PARIS -- Twenty victims of Saddam Hussein's 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja requested a judicial investigation of French suppliers on Monday, saying executives knew what they were sending to the Iraqi dictator and bore some responsibility.
An Iraqi official said the case serves as a warning to anyone who may still try to sell chemicals to tyrants, touching on a central concern in Syria's civil war.
The March 1988 attacks in Halabja, Iraq, which killed up to 5,000 people, marked the deadliest chemical weapons attack against civilians. Saddam ordered the poison gas strikes to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the north, which was seen as aiding Iran in the final months of its war with Iraq.
Kamil Abdulqadir Wais Mohammed, who was 14 at the time, said his father and five sisters died in the gas attack. He himself was left with about 20 percent lung capacity, he said at a news conference after filing the complaint. He and others who fled Halabja were blinded as they ran away, recovering their eyesight only months later. He described hearing the sounds of chaos around him -- even after he finally reached help, he said, he could still hear bombs hitting his city.
"There are hundreds of people who are still suffering from the attacks," he said. "Their health is deteriorating, their medicine is running out."
Gavriel Mairone, a lawyer for the group that filed the complaint in France, said those who survived the attack continue to suffer health problems and are demanding the companies that knowingly supplied Saddam with the raw materials and equipment needed for chemical weapons take responsibility. Among other things, the victims want a health clinic and advanced medical care, he said.
The complaint names no specific companies, and Mairone said he first hopes an investigating judge will agree to open the case to allow for more specifics. The attorney said he expects to file additional cases in Germany, the U.S., Holland and potentially elsewhere.
Mairone said it took 25 years to file the complaint because of the difficulty in documenting the cases first while Saddam was still alive and then in the chaos of postwar Iraq.
Many Kurds harbor aspirations of one day forming an independent country, and remembering Saddam's ruthless Anfal campaign -- of which Halabja was just a part -- has become a part of the national identity.
In April, a Dutch court ordered a businessman convicted of selling Saddam raw materials for mustard gas to pay compensation to Halabja victims. That victory was largely symbolic because the broker is in prison and believed to be destitute. Mairone said the companies involved "know who they are" and called on them to take responsibility.
The minister of the Kurdish regional government's Martyrs and Anfal Victims Affairs Ministry, Sabah Ahmed Mohammed, said lawsuits like that being pursued in France act as a deterrent. He said Kurdish authorities offer some financial help to victims but do not provide regular pensions.
In January 2010, Saddam's notorious cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid was convicted for his role in gassing some 5,000 people in Halabja -- the fourth death sentence handed down against the man known as "Chemical Ali" for crimes against humanity.