The town lies at the base of what is often refereed to as the greater Hewraman region stretching across the Iran-Iraq border. Kurds in the city of Halabja generally speak only Sorani dialect, but some of the surrounding villages speak Hawrami dialect. The dialects are 2 different dialects in Kurdish language.
Halabja was liberated by Kurdish peshmerga supported by Iran in the final phase of the Iran-Iraq war. On 16 March 1988, after two days of conventional artillery attacks, Iraqi planes dropped gas canisters on the town.
The town and surrounding district were attacked with bombs, artillery fire, and chemical weapons, the latter of which proved most devastating. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and it is estimated that a further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness.
The attack is believed to have included the nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, and VX, as well as mustard gas. It is occasionally suggested that cyanide was also included among these chemical weapons, though this assertion has been cast into doubt, as cyanide is a natural byproduct of impure Tabun. The attack on Halabja took place amidst the infamous Anfal campaign, in which Saddam Hussein violently suppressed Kurdish revolts during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons in attacking up to 24 villages in Kurdish areas in April 1987.
Before the war ended the Iraqis moved in on the ground and completely destroyed the town.
In the mountains to the East of Halabja, the militant Islamist group Ansar al-Islam occupied a small enclave in the period 2000 - 2003. The area was overrun by peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with U.S. air support, at the beginning of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
On December 23, 2005, a Dutch court sentenced Frans van Anraat, a businessman who bought chemicals on the world market and sold them to Saddam's regime, to 15 years in prison. The Dutch court ruled that Saddam committed genocide against the people of Halabja, which was the first time a court described the use of chemical weapons against the people of Halabja as genocide.
On the 2006 anniversary of the gas attack, violent demonstrations erupted in Halabja against the Kurdish administration. An estimated 7,000 demonstrators protested against priorities in reconstruction, claiming party bosses did not care about the problems of the gas attack victims. Road blocks were set up and the gas attack memorial museum was set afire. Police fired at protesters killing one 14-year old boy and wounding many others.