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U.S. past haunts Iraq war plans


U.S. plans to invade Iraq came under closer scrutiny recently with the publication of two articles that look at the history of U.S. support for Saddam Hussein and the reasons for removing him. An Aug. 18 front page story in The New York Times as well as an Aug. 2 article by independent journalist Jeremy Scahill for the Common Dreams News Center make clear that for years the United States government turned a blind eye to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. In recent months, Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons has been cited by President George W. Bush as a justification for invading Iraq.

Publication of the articles follows on the heels of recent cautions raised by Republican Congressmen and former administration officials over plans to invade Iraq and suggest that the post-Sept. 11 taboo against challenging the president on national security matters may be ending.

“I don’t know that we’re going to see a huge peace movement, but I think we’re going to see a much healthier debate,” said Chuck Peña, a senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a public policy research foundation headquartered in Washington.

Covert assistance

The Aug. 18 Times article reported that the United States provided critical covert assistance to Iraq during its 1980-1988 war with Iran, despite U.S. knowledge that Iraq was using chemical weapons. Frightened by the possibility of Iran exporting its brand of radical Islam to the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf, the United States provided Iraq with intelligence assistance that showed the Iraqis how Iranian forces were deployed against them. The assistance continued at the same time that Secretary of State George Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and then-national security adviser Gen. Colin Powell were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas.

According to the Times article, President Reagan, Vice President George Bush, and other senior officials never withdrew their support for the highly classified program, which had more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency secretly giving the Iraqis detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments. Col. Walter P. Lang, now retired but a senior defense intelligence officer at the time covert assistance was given, is quoted by the Times as saying, “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.” Eventually, chemical weapons were integrated throughout the Iraqi arsenal and were added to strike plans that American advisers prepared or suggested, the article said.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been one of the chief advocates of an American invasion of Iraq. But in an article headlined, “The Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet,” published by Common Dreams News Center, a non-profit news service, Scahill points out that Rumsfeld played a key role in 1983 and 1984 in the resumption of diplomatic relations between Washington and Iraq. As Reagan’s envoy to the Middle East, Rumsfeld met with Hussein in December 1983. On March 24, 1984, Rumsfeld returned to Baghdad for meetings with then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. That same day UPI reported from the United Nations that Iraq was employing mustard gas laced with a nerve agent against Iranian soldiers. The State Department had earlier that month issued its own report that Iraq was using lethal chemical weapons. Despite the U.N. report and the State Department report, Rumsfeld does not appear to have made any public statements about Iraq’s use of poison gas until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

“Donald Rumsfeld, when there was a threat, according to the U.S. State Department, actually said nothing. The American people should have that information when they hear him go on and on about Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons. It goes right to his credibility,” Scahill said in an interview with NCR.

Scahill said his article was based on widely available information and had received scant attention until the Times piece was published. Since then he has been deluged with requests for interviews.

Much of the information in the Times article was already known to the national security community. But the Times’ examination of U.S. aid to Iraq during the period Iraq was using poison gas disseminates that information in the mainstream press as well. “This was an important development just because of the high profile of the story,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Peña said the Times article underscores the weakness in the administration’s effort to paint going to war with Iraq as a moral cause. “It runs counter to everything the United States stands for to preemptively attack another country unprovoked. That’s the part the president is having a hard time selling.”

Nothing to lose

There’s an irony in Bush’s concern about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, Peña said, for an invasion could precipitate the very behavior the invasion is supposed to prevent by placing Saddam Hussein in the position of having nothing to lose. “The problem with putting people in such a position is that they can do anything. They aren’t restrained in their actions any more,” Peña remarked.

For instance, Iraq could choose to turn its chemical and biological weapons against U.S. soldiers or against Israel, Peña said. During the last war, Iraq fired several Scud missiles at Israel. Peña said Israel has made it clear that if attacked, Israel might respond with nuclear weapons. If it did, Arab countries would likely unite in opposition to an Israeli attack on Iraq while the United States and Israel would draw closer, thus raising the nightmarish prospect of a Judeo-Christian war against Islam, Peña said.

In recent weeks, a number of prominent Republican politicians and foreign policy experts, from former national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft to Henry Kissinger to Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to retiring Republican Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, have questioned the wisdom of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Times article is seen as another step in breaking the moratorium on criticism of the president’s policies. Bennis said its significance will depend on whether reporters, members of Congress, and members of President Bush’s own administration hold him accountable for what the article discloses.

“ ‘What about the fact that your secretary of defense went to Baghdad to urge Saddam Hussein to resume full diplomatic relations with Washington? What about the fact that Washington continued to send biological feed stock, the actual germ stock for making biological weapons, at the same time that it knew Iraq was using chemical weapons? The shipments of biological weapons didn’t stop until 1989.’ If nobody puts that to Bush at a press conference, it doesn’t mean much,” said Bennis.

Public split in Washington

The author of a forthcoming book, Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Sept. 11 Crisis, Bennis visited Iraq in 1999 with a group of Congressional aides examining the impact of economic sanctions on Iraq. She said an invasion of Iraq would violate international law, undermine the United Nations, risk American soldiers’ lives and cause the deaths of tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians. In testimony introduced at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iraq this summer, Bennis said a commonly advanced rationale for an invasion -- that there may be a Prague-based link between the Sept. 11 attackers and Iraq -- has collapsed. A recent article in The Prague Post quoted the director general of the Czech foreign intelligence service as denying the much-touted meeting between Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent.

Right now the political and media elites are divided about a war with Iraq, Bennis aid. “The Washington Post is gunning for war. The New York Times is trying to stop a war. It’s part of the public split in Washington.” She said public sentiment appears to be running against war. “Mobilization against the war is taking place,” she said.

Scahill, who was in Iraq in May and June reporting on the effects of the economic sanctions and the Iraqi people’s response to rumors of impending war, agreed. Since his article was published, he said he has received about 3,000 e-mails from people of all political stripes from all over the world. Only about 10 of them have been negative. “I had a lot of Republicans who wrote in and said, ‘I’m dismayed about what’s happening right now.’ ” Military people have also written in to express their concern, he said. Since his return from Iraq, Scahill said he has received numerous informal invitations to speak to Americans about Iraq. “It’s not the usual suspects showing up,” Scahill said. “It’s Middle Americans. It’s really heartening to go to these places and to see ordinary people, people who you would never dream of being against this sort of thing, and they say ‘I’m distraught about what is happening.’ ”

In Iraq itself, Scahill said people are too preoccupied with getting by from day to day to worry much about the future. “Ordinary people are so beaten down to the ground by the misery of their lives that the only energy that they have is put to surviving,” Scahill said. “People are not talking about war in the future tense. They’re living it right now. What massive bombing would do is to obliterate an almost obliterated society.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002