U.S. Had Key Role in Iraq Buildup
Trade in Chemical Arms Allowed Despite Their Use on Iranians, Kurds
By Michael Dobbs
In the Kurdish village of Halabjah in northern Iraq on March 20, 1988, a
father holds his baby. Both were believed killed by an Iraqi chemical
(File Photo/iranian News Agency Via AFP)
Dec. 30 article incorrectly reported the number and date of the
National Security Decision Directive that outlined measures to be taken
to prevent an Iraqi collapse in the Iran-Iraq war. The document was
NSDD 139 of April 5, 1984, parts of which remain classified.
___ Photo Gallery ___ Was This the Garden of Eden?
The Post's Michael Robinson-Chavez visits southeastern Iraq where a once paradisiacal landscape has given way to bleak poverty.
_____The Iraq Debate_____
A comprehensive guide to The Debate About Iraq
with contributions from Jimmy Carter, George Shultz, Sen. Zell Miller,
Charles Krauthammer, Richard Holbrooke, Michael Kelly, Gen. Wesley
Clark and many others.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 30, 2002; Page A01
High on the Bush
administration's list of justifications for war against Iraq are
President Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons, nuclear and
biological programs, and his contacts with international terrorists.
What U.S. officials rarely acknowledge is that these offenses date back
to a period when Hussein was seen in Washington as a valued ally.
the people instrumental in tilting U.S. policy toward Baghdad during
the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was Donald H. Rumsfeld, now defense
secretary, whose December 1983 meeting with Hussein as a special
presidential envoy paved the way for normalization of U.S.-Iraqi
relations. Declassified documents show that Rumsfeld traveled to
Baghdad at a time when Iraq was using chemical weapons on an "almost
daily" basis in defiance of international conventions.
story of U.S. involvement with Saddam Hussein in the years before his
1990 attack on Kuwait -- which included large-scale intelligence
sharing, supply of cluster bombs through a Chilean front company, and
facilitating Iraq's acquisition of chemical and biological precursors
-- is a topical example of the underside of U.S. foreign policy. It is
a world in which deals can be struck with dictators, human rights
violations sometimes overlooked, and accommodations made with arms
proliferators, all on the principle that the "enemy of my enemy is my
Throughout the 1980s, Hussein's Iraq was the sworn
enemy of Iran, then still in the throes of an Islamic revolution. U.S.
officials saw Baghdad as a bulwark against militant Shiite extremism
and the fall of pro-American states such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and
even Jordan -- a Middle East version of the "domino theory" in
Southeast Asia. That was enough to turn Hussein into a strategic
partner and for U.S. diplomats in Baghdad to routinely refer to Iraqi
forces as "the good guys," in contrast to the Iranians, who were
depicted as "the bad guys."
A review of thousands of
declassified government documents and interviews with former
policymakers shows that U.S. intelligence and logistical support played
a crucial role in shoring up Iraqi defenses against the "human wave"
attacks by suicidal Iranian troops. The administrations of Ronald
Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of numerous
items that had both military and civilian applications, including
poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses, such as anthrax and
Opinions differ among Middle East experts
and former government officials about the pre-Iraqi tilt, and whether
Washington could have done more to stop the flow to Baghdad of
technology for building weapons of mass destruction.
was a horrible mistake then, but we have got it right now," says
Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA military analyst and author of "The
Threatening Storm," which makes the case for war with Iraq. "My fellow
[CIA] analysts and I were warning at the time that Hussein was a very
nasty character. We were constantly fighting the State Department."
"Fundamentally, the policy was justified," argues David Newton, a former
U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, who runs an anti-Hussein radio station in
Prague. "We were concerned that Iraq should not lose the war with Iran,
because that would have threatened Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Our
long-term hope was that Hussein's government would become less
repressive and more responsible."
What makes present-day
Hussein different from the Hussein of the 1980s, say Middle East
experts, is the mellowing of the Iranian revolution and the August 1990
invasion of Kuwait that transformed the Iraqi dictator, almost
overnight, from awkward ally into mortal enemy. In addition, the United
States itself has changed. As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. policymakers take a much more
alarmist view of the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of
U.S. Shifts in Iran-Iraq War
When the Iran-Iraq war began in September 1980, with an Iraqi attack
across the Shatt al Arab waterway that leads to the Persian Gulf, the
United States was a bystander. The United States did not have
diplomatic relations with either Baghdad or Tehran. U.S. officials had
almost as little sympathy for Hussein's dictatorial brand of Arab
nationalism as for the Islamic fundamentalism espoused by Iran's
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As long as the two countries fought their
way to a stalemate, nobody in Washington was disposed to intervene.
By the summer of 1982, however, the strategic picture had changed
dramatically. After its initial gains, Iraq was on the defensive, and
Iranian troops had advanced to within a few miles of Basra, Iraq's
second largest city. U.S. intelligence information suggested the
Iranians might achieve a breakthrough on the Basra front, destabilizing
Kuwait, the Gulf states, and even Saudi Arabia, thereby threatening
U.S. oil supplies.
"You have to understand the geostrategic
context, which was very different from where we are now," said Howard
Teicher, a former National Security Council official, who worked on
Iraqi policy during the Reagan administration. "Realpolitik dictated
that we act to prevent the situation from getting worse."
To prevent an Iraqi collapse, the Reagan administration supplied
battlefield intelligence on Iranian troop buildups to the Iraqis,
sometimes through third parties such as Saudi Arabia. The U.S. tilt
toward Iraq was enshrined in National Security Decision Directive 114
of Nov. 26, 1983, one of the few important Reagan era foreign policy
decisions that still remains classified. According to former U.S.
officials, the directive stated that the United States would do
"whatever was necessary and legal" to prevent Iraq from losing the war
The presidential directive was issued amid a
flurry of reports that Iraqi forces were using chemical weapons in
their attempts to hold back the Iranians. In principle, Washington was
strongly opposed to chemical warfare, a practice outlawed by the 1925
Geneva Protocol. In practice, U.S. condemnation of Iraqi use of
chemical weapons ranked relatively low on the scale of administration
priorities, particularly compared with the all-important goal of
preventing an Iranian victory.
Thus, on Nov. 1, 1983, a
senior State Department official, Jonathan T. Howe, told Secretary of
State George P. Shultz that intelligence reports showed that Iraqi
troops were resorting to "almost daily use of CW" against the Iranians.
But the Reagan administration had already committed itself to a
large-scale diplomatic and political overture to Baghdad, culminating
in several visits by the president's recently appointed special envoy
to the Middle East, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
points prepared for the first Rumsfeld visit to Baghdad enshrined some
of the language from NSDD 114, including the statement that the United
States would regard "any major reversal of Iraq's fortunes as a
strategic defeat for the West." When Rumsfeld finally met with Hussein
on Dec. 20, he told the Iraqi leader that Washington was ready for a
resumption of full diplomatic relations, according to a State
Department report of the conversation. Iraqi leaders later described
themselves as "extremely pleased" with the Rumsfeld visit, which had
"elevated U.S.-Iraqi relations to a new level."
September interview with CNN, Rumsfeld said he "cautioned" Hussein
about the use of chemical weapons, a claim at odds with declassified
State Department notes of his 90-minute meeting with the Iraqi leader.
A Pentagon spokesman, Brian Whitman, now says that Rumsfeld raised the
issue not with Hussein, but with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. The
State Department notes show that he mentioned it largely in passing as
one of several matters that "inhibited" U.S. efforts to assist Iraq.
Rumsfeld has also said he had "nothing to do" with helping Iraq in its
war against Iran. Although former U.S. officials agree that Rumsfeld
was not one of the architects of the Reagan administration's tilt
toward Iraq -- he was a private citizen when he was appointed Middle
East envoy -- the documents show that his visits to Baghdad led to
closer U.S.-Iraqi cooperation on a wide variety of fronts. Washington
was willing to resume diplomatic relations immediately, but Hussein
insisted on delaying such a step until the following year.
As part of its opening to Baghdad, the Reagan administration removed
Iraq from the State Department terrorism list in February 1982, despite
heated objections from Congress. Without such a move, Teicher says, it
would have been "impossible to take even the modest steps we were
contemplating" to channel assistance to Baghdad. Iraq -- along with
Syria, Libya and South Yemen -- was one of four original countries on
the list, which was first drawn up in 1979.
U.S. officials say that removing Iraq from the terrorism list provided
an incentive to Hussein to expel the Palestinian guerrilla leader Abu
Nidal from Baghdad in 1983. On the other hand, Iraq continued to play
host to alleged terrorists throughout the '80s. The most notable was
Abu Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, who found refuge
in Baghdad after being expelled from Tunis for masterminding the 1985
hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, which resulted in the
killing of an elderly American tourist.
Iraq Lobbies for Arms
While Rumsfeld was talking to Hussein and Aziz in Baghdad, Iraqi
diplomats and weapons merchants were fanning out across Western
capitals for a diplomatic charm offensive-cum-arms buying spree. In
Washington, the key figure was the Iraqi charg d'affaires, Nizar
Hamdoon, a fluent English speaker who impressed Reagan administration
officials as one of the most skillful lobbyists in town.
"He arrived with a blue shirt and a white tie, straight out of the
mafia," recalled Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist in the Reagan
White House. "Within six months, he was hosting suave dinner parties at
his residence, which he parlayed into a formidable lobbying effort. He
was particularly effective with the American Jewish community."
One of Hamdoon's favorite props, says Kemp, was a green Islamic scarf
allegedly found on the body of an Iranian soldier. The scarf was
decorated with a map of the Middle East showing a series of arrows
pointing toward Jerusalem. Hamdoon used to "parade the scarf" to
conferences and congressional hearings as proof that an Iranian victory
over Iraq would result in "Israel becoming a victim along with the
According to a sworn court affidavit prepared by
Teicher in 1995, the United States "actively supported the Iraqi war
effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by
providing military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by
closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure Iraq
had the military weaponry required." Teicher said in the affidavit that
former CIA director William Casey used a Chilean company, Cardoen, to
supply Iraq with cluster bombs that could be used to disrupt the
Iranian human wave attacks. Teicher refuses to discuss the affidavit.
At the same time the Reagan administration was facilitating the supply
of weapons and military components to Baghdad, it was attempting to cut
off supplies to Iran under "Operation Staunch." Those efforts were
largely successful, despite the glaring anomaly of the 1986 Iran-contra
scandal when the White House publicly admitted trading arms for
hostages, in violation of the policy that the United States was trying
to impose on the rest of the world.
Although U.S. arms
manufacturers were not as deeply involved as German or British
companies in selling weaponry to Iraq, the Reagan administration
effectively turned a blind eye to the export of "dual use" items such
as chemical precursors and steel tubes that can have military and
civilian applications. According to several former officials, the State
and Commerce departments promoted trade in such items as a way to boost
U.S. exports and acquire political leverage over Hussein.
United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed into Iraq after the 1991
Gulf War, they compiled long lists of chemicals, missile components,
and computers from American suppliers, including such household names
as Union Carbide and Honeywell, which were being used for military
A 1994 investigation by the Senate Banking
Committee turned up dozens of biological agents shipped to Iraq during
the mid-'80s under license from the Commerce Department, including
various strains of anthrax, subsequently identified by the Pentagon as
a key component of the Iraqi biological warfare program. The Commerce
Department also approved the export of insecticides to Iraq, despite
widespread suspicions that they were being used for chemical warfare.
The fact that Iraq was using chemical weapons was hardly a secret. In
February 1984, an Iraqi military spokesman effectively acknowledged
their use by issuing a chilling warning to Iran. "The invaders should
know that for every harmful insect, there is an insecticide capable of
annihilating it . . . and Iraq possesses this annihilation insecticide."
Chemicals Kill Kurds
In late 1987, the Iraqi air force began using chemical agents against
Kurdish resistance forces in northern Iraq that had formed a loose
alliance with Iran, according to State Department reports. The attacks,
which were part of a "scorched earth" strategy to eliminate
rebel-controlled villages, provoked outrage on Capitol Hill and renewed
demands for sanctions against Iraq. The State Department and White
House were also outraged -- but not to the point of doing anything that
might seriously damage relations with Baghdad.
U.S.-Iraqi relationship is . . . important to our long-term political
and economic objectives," Assistant Secretary of State Richard W.
Murphy wrote in a September 1988 memorandum that addressed the chemical
weapons question. "We believe that economic sanctions will be useless
or counterproductive to influence the Iraqis."
administration spokesmen have cited Hussein's use of chemical weapons
"against his own people" -- and particularly the March 1988 attack on
the Kurdish village of Halabjah -- to bolster their argument that his
regime presents a "grave and gathering danger" to the United States.
The Iraqis continued to use chemical weapons against the Iranians until
the end of the Iran-Iraq war. A U.S. air force intelligence officer,
Rick Francona, reported finding widespread use of Iraqi nerve gas when
he toured the Al Faw peninsula in southern Iraq in the summer of 1988,
after its recapture by the Iraqi army. The battlefield was littered
with atropine injectors used by panicky Iranian troops as an antidote
against Iraqi nerve gas attacks.
Far from declining, the
supply of U.S. military intelligence to Iraq actually expanded in 1988,
according to a 1999 book by Francona, "Ally to Adversary: an Eyewitness
Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace." Informed sources said much of the
battlefield intelligence was channeled to the Iraqis by the CIA office
Although U.S. export controls to Iraq were
tightened up in the late 1980s, there were still many loopholes. In
December 1988, Dow Chemical sold $1.5 million of pesticides to Iraq,
despite U.S. government concerns that they could be used as chemical
warfare agents. An Export-Import Bank official reported in a memorandum
that he could find "no reason" to stop the sale, despite evidence that
the pesticides were "highly toxic" to humans and would cause death
The U.S. policy of cultivating Hussein
as a moderate and reasonable Arab leader continued right up until he
invaded Kuwait in August 1990, documents show. When the then-U.S.
ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, met with Hussein on July 25,
1990, a week before the Iraqi attack on Kuwait, she assured him that
Bush "wanted better and deeper relations," according to an Iraqi
transcript of the conversation. "President Bush is an intelligent man,"
the ambassador told Hussein, referring to the father of the current
president. "He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq."
"Everybody was wrong in their assessment of Saddam," said Joe Wilson,
Glaspie's former deputy at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and the last
U.S. official to meet with Hussein. "Everybody in the Arab world told
us that the best way to deal with Saddam was to develop a set of
economic and commercial relationships that would have the effect of
moderating his behavior. History will demonstrate that this was a
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