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U.S. tolerated chemical-weapon attacks by Saddam

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.

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.

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.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/12/2013 - 09:16 am.

    Or maybe

    we’ve learned something.
    Sometimes even nations show signs of moral development.
    And just to make your point clear; Iraq did not use chemical weapons while Carter was president.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/13/2013 - 08:21 am.

      Oxford English Dictionary

      Like a second marriage, that comment is the definition of the triumph of hope over experience.

  2. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/12/2013 - 09:23 am.

    It’s always good to be reminded of what our country has done in the past, both noble and ignoble. But I’m not sure that relying on past precedent it the way to conduct foreign policy. If another large-scale genocide were to occur in Rwanda, would we say that “well, under the Clinton administration, we opted not to intervene, and thus we won’t this time either”? As just about every talking head as said, there are no good options here, but if this plan to take control of the chemical weapons (not sure how one verifies that one has them all) works, it seems to be among the best outcomes. Then we “only” have to worry about the country destroying itself with conventional weapons.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/12/2013 - 10:31 am.

    Chemical weapons

    Indeed, the world can be a cynical place, and the latest flurry of activity from the United States provides plenty of reason for that cynicism. Unless we wish to see “…the hypocritical…” attached in front of the words “United States” in foreign policy-related stories in the world press for the next… um… generation? we simply cannot use the barbaric Assad regime’s treatment of its own citizens as the basis for a unilateral military intervention.

    Yes, the Syrian dictator deserves every bit of finger-pointing criticism and disgust that’s directed his way, but so do several other dictators in other parts of the world (North Korea comes readily to mind) who have treated their own citizens equally brutally, yet for reasons unknown we’ve decided their transgressions don’t merit military intervention, while those of the Syrian government somehow do.

    One wonders — this one wonders, at least — what’s been put into the drinking water in recent weeks at the White House. What American diplomatic and political interest will be well-served by a cruiser missile strike? How will the inevitable “collateral damage” of killing innocent civilians polish our self-described image as the example of ethical behavior for other nations to follow? With most of Congress, including most of the Minnesota delegation, opposed on the record to such a military action, how can Mr. Obama claim to be representing the public’s will?

    This episode goes beyond the merely disastrously mistaken and into the surreal. It requires quite a bit of work to put Russia — Russia!! — into the role of sensible and tolerant world leadership.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/12/2013 - 10:53 am.

    You forgot to mention that we have yet to destroy OUR OWN

    …chemical weapons stockpile completely, claiming exceptions and extensions since the time the treaty was signed, and now apparently claiming it will take until 2021 to dispose of the remainder. This involves a few or several thousands of tons of chemical weapons.

    Same goes for the Russians, who have retained somewhat more of their stockpile.

    So maybe when we demand that others comply with this treaty, or in the case of Syria, join it, we ought to first show by good faith action that we are complying in all respects. See and scroll down to the “United States” row – and note the entry about biological weapons and smallpox.

    Another show of good faith would be to insist not only that Syria join the chemical weapons ban, but that ISRAEL join it also.

    You didn’t know that Israel is one of the 8 nations that refused to sign on ? You will never or rarely hear such facts in the United States corporate propaganda machine.

    Wouldn’t if be consistent if the U.S. demanded that Israel join this treaty, as well as Syria ?

    Americans are so completely accustomed to ignoring OUR OWN contributions to conflict, OUR OWN failure to comply with the treaty in question, OUR OWN mass killing of people, no wonder then all this war hysteria concerning Syria fills the air !!

    We have huge industries that promote war, thrive on war, NEED war, and these have powerful influence in our national government. This is a very significant contributing factor to the hysteria to launch military action – it’s not about the morals of the weapons involved, deplorable though chemical weapons are. It’s about revenue streams.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2013 - 10:55 am.

    True but…

    Look, if it weren’t for hypocrisy there would be nothing consistent about US foreign policy at all. So what? You don’t commit an act of war because someone did or didn’t do something in some other situation. The ONLY question that matters is whether or not a military strike will make a given situation better or worse. If you’re claiming that a strike will make a situation better you need to explain how that’s actually going to work because if it doesn’t work you’ve not only committed an illegal act of war, you’ve demonstrated moral bankruptcy, and incompetence. You’ve also endangered US citizens because someone someday may retaliate.

    For the record, I remind people that during the Iran Iraq war the US had a strong military presence in the region and used it. We shot down an Iranian Air Bus killing over 200 civilians. THAT was some message we sent the world wasn’t it?

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/12/2013 - 11:35 am.

    Let’s be honest

    It used to be that international law was whatever the United States and Great Britain said it was. Fire-bombing Dresden, using flame-

    With incompetent leadership in the White House, that’s no longer being accepted as fact by either our friends or our adversaries.

    Our lawyer friends would probably say that’s a good thing.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/12/2013 - 03:46 pm.

      Yes the incompetent leadership of George Bush in the WH

      Was damaging to American interests and position in the world, especially in starting a war based on fiction, then having no strategy to handle the resulting civil war resulting in horrendous loss of life for our soldiers and civilians. And waterboarding. GB has not had that world position since WWII

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/12/2013 - 05:04 pm.

      Let’s pretend that the world-wide exposure of war-crimes is the same as it was in the pre-electronic era.

      Let’s pretend that the actions leading up to all wars before the electronic era were all completely transparent and above-board.

      We are in the post-cover-up era now.

      Do you really think that we would have the Soviet Union weighing in on potential actions by the US and running a PR campaign on alternative proposals in the NYTimes, as Putin is currently doing?

      Yes, let’s all pretend.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/13/2013 - 12:27 pm.

      Refresh my memory

      When was international law ever “whatever the United States and Great Britain said it was?” International law has always been based on treaties, agreements, and the customary norms of conduct between nations. No one or two nations have ever been allowed to dictate terms.

      Flame is not always a violation of the law of war, by the way.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/12/2013 - 01:31 pm.

    Who wants to make the next move…but it’s not a game of chess..

    With the latest word from Assad who thinks he has Obama blocked in successfully maybe its time to remind the Putin/Assad boys that checkmate is only valid if you’re paying on the same game board?

    If all else fails:Obama may have to strike carefully if such conditions are possible..and let them know and the world know…he’s playing on a different board. No checkmate involved…

    If one is playing on ‘a humane option board’ rather than the ‘power option game’, that only defines them, Putin and Assad who are only playing the old power game by themselves chuckling in their own closed offer to Obama who actually seeks…a humane solution? Certainly that is Obama’s point -of-call here?

    The more I listen to the name calling of Obama from both sides now, the more it is evident No One wins or loses. No positive outcome. And name calling from the bleachers says nothing but so subtly revealing the shallow nature of our own limited perspectives?

    I still hope Obama can pull off a possible solution…good gods in heaven probably are scratching their bald heads and no answer arrives in their haloed brains I suppose…but got to be greater minds out there beyond the same old experts we give center stage words to reassure us ?

    If we keep ignoring the WMDs and store-housing them…here or there…what can we expect but no clean closure on this issue here or in the future. Dam the manufacturers, the military contractors, the profiteers and not to forget, past presidential gangs who dirtied their own palms in the passing. Yup, there is no answer and no positive outcome and Obama is not just the reluctant messenger…history has directed this whatever the outcome…

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/12/2013 - 03:33 pm.

    Funny that we should criticize others when we’re in the process RIGHT NOW of selling cluster bombs to that great democracy Saudi Arabia:

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/12/2013 - 05:37 pm.

      Watch out for the cognitive dissonance your comment…

      …could cause in the readership here. They are not used to seeing our own actions in the same light as others’ actions, weighed on the same scale. The effects can be debilitating.

      This sale is small potatoes, however – only $600+ million. Yet it is just one single sale in a market dominated by the U.S., which sold $66 billions’ worth of weapons in 2011 (out of a $85 billion total international market).

      For more info on the global arms trade and the U.S. role in it, see

      Business is good !!

      So far, the appeal of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning cluster bombs, has fallen on deaf ears here in the U.S. These weapons have been one of our favorites since the Vietnam war days, despite the concerns of

      “Cluster munitions are unacceptable for two reasons. Firstly, they have wide area effects and are unable to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Secondly, the use of cluster munitions leave behind large numbers of dangerous unexploded ordnance. Such remnants kill and injure civilians, obstruct economic and social development, and have other severe consequences that persist for years and decades after use.” at

      This kind of information from independent sources casts light, rather than heat, on our government’s claim to be so concerned for the civilians in our war zones.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/13/2013 - 04:48 pm.


      In international relations, it’s a feature, not a bug.

  9. Submitted by Leo Braun on 09/29/2013 - 12:59 pm.

    Carter brought Khomeini to power

    “Carter ended the sale of U.S.-made planes and turbines to Iraq.”

    And you’re surprised by that? Carter was the one who virtually brought Khomeini to power – and betrayed the shah when he needed US help. No wonder he refused to help Iraq.

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