'Iraq had made frequent use of a variety of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war... In 1988 Saddam...used mustard and nerve agents against Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in northern Iraq. Estimates vary, but according to Human Rights Watch up to 5,000 people were killed.' The Government's dossier on Iraq released on 24 September 2002
The images of people frozen in instant death after Iraq gassed thousands of people shocked the world. To this day the massacre at Halabja, which the government refers to in its long awaited dossier on Iraq and which Blair mentioned when he addressed the TUC this year, remains a terrible crime. If anyone doubts the brutality of the Iraqi regime, then they have only to remember what Saddam Hussein did in March 1988.
At the time the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi regime was well known. The bombing took place during the Iran-Iraq War, with Iraq determined to recapture Halabja, an area controlled by the Tehran-backed Kurdish army. It was a town of 70,000 people only 15 miles from the border. The Iraqi air force attacked with poison gas bombs, killing between 3,200 and 5,000 civilians. When a truce was made with Tehran that August, Saddam used chemical weapons again to retake the area to the north controlled by the Kurds. It was only then that the UN Security Council decided to send inspectors to check out Iraq's use of chemical weapons. The question remains, however, why was there no condemnation from the US and British governments at the time, and why was the US so reluctant to be seen to intervene?
US supported Iraq's gas attacks
Tyler states, 'Though senior officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents, the American military officers [interviewed by Naylor] said President Reagan, Vice-President George Bush and senior national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly classified programme in which more than 60 officers of the Defence Intelligence Agency were secretly providing detailed administration on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb damage assessments for Iraq. Iraq shared its battle plans with the Americans, without admitting the use of chemical weapons, the military officers said. But Iraq's use of chemical weapons, already established at that point, became more evident in the war's final phase... CIA officials [also] supported the programme to assist Iraq... The Pentagon battle damage assessments confirmed that Iraqi military commanders had integrated chemical weapons throughout their arsenal and were adding them to strike plans that American advisers either prepared or suggested.'
When Reagan was re-elected in November 1984 the US government re-established diplomatic ties with Iraq. This was accompanied by greater military assistance from 1986 onwards. Iraq began to achieve huge military success against Iran's infrastructure--hitting power plants, factories and oil terminals. It was against this backdrop that Iraq began striking Tehran with Scud missiles in late February 1988.
All in all 207 firms from 21 countries contributed to Iraq's non-conventional weapons programme during and after the Iran-Iraq war. West German companies came top with 86, followed by the US and Britain with 18 each. Between 1985 and 1989 the US government's commerce department authorised export licences of biological materials. A total of 59 exports were authorised. And a South African intelligence official told a BBC investigation that 'the Americans gave the green light' for the transfer of 'about 50kg' of enriched uranium to Iraq in 1989. (The Guardian, 25 September 2002).
But the human suffering engendered is also to be found in the US. Democratic Senator Donald W Riegle was so alarmed by the health of some former Gulf War soldiers who came to visit him in the mid-1990s that he raised his concerns in the US Congress. His statement of 9 February 1994 reveals the extent to which the US armed the Iraqi regime. This is just part of what he said:
'Veterans have come to me in Michigan where I met with them and their family members. The wives are describing serious medical problems they did not have before their husbands came back. We have that kind of evidence, that is accumulating and that now has to be explained... I know this: Since the war ended, we have had a number of veterans who have died as a result of serious medical problems, and we have a great number who are very sick and getting sicker...
'Between the years of 1985 and 1989, the United States government approved the sales of quantities of potentially lethal biological agents that could have been cultured and grown in very large quantities in an Iraqi biological warfare programme... I think the US government approving export of these materials to a government like that and to someone like Saddam Hussein violates every standard of logic and common sense. But that is what happened...
'Anthrax was shipped from the United States to Iraq back on 2 May 1986, and again in September 1988--signed, sealed, delivered, and approved by our own government, our own Department of Commerce. Clostridium botulinum was shipped on 22 May 1986, and again in September 1988 from the United States to Iraq. Histoplasma capsulatum was shipped in February 1985 and went to the Ministry of Higher Education, so-called, in Iraq. Clostridium perfringens was shipped in May 1986 and again in September 1988. In addition, several shipments of E coli and genetic materials, human and bacterial DNA, were shipped directly to the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission. You have to use your head a little bit because oftentimes the Defence Department cannot see these problems. They could not see the Agent Orange problem for a long time...
'We know we sent the stuff. We know our own government approved it. Why, I will never know--to send it on over to Saddam Hussein. Maybe because at the time the policymakers in the administration thought he would use these weapons on the Iranians. Well, it looks as if they may have gotten used on our people. But that could not have happened if these items had not left our country in the first place.'
Riegle was clearly shocked by the extent of US involvement in Iraq's chemical weapons industry. Along with Tony Blair, who made his concerns about the use of chemical weapons clear in his dossier and at the TUC this year, there is clearly a determination to get to the bottom of where the weapons came from and who supplied them. Here is one small suggestion to them both--why not ask the US president to get in touch with his father? After all, it was George Bush Sr's administration that gave the go-ahead to supply many of these weapons to his former ally in Iraq, Saddam Hussein.
Sources: 'Iraq and Poison Gas', by Dilip Hiro, The Nation, September 2002; Kenneth R Timmerman, The Poison Gas Connection, Los Angeles, 1990, US Congress reports, available at www.uscongress.com
The US Secretary of State at the time, George Shultz, chose merely to say that interviews with the Kurdish refugees in Turkey, and 'other sources' (which remained obscure), pointed towards Baghdad's use of chemical weapons. These two elements did not add up to 'conclusive' proof, he argued. The verdict from Tory minister Geoffrey Howe was similar: 'If conclusive evidence is obtained, then punitive measures against Iraq have not been ruled out.' But neither he nor Shultz is known to have made any further attempt to get at the truth. Baghdad went unpunished. That is where the matter rested for 14 years--until 'gassing his own people' became a catchy slogan to demonise Saddam.
Dilip Hiro argues in 'The Nation' that part of the reluctance to condemn Iraq was because of the strong pro-Iraq lobby in the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan. The US refused to penalise Baghdad for violating the Geneva Protocol on chemical weapons, which it had signed. This led Saddam to believe that Washington was on his side, paving the way for the invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War.
Another part of the reason lay in the fact that the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi regime was done with the full assistance of the US government. The US government not only had knowledge of the chemical attacks, it also provided intelligence and planning assistance to the Iraqi army, as Patrick Naylor reported in the 'New York Times' on 18 August this year. Naylor interviewed senior military officers who had direct knowledge of a covert US programme to provide Iraq with battle planning assistance. At the time the US was desperate that Iran lose the war so that it would not overrun the oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It had long been known that the US provided information to Iraq in the form of satellite photographs but the full nature of the programme had not been disclosed.
From 1984 to 1988 the UN general assembly did not pass a single resolution condemning Iraq's chemical weapons use either against the Iranians or the Kurds.
It was not until 17 December 1991, after the end of the Gulf War, that the general assembly addressed Iraqi chemical weapon use. (UN General Assembly Resolution 46/134, on 'The Situation of Human Rights in Iraq'.)
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This article is part of the alternative dossier:
Intro - War, weapons and Iraq
1 - Arms and the Man
2 - Countdown to War
A number of people helped in compiling this dossier. Thanks to Andrew Stone, David Shonfield, Lindsey German, Glen Rangwala and the Labour Against the War briefing paper, Sandy Nicoll, Colin Wilson and Martin Empson.