How the US armed Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons
BY NORM DIXON
On August 18, the New York Times carried a front-page story headlined,
``Officers say U.S. aided Iraq despite the use of gas''. Quoting
anonymous US ``senior military officers'', the NYT ``revealed'' that in
the 1980s, the administration of US President Ronald Reagan covertly
provided ``critical battle planning assistance at a time when American
intelligence knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in
waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war''. The story made a
brief splash in the international media, then died.
While the August 18 NYT article added new details about the extent of US
military collaboration with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during Iraq's
1980-88 war with Iran, it omitted the most outrageous aspect of the
scandal: not only did Washington turn a blind-eye to the Hussein
regime's repeated use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and
Iraq's Kurdish minority, but the US helped Iraq develop its chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Nor did the NYT dwell on the extreme cynicism and hypocrisy of the
current US administration's citing of those same terrible atrocities --
which were disregarded at the time by Washington -- and those same
weapons programs -- which no longer exist, having been dismantled and
destroyed in the decade following the 1991 Gulf War -- to justify a
massive new war against the people of Iraq.
A reader of the NYT article (or the tens of thousands of other articles
written after the latest war drive against Iraq began in earnest soon
after September 11) would have looked in vain for the fact that many of
the US politicians and ruling class pundits demanding war against
Hussein today -- in particular, the most bellicose of the Bush
administration's ``hawks'', defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- were
up to their ears in Washington's efforts to cultivate, promote and
excuse Hussein in the past.
The NYT article read as though Washington's casual disregard about the
use of chemical weapons by Hussein's dictatorship throughout the 1980s
had never been reported before. However, it was not the first time that
``Iraqgate'' -- as the scandal of US military and political support for
Hussein in the ‘80s has been dubbed -- has raised its embarrassing head
in the corporate media, only to be quickly buried again.
One of the more comprehensive and damning accounts of Iraqgate was
written by Douglas Frantz and Murray Waas and published in the February
23, 1992, Los Angeles Times. Headlined, ``Bush secret effort helped Iraq
build its war machine'', the article reported that ``classified
documents obtained by the LA Times show … a long-secret pattern of
personal efforts by [George Bush senior] -- both as president and vice
president -- to support and placate the Iraqi dictator.''
Even William Safire, the right-wing, war-mongering NYT columnist, on
December 7, 1992, felt compelled to write that, ``Iraqgate is uniquely
horrendous: a scandal about the systematic abuse of power by misguided
leaders of three democratic nations [the US, Britain and Italy] to
secretly finance the arms buildup of a dictator''.
The background to Iraqgate was the January 1979 popular uprising that
overthrew the cravenly pro-US Shah of Iran. The Iranian revolution
threatened US imperialism's domination of the strategic oil-rich region.
Other than Israel, Iran had long been Washington's key ally in the
Washington immediately began to ``cast about for ways to undermine or
overthrow the Iranian revolution, or make up for the loss of the Shah.
Hussein's regime put up its hand. On September 22, 1980, Iraq launched
an invasion of Iran. Throughout the bloody eight-year-long war -- which
cost at least 1 million lives -- Washington backed Iraq.
As a 1990 report prepared for the Pentagon by the Strategic Studies
Institute of the US War College admitted: ``Throughout the [Iran-Iraq]
war the United States practised a fairly benign policy toward Iraq…
[Washington and Baghdad] wanted to restore the status quo ante … that
prevailed before [the 1979 Iranian revolution] began threatening the
regional balance of power. Khomeini's revolutionary appeal was anathema
to both Baghdad and Washington; hence they wanted to get rid of him.
United by a common interest … the [US] began to actively assist Iraq.''
At first, as Iraqi forces seemed headed for victory over Iran, official
US policy was neutrality in the conflict. Not only was Hussein doing
Washington's dirty work in the war with Iran, but the US rulers believed
that Iraq could be lured away from its close economic and military
relationship with the Soviet Union -- just as Egypt's President Anwar
Sadat had done in the 1970s.
In March 1981, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig excitedly told the
Senate foreign relations committee that Iraq was concerned by ``the
behaviour of Soviet imperialism in the Middle Eastern region''. The
Soviet government had refused to deliver arms to Iraq as long as Baghdad
continued its military offensive against Iran. Moscow was also unhappy
with the Hussein's vicious repression of the Iraqi Communist Party.
Washington's support (innocuously referred to as a ``tilt'' at the time)
for Iraq became more open after Iran succeeded in driving Iraqi forces
from its territory in May 1982; in June, Iran went on the offensive
against Iraq. The US scrambled to stem Iraq's military setbacks.
Washington and its conservative Arab allies suddenly feared Iran might
even defeat Iraq, or at least cause the collapse of Hussein's regime.
Using its allies in the Middle East, Washington funnelled huge supplies
of arms to Iraq. Classified State Department cables uncovered by Frantz
and Waas described covert transfers of howitzers, helicopters, bombs and
other weapons to Baghdad in 1982-83 from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and
Howard Teicher, who monitored Middle East policy at the US National
Security Council during the Reagan administration, told the February 23,
1992, LA Times: ``There was a conscious effort to encourage third
countries to ship US arms or acquiesce in shipments after the fact. It
was a policy of nods and winks.''
According to Mark Phythian's 1997 book Arming Iraq: How the US and
Britain Secretly Built Saddam's War Machine (Northeastern University
Press), in 1983 Reagan asked Italy's Prime Minister Guilo Andreotti to
channel arms to Iraq.
The January 1, 1984 Washington Post reported that the US had ``informed
friendly Persian Gulf nations that the defeat of Iraq in the
three-year-old war with Iran would be ‘contrary to US interests' and has
made several moves to prevent that result''.
Central to these ``moves'' was the cementing of a military and political
alliance with Saddam Hussein's repressive regime, so as to build up Iraq
as a military counterweight to Iran. In 1982, the Reagan administration
removed Iraq from the State Department's list of countries that
allegedly supported terrorism. On December 19-20, 1983, Reagan
dispatched his Middle East envoy -- none other than Donald Rumsfeld --
to Baghdad with a hand-written offer of a resumption of diplomatic
relations, which had been severed during the 1967 Arab-Israel war. On
March 24, 1984, Rumsfeld was again in Baghdad.
On that same day, the UPI wire service reported from the UN: ``Mustard
gas laced with a nerve agent has been used on Iranian soldiers … a team
of UN experts has concluded … Meanwhile, in the Iraqi capital of
Baghdad, US presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld held talks with foreign
minister Tariq Aziz.''
The day before, Iran had accused Iraq of poisoning 600 of its soldiers
with mustard gas and Tabun nerve gas.
There is no doubt that the US government knew Iraq was using chemical
weapons. On March 5, 1984, the State Department had stated that
``available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical
weapons''. The March 30, 1984, NYT reported that US intelligence
officials has ``what they believe to be incontrovertible evidence that
Iraq has used nerve gas in its war with Iran and has almost finished
extensive sites for mass producing the lethal chemical warfare agent''.
However, consistent with the pattern throughout the Iran-Iraq war and
after, the use of these internationally outlawed weapons was not
considered important enough by Rumsfeld and his political superiors to
halt Washington's blossoming love affair with Hussein.
The March 29, 1984, NYT, reporting on the aftermath of Rumsfeld's talks
in Baghdad, stated that US officials had pronounced ``themselves
satisfied with relations between Iraq and the US and suggest that normal
diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name''. In November 1984,
the US and Iraq officially restored diplomatic relations.
According to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, in a December 15,
1986 article, the CIA began to secretly supply Iraq with intelligence in
1984 that was used to ``calibrate'' mustard gas attacks on Iranian
troops. Beginning in early 1985, the CIA provided Iraq with ``data from
sensitive US satellite reconnaissance photography … to assist Iraqi
Iraqi chemical attacks on Iranian troops -- and US assistance to Iraq
-- continued throughout the Iran-Iraq war. In a parallel program, the US
defence department also provided intelligence and battle-planning
assistance to Iraq.
The August 17, 2002 NYT reported that, according to ``senior military
officers with direct knowledge of the program'', even though ``senior
officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's
employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents …
President Reagan, vice president George Bush [senior] and senior
national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly
classified program in which more than 60 officers of the Defense
Intelligence Agency (DIA) were secretly providing detailed information
on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air
strikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq.''
Retired DIA officer Rick Francona told the NYT that Iraq's chemical
weapons were used in the war's final battle in early 1988, in which
Iraqi forces retook the Fao Peninsula from the Iranian army.
Another retired DIA officer, Walter Lang, told the NYT that ``the use of
gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic
concern''. What concerned the DIA, CIA and the Reagan administration was
that Iran not break through the Fao Peninsula and spread the Islamic
revolution to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Iraq's 1982 removal from Washington's official list of states that
support terrorism meant that the Hussein regime was now eligible for US
economic and military aid, and was able to purchase advanced US
technology that could also be used for military purposes.
Conventional military sales resumed in December 1982. In 1983, the
Reagan administration approved the sale of 60 Hughes helicopters to Iraq
in 1983 ``for civilian use''. However, as Phythian pointed out, these
aircraft could be ``weaponised'' within hours of delivery. Then US
Secretary of State George Schultz and commerce secretary George
Baldridge also lobbied for the delivery of Bell helicopters equipped for
``crop spraying''. It is believed that US-supplied choppers were used in
the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja, which killed
With the Reagan administration's connivance, Baghdad immediately
embarked on a massive militarisation drive. This US-endorsed military
spending spree began even before Iraq was delisted as a terrorist state,
when the US commerce department approved the sale of Italian gas turbine
engines for Iraq's naval frigates.
Soon after, the US agriculture department's Commodity Credit Corporation
(CCC) guaranteed to repay loans -- in the event of defaults by Baghdad
-- banks had made to Iraq to buy US-grown commodities such as wheat and
rice. Under this scheme, Iraq had three years to repay the loans, and if
it could not the US taxpayers would have to cough up.
Washington offered this aid initially to prevent Hussein's overthrow as
the Iraqi people began to complain about the food shortages caused by
the massive diversion of hard currency for the purchase of weapons and
ammunition. The loan guarantees amounted to a massive US subsidy that
allowed Hussein to launch his overt and covert arms buildup, one result
being that the Iran-Iraq war entered a bloody five-year stalemate.
By the end of 1983, US$402 million in agriculture department loan
guarantees for Iraq were approved. In 1984, this increased to $503
million and reached $1.1 billion in 1988. Between 1983 and 1990, CCC
loan guarantees freed up more than $5 billion. Some $2 billion in bad
loans, plus interest, ended up having to be covered by US taxpayers.
A similar taxpayer-funded, though smaller scale, scam operated under the
auspices of the federal Export-Import Bank. In 1984, vice-president
George Bush senior personally intervened to ensure that the bank
guaranteed loans to Iraq of $500 million to build an oil pipeline.
Export-Import Bank loan guarantees grew from $35 million in 1985 to $267
million by 1990.
According to William Blum, writing in the August 1998 issue of the
Progressive, Sam Gejdenson, chairperson of a Congressional subcommittee
investigating US exports to Iraq, disclosed that from 1985 until 1990
``the US government approved 771 licenses [only 39 were rejected] for
the export to Iraq of $1.5 billion worth of biological agents and
high-tech equipment with military application …
``The US spent virtually an entire decade making sure that Saddam
Hussein had almost whatever he wanted… US export control policy was
directed by US foreign policy as formulated by the State Department, and
it was US foreign policy to assist the regime of Saddam Hussein.''
A 1994 US Senate report revealed that US companies were licenced by the
commerce department to export a ``witch's brew'' of biological and
chemical materials, including bacillus anthracis (which causes anthrax)
and clostridium botulinum (the source of botulism). The American Type
Culture Collection made 70 shipments of the anthrax bug and other
The report also noted that US exports to Iraq included the precursors to
chemical warfare agents, plans for chemical and biological warfare
facilities and chemical warhead filling equipment. US firms supplied
advanced and specialised computers, lasers, testing and analysing
equipment. Among the better-known companies were Hewlett Packard,
Unisys, Data General and Honeywell.
Billions of dollars worth of raw materials, machinery and equipment,
missile technology and other ``dual-use'' items were also supplied by
West German, French, Italian, British, Swiss and Austrian corporations,
with the approval of their governments (German firms even sold Iraq
entire factories capable of mass-producing poison gas). Much of this was
purchased with funds freed by the US CCC credits.
The destination of much of this equipment was Saad 16, near Mosul in
northern Iraq. Western intelligence agencies had long known that the
sprawling complex was Iraq's main ballistic missile development centre.
Blum reported that Washington was fully aware of the likely use of this
material. In 1992, a US Senate committee learned that the commerce
department had deleted references to military end-use from information
it sent to Congress about 68 export licences, worth more than $1
In 1986, the US defence department's deputy undersecretary for trade
security, Stephen Bryen, had objected to the export of an advanced
computer, similar to those used in the US missile program, to Saad 16
because ``of the high likelihood of military end use''. The state and
commerce departments approved the sale without conditions.
In his book, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq, Kenneth Timmerman
points out that several US agencies were supposed to review US exports
that may be detrimental to US ``national security''. However, the
commerce department often did not submit exports to Hussein's Iraq for
review or approved them despite objections from other government
On March 16, 1988, Iraqi forces launched a poison gas attack on the
Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja, killing 5000 people. While that attack
is today being touted by senior US officials as one of the main reasons
why Hussein must now be ``taken out'', at the time Washington's response
to the atrocity was much more relaxed.
Just four months later, Washington stood by as the US giant Bechtel
corporation won the contract to build a huge petrochemical plant that
would give the Hussein regime the capacity to generate chemical weapons.
On September 8, 1988, the US Senate passed the Prevention of Genocide
Act, which would have imposed sanctions on the Hussein regime.
Immediately, the Reagan administration announced its opposition to the
bill, calling it ``premature''. The White House used its influence to
stall the bill in the House of Representatives. When Congress did
eventually pass the bill, the White House did not implement it.
Washington's political, military and economic sweetheart deals with the
Iraqi dictator came under even more stress when, in August 1989, FBI
agents raided the Atlanta branch of the Rome-based Banca Nazionale del
Lavoro (BNL) and uncovered massive fraud involving the CCC loan
guarantee scheme and billions of dollars worth of unauthorised
``off-the-books'' loans to Iraq.
BNL Atlanta manager Chris Drougal had used the CCC program to underwrite
programs that had nothing to do with agricultural exports. Using this
covert set-up, Hussein's regime tried to buy the most hard-to-get
components for its nuclear weapons and missile programs on the black
Russ Baker, writing in the March/April 1993 Columbia Journalism Review,
noted: ``Elements of the US government almost certainly knew that
Drougal was funnelling US-backed loans -- into dual-use technology and
outright military technology. The British government was fully aware of
the operations of Matrix-Churchill, a British firm with an Ohio branch,
which was not only at the centre of the Iraqi procurement network but
was also funded by BNL Atlanta... It would be later alleged by bank
executives that the Italian government, long a close US ally as well as
BNL's ultimate owner, had knowledge of BNL's loan diversions.''
Yet, even the public outrage generated by the Halabja massacre and the
widening BNL scandal did not cool Washington's ardour towards Hussein's
On October 2, 1989, US President George Bush senior signed the
top-secret National Security Decision 26, which declared: ``Normal
relations between the US and Iraq would serve our long-term interests
and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East. The US
should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate
its behaviour and increase our influence with Iraq... We should pursue,
and seek to facilitate, opportunities for US firms to participate in the
reconstruction of the Iraqi economy.''
As public and congressional pressure mounted on the US Agriculture
Department to end Iraq's access to CCC loan guarantees, Secretary of
State James Baker -- armed with NSD 26 -- personally insisted that
agriculture secretary Clayton Yeutter drop his opposition to their
In November 1989, Bush senior approved $1 billion in loan guarantees for
Iraq in 1990. In April 1990, more revelations about the BNL scandal had
again pushed the department of agriculture to the verge of halting
Iraq's CCC loan guarantees. On May 18, national security adviser
Scowcroft personally intervened to ensure the delivery of the first $500
million tranche of the CCC subsidy for 1990.
According to Frantz and Waas' February 23, 1992, LA Times article, in
July 1990 ``officials at the National Security Council and the State
Department were pushing to deliver the second installment of the $1
billion in loan guarantees, despite the looming crisis in the region and
evidence that Iraq had used the aid illegally to help finance a secret
arms procurement network to obtain technology for its nuclear weapons
and ballistic-missile program''.
>From July 18 to August 1, 1990, Bush senior's administration approved
$4.8 million in advanced technology sales to Iraq. The end-users
included Saad 16 and the Iraqi ministry of industry and military
industrialisation. On August 1, $695,000 worth of advanced data
transmission devices were approved.
``Only on August 2, 1990, did the agriculture department officially
suspend the [CCC loan] guarantees to Iraq -- the same day that
Hussein's tanks and troops swept into Kuwait'', noted Frantz and Waas.
>From Green Left Weekly, August 28, 2002. Visit the Green Left Weekly
home page (http://www.greenleft.org.au).