.
A different account of the riot was given by Shaho Mohammed, the Kurdish Regional Government representative. He said local people underestimated the difficulty of rebuilding Halabja and that he had presented their demands to the government. He also thought Islamic militants were to blame for the violence.