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Gassing 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, "Eloquence 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 31, 2003]

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 your pick.

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 and investment.

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 Waas:

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 Banca 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 by events."

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, "Baghdad 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 Iraqi Kurdistan.

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 now.


Barbara O'Brien would like you to visit the Mahablog.

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