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Washington’s Covert Support for Saddam

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For almost a year, the Bush Administration has very vocally threatened to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, labeling Iraq as a part of an Axis of evil and accusing it of posing a threat to international security. Administration officials from the president himself to Vice President Dick Cheney to War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld point to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war as justification for a regime change. Last week, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the US has no choice but to take action, citing again Saddam’s use of chemical weapons.

Yet many of the same administration officials now advocating bombing of Iraq supported Saddam Hussein 20 years ago, knowing he was using chemical weapons even then. Last week we reported on Democracy Now! producer Jeremy Scahill’s story “The Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet” in which he showed that War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1983 opening the way for US support even as the State Department and the United Nations released reports clearly showing that Iraq was using chemical weapons. Then on Sunday, The New York Times ran a front-page story called “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas.”

It details what The Times calls a covert American program during the Reagan administration. The article says the program provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.

The covert program was carried out at a time when President Reagan’s top aides, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C.Carlucci and Gen. Colin L. Powell, then the national security adviser, were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraq attacked Kurds in Halabja in March 1988.

Secretary of State Powell, through a spokesman, said the officers’ description of the program was “dead wrong,” but declined to discuss it. His deputy, Richard L. Armitage, a senior defense official at the time, used an expletive relayed through a spokesman to indicate his denial that the United States acquiesced in the use of chemical weapons.

The Defense Intelligence Agency declined to comment, as did Lt. Gen. Leonard Peroots, retired, who supervised the program as the head of the agency. Mr. Carlucci said, “My understanding is that what was provided” to Iraq “was general order of battle information, not operational intelligence.”

“I certainly have no knowledge of U.S. participation in preparing battle and strike packages,” he said, “and doubt strongly that that occurred.”

Later, he added, “I did agree that Iraq should not lose the war, but I certainly had no foreknowledge of their use of chemical weapons.”

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 said President Reagan, Vice President George Bush 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 were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq.


  • Dilip Hiro, is a writer and journalist. He is author of many books on the Middle East, including a trilogy of books on Iraq and Iran. His most recent book-the last in the trilogy-is “Neighbors Not Friends: Iraq and Iran After the Gulf Wars.” His forthcoming book “War Without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and the Global Response” comes out on September 3.

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