America Didn't Seem to Mind Poison Gas
Published on Friday, January 17, 2003 by the International Herald Tribune
America Didn't Seem to Mind Poison Gas
by Joost R. Hiltermann
 

AMMAN, Jordan -- In calling for regime change in Iraq, George W. Bush has accused Saddam Hussein of being a man who gassed his own people. Bush is right, of course. The public record shows that Saddam's regime repeatedly spread poisonous gases on Kurdish villages in 1987 and 1988 in an attempt to put down a persistent rebellion.

The biggest such attack was against Halabja in March 1988. According to local organizations providing relief to the survivors, some 6,800 Kurds were killed, the vast majority of them civilians.

It is a good thing that Bush has highlighted these atrocities by a regime that is more brutal than most. Yet it is cynical to use them as a justification for American plans to terminate the regime. By any measure, the American record on Halabja is shameful.

Analysis of thousands of captured Iraqi secret police documents and declassified U.S. government documents, as well as interviews with scores of Kurdish survivors, senior Iraqi defectors and retired U.S. intelligence officers, show (1) that Iraq carried out the attack on Halabja, and (2) that the United States, fully aware it was Iraq, accused Iran, Iraq's enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack. The State Department instructed its diplomats to say that Iran was partly to blame. The result of this stunning act of sophistry was that the international community failed to muster the will to condemn Iraq strongly for an act as heinous as the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center.

This was at a time when Iraq was launching what proved to be the final battles of the war against Iran. Its wholesale use of poison gas against Iranian troops and Iranian Kurdish towns, and its threat to place chemical warheads on the missiles it was lobbing at Tehran, brought Iran to its knees.

Iraq had also just embarked on a counterinsurgency campaign, called the Anfal, against its rebellious Kurds. In this effort, too, the regime's resort to chemical weapons gave it a decisive edge, enabling the systematic killing of an estimated 100,000 men, women, and children.

The deliberate American prevarication on Halabja was the logical, although probably undesired, outcome of a pronounced six-year tilt toward Iraq, seen as a bulwark against the perceived threat posed by Iran's zealous brand of politicized Islam. The United States began the tilt after Iraq, the aggressor in the war, was expelled from Iranian territory by a resurgent Iran, which then decided to pursue its own, fruitless version of regime change in Baghdad. There was little love for what virtually all of Washington recognized as an unsavory regime, but Iraq was considered the lesser evil. Sealed by National Security Decision Directive 114 in 1983, the tilt included billions of dollars in loan guarantees and other credits to Iraq.

Sensing correctly that it had carte blanche, Saddam's regime escalated its resort to gas warfare, graduating to ever more lethal agents. Because of the strong Western animus against Iran, few paid heed. Then came Halabja.

Unfortunately for Iraq's sponsors, Iran rushed Western reporters to the blighted town. The horrifying scenes they filmed were presented on prime time television a few days later. Soon Ted Koppel could be seen putting the Iraqi ambassador's feet to the fire on Nightline.

In response, the United States launched the "Iran too" gambit. The story was cooked up in the Pentagon, interviews with the principals show. A newly declassified State Department document demonstrates that U.S. diplomats received instructions to press this line with U.S. allies, and to decline to discuss the details.

It took seven weeks for the UN Security Council to censure the Halabja attack. Even then, its choice of neutral language (condemning the "continued use of chemical weapons in the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq," and calling on "both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons") diffused the effect of its belated move. Iraq proceeded to step up its use of gas until the end of the war and even afterward, during the final stage of the Anfal campaign, to devastating effect. When I visited Halabja last spring, the town, razed by successive Iranian and Iraqi occupiers, had been rebuilt, but the physical and psychological wounds remained.

Some of those who engineered the tilt today are back in power in the Bush administration.

They have yet to account for their judgment that it was Iran, not Iraq, that posed the primary threat to the Gulf; for building up Iraq so that it thought it could invade Kuwait and get away with it; for encouraging Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs by giving the regime a de facto green light on chemical weapons use; and for turning a blind eye to Iraq's worst atrocities, and then lying about it.

The writer is preparing a book on U.S. policy toward Iraq, with partial support from the Open Society Institute and the MacArthur Foundation.

Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune

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