His Own People?
February 8, 2003
By Barbara O'Brien
What happened in Halabja?
IN HIS MOST vivid passage, Bush listed practices of Saddam
Hussein such as destroying whole villages with chemical
weapons and torturing children in front of their parents.
"If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning," he said,
telling the brave and oppressed people of Iraq that "the
day he and his regime are removed from power will be the
day of your liberation."
This is a fine, noble reason to wage war against Iraq.
It would have been a fine reason two decades ago, which
is when Saddam destroyed those villages and the United States
looked the other way because our bone of contention back
then was with Iran. It would be a fine reason to topple
other governments around the world that torture their own
citizens and do other despicable things. Is the Bush administration
prepared to enforce the no-torturing-children rule by force
everywhere? And what happens if Saddam decides to meet all
our demands regarding weapons and inspections? Is he then
free to torture children and pour acid on innocent citizens
without fear of the United States? [Michael Kinsley,
Isn't Enough," Slate, January 29, 2003]
One still cannot tune into a discussion of Iraq without a
neo-con bringing up The Gassing of His Own People as a reason
to go to war. Yes, it was a terrible thing. I remember the
photographs of the bloated bodies of mothers, their arms still
wrapped around their dead children. This happened in 1988.
So why didn't the United States react then?
And, more to the point, what actually happened, and how did
the U.S. respond at the time?
Halabja is a town in the southern part of Iraqi Kurdistan
with about 60,000 inhabitants. In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq
war, Kurdistan resistance fighters supported by Iranian troops
took possession of the town.
In a widely circulated account, Kendal Nezan wrote:
The next morning Iraqi bombers appeared out of a clear
blue sky. The people of Halabja were used to the successive
attacks and counter-attacks of the Iraq-Iran war that had
ravaged the region since September 1980. They thought they
were in for the usual reprisal raid. Those who had time
huddled in makeshift shelters. The rest were taken by surprise.
Wave after wave of Iraqi Migs and Mirages dropped chemical
bombs on the unsuspecting inhabitants. The town was engulfed
in a sickly stench like rotten apples. The bombing stopped
at nightfall and it began to rain hard. Iraqi troops had
already destroyed the local power station, so the survivors
began to search the mud with torches for the dead bodies
of their loved ones.
The scene that greeted them in the morning defied description.
The streets were strewn with corpses. People had been killed
instantaneously by chemicals in the midst of the ordinary
acts of everyday life. Babies still sucked their mothers'
breasts. Children held their parents' hands, frozen to the
spot like a still from a motion picture. In the space of
a few hours 5,000 people had died. The 3,200 who no longer
had families were buried in a mass grave. [Nezan, "When
Our 'Friend' Saddam Was Gassing the Kurds," Le Monde
diplomatique, March 1998 ]
According to Nezan, the gassing of the Kurds actually began
in 1987 and continued into 1989. The aftermath of the Halabja
massacre, however, was photographed by Iranian war correspondents
and thus became worldwide news.
However, recently Stephen Pelletiere wrote in the New
York Times that Iran, not Iraq, gassed the Kurds of Halabja.
This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know:
it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and
Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians
who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far
from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died
had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But
they were not Iraq's main target.
And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle
the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated
and produced a classified report, which it circulated within
the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That
study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds,
not Iraqi gas.
The agency did find that each side used gas against the
other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the
dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed
with a blood agent - that is, a cyanide-based gas - which
Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have
used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed
blood agents at the time. [Pelletiere, "A
War Crime, or an Act of War?" The New York Times, January
On the surface, Pelletier's story makes little sense in light
of the Reagan Administration's reaction to Halabja, or else
the Reagan Administration's reaction makes little sense. Take
The official U.S. government reaction to Halabja? At first
the government downplayed the reports, which were coming
from Iranian sources. Once the media had confirmed the story
and pictures of the dead villagers had been shown on television,
the U.S. denounced the use of gas. Marlin Fitzwater told
reporters, "Everyone in the administration saw the same
reports you saw last night. They were horrible, outrageous,
disgusting and should serve as a reminder to all countries
of why chemical warfare should be banned." But as Power
observes, "The United States issued no threats or demands."
The government's objection was that Saddam had used gas
to kill his own citizens, not that he had killed them. Indeed,
subsequently State Department officials indicated that both
sides - Iraq and Iran - were responsible perhaps for the
gassing of civilian Kurds. [History News Network, "He
Has Gassed His Own People," July 16, 2002]
Shortly after the massacre at Halabja, Senators Claiborne
Pell, Al Gore, and Jesse Helms introduced legislation to impose
sanctions on Iraq for its use of chemical weapons. The Prevention
of Genocide Act of 1988 unanimously passed the US Senate just
one day after being introduced.
So what did the Reagan Administration do? Reagan vetoed this
Act, of course. Conventional Wisdom says that he did this
because in those days Iran was the Bad Guy, and anyone who
was an enemy of Iran was on Our Side.
The Reagan administration, which had been providing Iraq
with $700 million a year in credit guarantees, saw Hussein's
Iraq both as a potential security partner in the volatile
Persian Gulf and as a promising market for American products
Secretary of State George Shultz denounced Iraq's use of
chemical weapons, but others in the administration seemed
more concerned about the Iraqi reaction should the sanctions
become law. (Senate passage of the Pell legislation produced
the biggest anti-American demonstration in Baghdad in 20
years.) Working with the Republican House leadership and
some House Democrats, the administration was able to water
down and ultimately defeat the Prevention of Genocide Act.
While past error is no indication of future action, the
Kurds have not forgotten that Secretary of State Colin Powell
was then the national security adviser who orchestrated
Ronald Reagan's decision to give Hussein a pass for gassing
the Kurds. Dick Cheney, then a prominent Republican congressman
and now vice president and the Bush administration's leading
Iraq hawk, could have helped push the sanctions legislation
but did not. [Peter W. Galbraith, "The
Wild Card in a Post-Saddam Iraq," The Boston Globe Magazine,
December 15, 2002]
Pelletier wants to assume that, because American intelligence
circulated information that Iran, not Iraq, had gassed the
Kurds, then Iran gassed the Kurds. I think it makes more sense
to assume American intelligence was directed by the Reagan
White House to spread disinformation that Iran, not Iraq,
gassed the Kurds. (I'm saying "Reagan White House" instead
of "Reagan" because I suspect that by 1988 Reagan's dementia
had progressed to the point he was mostly just taking up space.)
Beneath the Surface
From time to time, accounts of how the United States helped
Iraq develop those chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction break
to the surface. For example, in 1992 the Los Angeles Times
published a must-read article by Douglas Frantz and Murray
In the fall of 1989, at a time when Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait was only nine months away and Saddam Hussein was
desperate for money to buy arms, President Bush signed a
top-secret National Security Decision directive ordering
closer ties with Baghdad and opening the way for $1 billion
in new aid, according to classified documents and interviews....
Getting new aid from Washington was critical for Iraq in
the waning months of 1989 and the early months of 1990 because
international bankers had cut off virtually all loans to
Baghdad. They were alarmed that it was falling behind in
repaying its debts but continuing to pour millions of dollars
into arms purchases, even though the Iran-Iraq War had ended
in the summer of 1988.
In addition to clearing the way for new financial aid,
senior Bush aides as late as the spring of 1990 overrode
concern among other government officials and insisted that
Hussein continue to be allowed to buy so-called "dual use"
technology -- advanced equipment that could be used for
both civilian and military purposes. The Iraqis were given
continued access to such equipment, despite emerging evidence
that they were working on nuclear arms and other weapons
of mass destruction. ...
And the pressure in 1989 and 1990 to give Hussein crucial
financial assistance and maintain his access to sophisticated
U.S. technology were not isolated incidents.
Rather, classified documents obtained by The Times show,
they reflected a long-secret pattern of personal efforts
by Bush -- both as President and as vice president -- to
support and placate the Iraqi dictator. Repeatedly, when
serious objections to helping Hussein arose within the government,
Bush and aides following his directives intervened to suppress
the resistance. [Frantz and Waas, "Bush
Secret Effort Helped Iraq Build its War Machine," Los
Angeles Times, February 23, 1992]
Did the Reagan White House spread disinformation on Halabja
- saying the atrocity was an act of war, possibly by Iran,
not a Gassing of His Own People - to cover up its own role
in the massacre? And after Halabja, why did the Bush I Administration
continue to support Saddam Hussein?
While the American rationale was that Hussein was a buffer
against Iran, classified records show U.S. support for his
regime continued unabated after the official cease-fire
in the Iran-Iraq War was signed in August, 1988, and after
Iraq's chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish villages on
July 19, 1988.
In fact, in August, 1988, Deputy Secretary of State Whitehead
recommended in a secret policy memo that "there should be
no radical policy changes now regarding Iraq."
The pro-Iraq strategy was embraced by Bush when he became
President. His Administration continued to encourage the
transfer of U.S.-supplied arms to Iraq from Arab allies,
according to interviews and classified documents. [Frantz
and Waas, ibid.]
President Bush I continued to support Iraq even after the
Nazionale del Lavoro scandal, a matter that came to light
again recently after the very weird appointment of Henry
Kissinger to the September 11 committee. BNL was involved
in $4 billion in unauthorized loans to Iraq, including $900
million guaranteed by an Agriculture Department program pushed
by President Bush I.
Frantz and Waas wrote, "What drove Bush to champion the Iraqi
cause so ardently and so long is not clear. But some evidence
suggests that it may have been a case of single-minded pursuit
of a policy after its original purpose had been overtaken
Like son, like father? Bush II is nothing if not single-minded,
as he recklessly pursues more and bigger tax cuts and throws
money at missile defense, even while choking off funds for
real protection against terrorism.
But back to the Kurds. Even after the Gulf War, George Bush
I seemed to be soft on Saddam. The Bush I Administration openly
encouraged the Kurds to revolt against Saddam, then sat back
and observed while Saddam crushed the rebellion.
The betrayal of Saddam's domestic opposition by its supposed
allies in the U.S. government began with a speech by President
George Bush delivered on February 15, 1991, while the air
campaign in the Gulf War was still raging. In remarks that
were translated into Arabic and broadcast into Iraq by the
CIA, Mr. Bush urged "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people
to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein,
the dictator, to step down." This invitation was taken at
face value by Saddam's Shiite Muslim opposition in southern
Iraq, and by his Kurdish opposition in the north. By March
1991, 14 of 18 Iraqi provinces were in open revolt and winning.
General Wafik Samarii, former chief of Iraqi military intelligence,
told ABC News that "the uprising almost succeeded.... At
the very end, we had only two days of Kalashnikov bullets
left over in the warehouses of the Iraqi army." Saddam was
rescued by what seemed an unlikely ally the U.S. government.
Crushing the Kurds
For reasons that were never adequately explained, Saddam's
military was permitted to keep its fleet of helicopter gunships
after the Gulf War ceasefire. This gave his military a decisive
advantage when the Iraqi governments counter-offensive against
the rebels began on March 28th. Two days before Saddam mustered
his forces to put down the revolt, U.S. presidential spokesman
Marlin Fitzwater pointedly declared that "it is good for
the stability of the region that [Iraq] maintain its territorial
integrity" a statement that precluded support for independence-minded
Kurds and Shiites. Within a week, the anti-Saddam rebellion
incited by Washington had been crushed.
"The exact details of White House discussions about the
uprisings are not known," observes intelligence analyst
Mark Perry in his book Eclipse, "but circumstantial evidence
indicates that the [Bush] Administration purposely decided
to allow Hussein to slaughter his opponents in the south.
The murderous response to the Shiite uprisings was fine-tuned:
the White House allowed Hussein free rein in southern Iraq,
drawing the line at his use of chemical weapons and fixed-wing
aircraft. What protests there were in the United States
against this policy were muted by the celebration of the
overwhelming American victory." [William Norman Grigg,
Rules," The New American, March 30, 1998]
Betrayal Begins at Home?
The Bush II Regime loves to drop tantalizing hints about
al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. What they rarely mention is that
these operatives were most often seen not in Baghdad, but
Which brings us to the war that looms just ahead of us. Those
who support the Bushies paint rosy pictures of how the people
of Iraq will rally around American troops as soon as their
boots hit the ground. But what of the Kurds? They have no
love of Saddam, but they don't think much of U.S. Presidents
named Bush, either, and for good reason.
And the truth of what happened in Halabja boils down to this:
Either Saddam Hussein did not Gas His Own People; rather,
the massacre at Halabja was an act of war and the gas most
likely came from the Iranians. Or Saddam Hussein did Gas His
Own People, and he was enabled by the Reagan Administration.
Take your pick. Either way, the Gassing of His Own People,
however evil, doesn't look like much of a causus belli
Barbara O'Brien would like you to visit the Mahablog.