WASHINGTON As a special envoy for the Reagan administration in 1984, Donald H. Rumsfeld, now the defense secretary, traveled to Iraq to persuade officials there that the United States was eager to improve ties with President Saddam Hussein despite his use of chemical weapons, newly declassified documents show.
Mr. Rumsfeld, who ran a pharmaceutical company at the time, was tapped by Secretary of State George P. Shultz to reinforce a message that a recent move to condemn Iraq's use of chemical weapons was strictly in principle and that America's priority was to prevent an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq war and to improve bilateral ties.
During that war, the United States secretly provided Iraq with combat planning assistance, even after Mr. Hussein's use of chemical weapons was widely known. The highly classified program involved more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who shared intelligence on Iranian deployments, bomb-damage assessments and other crucial information with Iraq.
The disclosures round out a picture of American outreach to the Iraqi government, even as the United States professed to be neutral in the eight-year war, and suggests a private nonchalance toward Mr. Hussein's use of chemicals in warfare. Mr. Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials have cited Iraq's use of poisonous gas as a main reason for ousting Mr. Hussein.
The documents, which were released as part of a declassification project by the National Security Archive, and are available on the Web at www.nsarchive.org, provide details of the instructions given to Mr. Rumsfeld on his second trip to Iraq in four months. The notes of Mr. Rumsfeld's encounter with Tariq Aziz, the foreign minister, remain classified, but officials acknowledged that it would be unusual if Mr. Rumsfeld did not carry out the instructions.
Since the release of the documents, he has told members of his inner circle at the Pentagon that he does not recall whether he had read, or even had received, the State Department memo, Defense Department officials said.
One official noted that the documents reflected the State Department's thinking on Iraq, but did not indicate Mr. Rumsfeld's planning for his meeting with Mr. Hussein nor his comments on the meeting after its conclusion.
Mr. Rumsfeld's trip was his second visit to Iraq. On his first visit, in late December 1983, he had a cordial meeting with Mr. Hussein, and photographs and a report of that encounter have been widely published.
In a follow-up memo, the chief of the American interests section reported that Mr. Aziz had conveyed Mr. Hussein's satisfaction with the meeting. "The Iraqi leadership was extremely pleased with Amb. Rumsfeld's visit," the memo said. "Tariq Aziz had gone out of his way to praise Rumsfeld as a person."
When news emerged last year of the December trip, Mr. Rumsfeld told CNN that he had "cautioned" Mr. Hussein to forgo chemical weapons. But when presented with declassified notes of their meeting that made no mention of that, a spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld said he had raised the issue in a meeting with Mr. Aziz.
Lawrence Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said on Friday that there was no inconsistency between Mr. Rumsfeld's previous comments on his missions to Iraq and the State Department documents.
By early 1984, events threatened to upset the American-Iraqi relationship. After pleading for a year for international action against the chemical warfare, Iran had finally persuaded the United Nations to criticize the use of chemical weapons, albeit in vague terms.
Pressure mounted on the Reagan administration, which had already verified Iraq's "almost daily" use of the weapons against Iran and against Kurdish rebels, documents show. In February, Iraq warned Iranian "invaders" that "for every harmful insect there is an insecticide capable of annihilating it." Within weeks, the American authorities intercepted precursor chemicals that were bound for Iraq. Finally, on March 5, the United States issued a public condemnation of Iraq.
But days later, Mr. Shultz and his deputy met with an Iraqi diplomat, Ismet Kittani, to soften the blow. The American relationship with Iraq was too important involving business interests, Middle East diplomacy and a shared determination to thwart Iran to sacrifice. Mr. Kittani left the meeting "unpersuaded," documents show.
Mr. Shultz then turned to Mr. Rumsfeld. In a March 24 briefing document, Mr. Rumsfeld was asked to present America's bottom line. At first, the memo recapitulated Mr. Shultz's message to Mr. Kittani, saying it "clarified that our CW [chemical weapons] condemnation was made strictly out of our strong opposition to the use of lethal and incapacitating CW, wherever it occurs." The American officials had "emphasized that our interests in 1) preventing an Iranian victory and 2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq's choosing, remain undiminished," it said.
Then came the instructions for Mr. Rumsfeld: "This message bears reinforcing during your discussions."
The American relationship with Iraq during its crippling war with Iran was rife with such ambiguities. Though the United States was outwardly neutral, it tilted toward Iraq and even monitored talks toward the sale of military equipment by private American contractors.
Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, said: "Saddam had chemical weapons in the 1980's, and it didn't make any difference to U.S. policy."
Mr. Blanton suggested that the United States was now paying the price for earlier indulgence. "The embrace of Saddam in the 1980's and what it emboldened him to do should caution us as Americans that we have to look closely at all our murky alliances," he said. "Shaking hands with dictators today can turn them into Saddams tomorrow."
Thom Shanker contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company