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U.S. tolerated chemical-weapon attacks by Saddam

Because of the current emphasis on upholding the international ban of such weapons, this unpleasant tale has new relevance.

Saddam Hussein waving to supporters in Baghdad in a photo from Oct. 18, 1995.

The last seriously documented massive use of chemical weapons was committed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, against both the Iranian troops with whom Iraq was at war and against Iraqi Kurds. Over a period of years, the United States was perhaps complicit and at least tolerant of Saddam’s actions. Because of the current emphasis on the importance of upholding the international ban against the use of such weapons, this unpleasant tale seems to have new relevance.

During the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, I wrote about this stuff for the Strib and am relying on that research plus some more recent writing on the topic. Here goes:

In 1980, Iraqi thug-dictator-President Saddam Hussein started a war with Iran. Jimmy Carter was president. Carter might well have had a soft spot for anyone who attacked Iran. It was during Carter’s tenure that the Iranian revolution ousted the U.S.-friendly Shah and took the U.S. Embassy and its personnel hostage. But Carter declared the United States would stay out of the Iran-Iraq war. Carter ended the sale of U.S.-made planes and turbines to Iraq.

Carter’s successors took a different attitude. If Saddam was going to fight the Iranian theocrats who considered America “the Great Satan,” he qualified for special treatment under the old principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

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It was awkward for Washington to befriend the unimaginably evil, anti-democratic, murderous torturer Saddam, but in various small and medium-sized ways the Ronald Reagan and early George H.W. Bush administrations did so. Reagan’s policy, often referred to as a “tilt” toward Saddam, included, for example, resuming the sale of jets to Iraq. In 1982, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In 1983, when the White House was still playing footsie with Saddam, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. government’s favors to Iraq during the Reagan period included intelligence sharing, providing cluster bombs from the CIA through a Chilean front company, pressuring other nations to cut off military supplies to Iran, and even facilitating Iraq’s acquisition of materials that were useful for the production of chemical and biological weapons.

Weapons used 195 times

The Iran-Iraq war was long, bloody and ultimately a vast and pointless waste of hundreds of thousands of human lives. From 1983, when things looked bad for the Iraqi side, until 1988 Saddam used chemical weapons an estimated 195 times, killing about 50,000 Iranian troops.

At the end of 1983, the year Saddam started using chemical weapons, Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy to Baghdad for Reagan, told Saddam that the United States wanted to resume full diplomatic relations. Rumsfeld later claimed that he had “cautioned [Saddam] about the use of chemical weapons.” Full relations were restored in 1984. But, notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s “caution,” Saddam kept using poison gas.

The long-suffering Kurds of northern Iraq took advantage of the Iran-Iraq war to seek independence or at least more autonomy from Baghdad, and some collaborated with Iran. So Saddam started dropping quite a few chemical weapons on the Kurds too, his own rebellious citizens, which makes the similarity to what Bashar Assad’s government has done to some of his own rebellious citizens even more comparable.

Saddam’s campaign to punish the Kurds and bring them back into a more submissive mood was known as the Al Anfal. Saddam’s cousin led the campaign, launching so many chemical attacks against Kurdish towns and villages that he was nicknamed “Chemical Ali.” The Anfal campaign killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Kurds. Many were executed or killed by shells. But many also died by having poison gas dropped on them, including mustard gas, which burns, mutates DNA and causes cancer; the nerve gases sarin and tabun, which can kill, paralyze or cause nerve damage; and possibly VX gas and the biological agent atafloxin. All are banned by international law.

The most famous attack was the gassing of Halabja, a mostly Kurdish city near the Iranian border, on March 16, 1988. Rebel Kurds, working with Iranian troops, had taken the town a few days earlier. The gassing, which killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds, was part of the successful Iraqi counterattack.

In a recent piece for the History News Network, Juan Cole wrote about the Anfal:

The Baath regime launched 39 separate gas attacks against the Kurds, many of them targeting villages far from the Iran-Iraq border. Beginning at night on Thursday, March 16, and extending into Friday, March 17, 1988, the city of Halabja (population 70,000), was bombarded with twenty chemical and cluster bombs. Photographs show dead children in the street with lunch pails. An estimated 5,000 persons died.

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U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, horrified at the attacks on the Kurds, got the Senate to unanimously adopt the Prevention of Genocide Act, which would end U.S. subsidies, U.S. purchases of Iraqi oil and ban the export to Iraq of technology that would help advance its weapons programs.

Still seeking to maintain its relationship with Iraq, and mindful that U.S. farmers and U.S. corporations were making a lot of money selling to Iraq, the White House opposed the sanctions.

A tradeoff

One internal State Department memo put the tradeoff between ethical, political and economic considerations this way: “Human rights and chemical weapons use aside, in many respects our political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq.”

Facing administration opposition, the Prevention of Genocide Act died in the House.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush opposed a second stripped-down Iraq sanctions bill right up to the day that Iraq invaded the U.S.-friendly oil-rich nation of Kuwait in 1990. Within hours of the invasion, the bill passed 416-0 and Bush, by executive order, imposed a total embargo on Iraq and a freeze on Iraqi assets in the United States.

President Obama now proposes that the United States launch military action against Syria (a Russian-allied nation with which the United States has bad relations) in order to make the statement that the international ban on the use of chemical weapons is so vital that no use of chemical weapons can go unpunished. Otherwise, the ban will be undermined and might wither away. To my knowledge, Obama has not discussed the U.S. decision to tolerate or overlook the more extensive use of chemical weapons by Saddam, a country toward which it was “tilting” at the time.

It’s true that the modern version of the international chemical weapons ban dates only from the 1990s, after the United States had tolerated (and even perhaps facilitated) Saddam’s use of them against Iran and the Kurds. On the other hand, as Obama has mentioned several times, the international ban on the use of chemical weapons dates back to the Geneva Protocols of the 1920s.

Perhaps there are important differences between the legal status of the ban under the old law versus the new. But as Obama seeks to have the world understand that the ban is so vital that all transgressors must be punished, even if the United States has to act alone and without U.N. sanction, the case is undermined by the U.S. inaction against Saddam in the 1980s. The world can be a cynical place, and it’s possible that the conclusion that will be drawn is that the United States takes the ban on chemical weapons very seriously under certain presidents under certain circumstances when the weapons are used by certain nations, but not necessarily under other presidents in other circumstances when the weapons are used by nations that the United States views differently at the time.