Who Will Pass Judgment on Those Who Judge?

“It’s a major achievement,” announced President Bush in reaction to the conviction and sentencing to death of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. The trial, he assured us, was “a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.” In order to facilitate the desired result, the U.S. had established and funded the court, as well as provided training to officials. “The rule of law” remains a distant goal in occupied Iraq, but the concept of tyrannical rule is a fluid one. Certainly, the invasion and subjugation of Iraq by force of arms does not qualify in the mass media’s lexicon. Nor, for that matter, did Saddam Hussein’s early years in power, when his crimes were not merely tolerated, but encouraged.

How does it happen that a man can be regarded as an ally one day, and an enemy the next? How is it that as praise fades away, that same man comes to deserve capture and death? Is it because his behavior has changed, or because there has been a transformation in perception?

Like others who have since come to be regarded as dangerous criminals, Saddam Hussein was at one time backed and promoted by the U.S. As long as men like Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar served U.S. geopolitical interests, their brutal methods were regarded as effective tools in the struggle to further U.S. objectives. It was only when their actions began to threaten those interests that these men earned opprobrium. A closer look at the history of their relationship with the U.S. reveals much about how foreign policy is conducted.

In his early years, Saddam Hussein was on the CIA payroll. Contacts began in 1959, when the agency sponsored him as a member of a small team assigned to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. The Prime Minister had made himself a target by committing the unpardonable sin of taking his nation out of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. Hussein was set up in an apartment across the street from Qasim’s office and told to observe his movements. But CIA plans received a setback when the attempted assassination on October 7, 1959 was conducted in so inept a manner that it failed to achieve its objective. An over-anxious Hussein fired too soon, killing Qasim’s driver and only wounding the Prime Minster. Following the botched attempt on the Prime Minister’s life, CIA and Egyptian intelligence agents helped Hussein to escape to Tikrit. From there he crossed into Syria and then to Beirut, where the CIA provided him with an apartment and put him through a short training course. Even at that young age, a former U.S. intelligence official recalls, Hussein “was known as having no class. He was a thug ­ a cutthroat.” But he did have excellent anticommunist credentials. From Beirut he was eventually sent to Cairo, where he remained under the watchful eye of his CIA handlers and made frequent visits to the U.S. embassy to meet with agency officials. U.S. hostility towards Qasim had not abated, and he was eventually killed in a Ba’ath Party coup in 1963, after which the CIA gave the Iraqi National Guard lists of communists they wanted to see imprisoned and executed. According to former U.S. intelligence officials, many suspected communists were killed under the personal supervision of Hussein. As one former U.S. State Department official put it, “We were frankly glad to be rid of them. You ask that they get a fair trial? You have got to be kidding. This was serious business.” With his image burnished through such accomplishments, Hussein first went on to become head of Iraqi security and then in 1979, president of the nation. He remained allied with the U.S. during his first decade in power as he ordered the arrest of communists and other political opponents by the thousands. Nearly all would be tortured or killed. (1)

In 1980, Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops to invade Iran in an attempt to seize territory by force of arms. The resulting war dragged on for eight years, causing immense destruction and costing the lives of 1.7 million people in one of the twentieth century’s worst wars.

Relatively early in that war, in December 1983, President Reagan sent envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and offer American assistance. Rumsfeld told Hussein that the U.S. wanted full relations and “would regard any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West.” Just one month before, State Department official Jonathan Howe had informed Secretary of State George Schultz that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian forces on an “almost daily basis.” It was also well known by then that the Hussein government was engaging in widespread repression. Many thousands of individuals were being imprisoned, tortured, executed or sent into exile.

Howard Teicher worked for the National Security Agency when he accompanied Rumsfeld on that mission. Teicher recalls, “President Reagan decided that the United States would do whatever was necessary and legal to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran,” and formalized a policy of assisting Iraq in a National Security Decision Directive [NSDD] which Teicher helped draft. CIA Director William Casey “personally spearheaded the effort to ensure that Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid losing the Iran-Iraq war. Pursuant to the secret NSDD, the United States actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing U.S. military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required.”

CIA personnel visited Iraq on a regular basis to provide surveillance intelligence gathered by U.S.-supplied Saudi AWACS planes in support of the Iraqi war effort. Both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency directly assisted an Iraqi offensive in February 1988 by electronically “blinding” Iranian radar for three days. “The United States also provided strategic operational advice to the Iraqis to better use their assets in combat,” Teicher said. “For example, in 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message” through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, acting as an intermediary, “to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran,” and “similar strategic operational military advice was passed” to Hussein through meetings with various heads of state.

Teicher “personally attended meetings in which CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Robert Gates “noted the need for Iraq to have certain weapons such as cluster bombs and anti-armor penetrators in order to stave off Iranian attacks.” The CIA supplied cluster bombs to Iraq through Cardoen, a Chilean company.

More than 60 officials of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency were involved in the program which not only provided Iraq with intelligence on Iranian positions, but actually helped Iraq to develop tactical battle plans as well as plans for air strikes. Although it was well known by the later stages of the war that Iraqi forces were routinely using chemical weapons against the Iranians, American support for Iraqi offensives continued. “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern,” recalled a former high-ranking Defense Intelligence Agency official. U.S. leaders were more interested in ensuring the defeat of Iran. The Pentagon “wasn’t so horrified by Iraq’s use of gas,” remembered a former official involved in the program. “It was just another way of killing people ­ whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make any difference.”

Saddam Hussein received unstinting support throughout his war with Iran. His crimes were never an issue. Not, that is, until he miscalculated and invaded Kuwait in 1990 in another attempted land-grab. This war, however, was not on the U.S. agenda, and Hussein’s reckless action triggered an attack by the U.S. and Great Britain, along with the imposition of UN sanctions. (2)

Another interesting former CIA asset who would later win wider fame was Osama bin Laden. He was one of thousands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists who enjoyed the largesse of the U.S. through his role in Afghanistan as part of the largest covert operation in history. The effort to topple the Afghan socialist government and drive out Soviet troops who were assisting that government was so massive that the U.S. alone spent more than $2 billion during President Ronald Reagan’s years in office. Yet more was provided in support of the rebels by other nations at the urging of U.S. officials. Ostensibly directed against Soviet intervention, U.S. involvement in fact first began five months before the entry of Soviet troops.

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. National Security advisor at the time, “President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.” Brzezinski explained to Carter that in his “opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention,” which indeed proved to be the case. U.S. military assistance went to Mujahideen guerrillas who tended to represent the most reactionary and misogynist segments of the society. Many explicitly stated that their opposition to the Afghan government was based on its extension of equal rights and opportunities to women, as well as the campaign to teach women and girls to read and write. For their part, wealthy landowners resented the break up of their holdings under the land reform program.

President Reagan’s favorite Mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, first distinguished himself as a student at Kabul University by leading fellow collegians in patrolling the campus on the look out for women dressed in modern clothes. When encountering an “offending” woman without a veil, Hekmatyar’s student gang would throw acid in her face. Such misogyny was endemic among the Mujahideen, who made it a point to seek out and burn down schools. Schoolteachers were routinely murdered for having the temerity to educate females.

Brutality was the norm, and captured Soviet and Afghan government soldiers were invariably tortured and mutilated for sport. On many occasions American advisors were present as these abuses took place but made no effort to intervene. The howls of pain from captured soldiers as Mujahideen guerrillas gleefully gouged and sliced and dismembered their captives went unheeded. A British military trainer assigned to the Mujahideen observed that “nowhere have I witnessed such brutality as I saw in Afghanistan. Captured Russian troops, their stomachs cut open, were left to die in the blazing sun that baked their innards.” One episode in particular disturbed him. “A body was lying on the ground. You could tell it was a body from the congealed blood that stained the stony ground around it, but it was barely recognizable as a human being. The torso had been mutilated. The limbs stomped into a mash of ruby red flesh and splintered bone. The head had been kicked off and used as a football. No features could be made out; no eyes or nose were left on this gruesome, bloody skull ­ just a few remaining wisps of blond hair that gave the clue as to who this once was: a Russian crewman on a Hind E helicopter. The Mujahideen had shot down his aircraft just half an hour earlier. God knows how badly he had been hurt when it had crashed into the trees just outside the Afghan village, but he had clearly tried to crawl to shelter.” One Western journalist related similar stories about the treatment that was regularly meted out to prisoners. “One group was killed, skinned and hung up in a butcher’s shop. One captive found himself the center of attraction in a game of buzkashi, that rough and tumble form of Afghan polo in which a headless goat is usually the ball. The captive was used instead. Alive. He was literally torn to pieces.” As a Mujahideen leader, Osama bin Laden was philosophically a comfortable fit in this movement. Bin Laden’s role was an important one, as he explained. “To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.” (3)

These men were “freedom fighters,” President Reagan proudly intoned, and a lapdog press willingly parroted that line. The Afghan operation gave the most retrograde elements from the Islamic world limitless funding, training, and supply of arms, and this in turn led to the blossoming of an international movement that planted the seeds for terrorism. From those seeds sprang Al-Qaeda and numerous other like-minded organizations. The U.S. produced literally millions of school textbooks that were used to indoctrinate Afghan school children in Mujahideen values. Primers were filled with religious messages and pictures of weapons and soldiers talking of jihad. “The pictures [in] the texts are horrendous to school students,” pointed out Ahmad Fahim Hakim, a program coordinator for Cooperation for Peace and Unity, “but the texts are much worse.” One aid worker examined a U.S.-produced textbook and found that close to half of its pages contained violent images or texts. (4)

Today, bin Laden is no longer regarded in the West as a “freedom fighter,” while Hekmatyar fights against American troops in Afghanistan. As long as men such as these directed their murderous behavior at leftists, women, schoolteachers, land reformers and trade unionists, they were “freedom fighters,” deserving of admiration and generous amounts of cash and arms. It was only when they turned on American citizens that they were magically transformed into terrorists. Their methods and ideals had not changed. It was only the perception of these men that had shifted, because they no longer served the purposes of global capital.

The U.S. did much to create men such as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It is impossible to avoid concluding that the trial of Saddam Hussein was little more than a case of selective justice, meant to provide post-justification for an invasion that was itself a grave violation of international law. Saddam Hussein’s crimes were real enough, but those acts would never have brought him to trial had he continued to operate within the parameters sketched for him by the West. Likewise, Osama bin Laden would still hold an honored position among the ranks of “freedom fighters” had his organization continued to murder only those who profess progressive ideals and stand in the way of U.S. geopolitical goals. The trial of Saddam Hussein has been widely hailed as a triumph of justice. Yet one wonders: who will pass judgment on those who judge?

GREGORY ELICH is the author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit



(1) Richard Sale, “Exclusive: Saddam Key in Early CIA Plot,” UPI, April 10, 2003.

(2) “US and Iraq Go Way Back,” CBS News, December 31, 2002. Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas,” New York Times, August 18, 2002. Robert Windrem, “Rumsfeld Key Player in Iraq Policy Shift,” MSNBC, August 18, 2000. Christopher Marquis, “Rumsfeld Made Iraq Overture in ’84 Despite Chemical Raids,” New York Times, December 23, 2003. Michael Dobbs, “US-Iraq Ties in 1980s Illustrate Downside of American Foreign Policy,” Dawn (Karachi), December 31, 2002. Jeremy Scahill, “The Saddam in Rummy’s Closet,” Counterpunch, August 2, 2002.

(3) Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris), January 15-21, 1998, translated by William Blum. Steve Galster, “Afghanistan: the Making of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990,” National Security Archive, October 9, 2001. Steve Coll, “Anatomy of a Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War,” Washington Post, July 19, 1992.
Philip Bonosky, Washington’s Secret War Against Afghanistan, International Publishers (New York), 1984. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press (New Haven), 2000. William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press (Monroe), 2003. Olga Craig, “British SAS Veteran Recalls Afghan Barbarism,” Sunday Telegraph (London), September 24, 2001. Melinda Liu, “Occupational Hazards,” Newsweek, April 6, 2004.

(4) Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway, “From the U.S.A., the ABCs of Jihad,” Washington Post, March 23, 2002.


Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute board member. He is a contributor to the collection, Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Haymarket Books, 2023). His website is https://gregoryelich.org  Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich.