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
Among 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.
The 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 friend."
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 bubonic plague.
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
"It 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 mass destruction.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 with Iran.
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.
Secret talking 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."
In a 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.
Some former 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 chargé 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 Arabs."
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.
When 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.
"The 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."
Bush 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 in Baghdad.
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 "from asphyxiation."
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
"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 miscalculation."