On August 18, 2002, 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 Ronald Reagan’s 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 President George Bush II’s 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 war drive against Iraq began in earnest soon after September 11, 2001) would have looked in vain for the fact that many of the US politicians and ruling class pundits who demanded war against Hussein–in particular, the one of 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 Middle East.
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 Kuwait.
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 bombing raids”.
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 5000 people.
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 pathogenic agents.
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 billion.
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 departments.
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 market.
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 Iraq.
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 continuation.
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.
NORM DIXON writes for Australia’s Green Left Weekly.