Former U.S. official says CIA aided Iraqi Baathists
By David Morgan
PHILADELPHIA, April 17 (Reuters) - If the United States succeeds in shepherding the creation of a postwar Iraqi government, it won't be the first time that Washington has played a primary role in changing the country's rulers.
At least not according to Roger Morris, who says the CIA had a hand in two coups in Iraq during the darkest days of the Cold War, including a 1968 putsch that set Saddam Hussein firmly on the path to power.
"This takes you down a longer, darker road in terms of American culpability," said Morris, a former State Department foreign service officer who was on the National Security Council staff during the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
In 1963, two years after the ill-fated U.S. attempt at overthrow in Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs, Morris says the CIA helped organize a bloody coup in Iraq that deposed the Soviet-leaning government of Gen. Abdel-Karim Kassem.
"As in Iran in '53, it was mostly American money and even American involvement on the ground," said Morris, referring to a U.S.-backed coup that had brought the return of the shah to neighboring Iran.
Kassem, who had allowed communists to hold positions of responsibility in his government, was machine-gunned to death. And the country wound up in the hands of the Baath Party.
At the time, Saddam was a Baath operative studying law in Cairo, one of the venues the CIA chose to plan the coup, Morris says. In fact, he claims the former Iraqi ruler castigated by U.S. President George W. Bush as one of history's most "brutal dictators," was actually on the CIA payroll in those days.
"There's no question," Morris told Reuters. "It was there in Cairo that (Saddam) and others were first contacted by the agency."
U.S. ROLE ALLEGED IN SADDAM'S RISE
Five years later, in 1968, Morris says the CIA encouraged a palace revolt among Baath Party elements led by long-time Saddam mentor Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who would turn over the reins of power to his ambitious protege in 1979.
"It's a regime that was unquestionably midwived by the United States, and the (CIA's) involvement there was really primary," Morris said.
His version of history is a far cry from current American rhetoric about Iraq -- a country that top U.S. officials say has been liberated from decades of tyranny and given the chance for a bright democratic future without their making mention of America's own alleged role in giving birth to the regime.
A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on Morris' claims of CIA involvement in the Iraqi coups but said his assertion that Saddam once received payments from the CIA was "utterly ridiculous."
Morris, who resigned from the NSC staff over the 1970 U.S. invasion of Cambodia, says he learned the details of American covert involvement in Iraq from ranking CIA officials of the day including President Teddy Roosevelt's grandson Archibald Roosevelt.
Now 65, Morris went on to become a Nixon biographer and is currently writing a book about U.S. covert action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He regards Saddam as a deposed U.S. client in the mold of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
"We climb into bed with these people without really knowing anything about their politics," Morris said in an interview from Seattle where he is working on his book. "It's not unusual, of course, in American policy. We tire of these people, and we find reasons to shed them."
But many experts, including foreign affairs scholars, say there is little to suggest U.S. involvement in Iraq in the 1960s.
David Wise, a Washington-based author who has written extensively about Cold War espionage, says he is only aware of records showing that a CIA group known as the "Health Alteration Committee" tried to assassinate Kassem in 1960 by sending the Iraqi leader a poisoned monogrammed handkerchief.
"Clearly, they felt that Kassem was somebody who had to be eliminated," Wise said.
Morris contends that little is known about CIA involvement in the Iraqi coups because the Middle East did not hold as much strategic importance in the 1960s and most senior U.S. officials involved there at the time have since died.
But even if the United States played no role in the rise of Iraq's Baath Party, experts say Washington has obviously had to confront unintended consequences of former U.S. policies -- including those of Bush's father, President George Bush, a former CIA director.
"There are always some unintended consequences. There were unintended consequences in World War One that brought the rise of Hitler," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, guest scholar in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and former NSC staffer.
The United States and other Western powers supported Saddam's regime during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, even after the Baghdad government used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurdish villagers in Halabja.
The 1988 atrocity recently was used by U.S. officials to justify the toppling of Saddam's regime.
But Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was a legislative aide on Capitol Hill at the time and recalls Bush allies dismissing the Halabja issue as a ploy by pro-Israel lobbyists to disrupt U.S.-Iraqi relations.
U.S. SENDS ANTHRAX, OTHER PATHOGENS
Before war broke out last month, a flurry of U.S. headlines also called attention to reports that pathogens used by Iraq for its biological warfare program came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the private Manassas, Virginia-based biological samples repository called the American Type Culture Collection.
Officials at the two institutions said shipments of anthrax, West Nile virus, botulinum toxins and other pathogens were sent to Iraq in the 1980s with U.S. Commerce Department approval for medical research purposes.
Even Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program, which U.S. officials said was on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb last year, got under way with help from a 1950s Eisenhower administration program to share the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy called "Atoms for Peace."
That is according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based group co-founded by media mogul Ted Turner and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn to reduce the global threat of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
James Phillips, senior Middle East analyst for the Heritage Foundation, disagrees that President Bush's war in Iraq is the result of CIA involvement or U.S. policy.
But he said the United States did turn a blind eye to the chance to topple Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, just as it left Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network after Soviet forces left that country.
"I am reminded of the biblical expression about the sins of the father," Phillips said.
"The first Bush administration was the one that decided to cut off aid to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and set them adrift. And they were also the ones who decided not to go to Baghdad during the first Gulf War."