WASHINGTON - As Americans mourn the passing of president Ronald Reagan, almost forgotten is the decisive part his administration played in the survival of Iraq's president Saddam Hussein through his eight year war with Iran.
US soldiers now fighting the remnants of Saddam's regime can look back to the early 1980s for the start of a relationship that fostered the rise of the largest military in the Middle East, one whose use of chemical weapons set the stage for last year's war.
Reagan, determined to check arch-foe Iran, opened a back door to Iraq through which flowed US intelligence and hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees even as Washington professed neutrality in Baghdad's war with Tehran.
Reagan played decisive role in Saddam Hussein's survival in Iran-Iraq war
It was complemented by French weaponry and German dual-use technology that experts say wound up in Iraq's chemical and biological warfare programs.
Donald Rumsfeld, then Reagan's special Middle East envoy, is credited with establishing the back channel to Saddam on a secret trip to Baghdad in December 1983.
Washington had plenty of motives to help Saddam stave off an Iranian victory. Not only was the United States still smarting from the 1980 hostage-taking at the US embassy in Tehran, but its embassy and a marine barracks in Beirut had been struck with truck bombings earlier in 1983.
In fact, the United States had begun to tilt in favor Baghdad even before Rumsfeld's arrival in Baghdad.
In February 1982, the State Department dropped Baghdad from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing the way for aid and trade.
A month later, Reagan ordered a review of US policy in the Middle East which resulted in a marked shift in favor of Iraq over the next year.
"Soon thereafter, Washington began passing high-value military intelligence to Iraq to help it fight the war, including information from US satellites that helped fix key flaws in the fortifications protecting al-Basrah that proved important in Iran's defeat in the next month," wrote Kenneth Pollack in his recently published book "The Threatening Storm."
Economic aid poured into Iraq in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loan guarantees to buy US agricultural products, indirectly aiding the war effort.
Sales of UH-1H helicopters and Hughes MD-500 Defender helicopters were approved by Washington. Though sold as civilian aircraft, nobody objected when they were quickly converted for military use.
A May 9, 1984 memo unearthed by the National Security Archive, a Washington research organization, noted that US policy for the sale of dual-use equipment to Iraq's nuclear program also was reviewed.
The memo said its "preliminary results favor expanding such trade to include Iraqi nuclear entities."
By March 1985, the United States was issuing Baghdad export permits for high tech equipment crucial for its weapons of mass destruction programs, according to Pollack.
US allies also were active in Iraq.
"By 1982, Iraq accounted for 40 percent of French arms exports," wrote Pollack. "Paris sold Baghdad a wide range of weapons, including armored vehicles, air defense radars, surface-to-air missiles, Mirage fighters, and Exocet anti-ship missiles."
"German firms also rushed in without much compunction, not only selling Iraq large numbers of trucks and automobiles but also building vast complexes for Iraq's chemical warfare, biological warfare, and ballistic missile programs," he wrote.
The aid came despite clear evidence as early as mid-1983 that Iraq was using chemical weapons on Iranian forces.
Washington said nothing publicly, but noted "almost daily" Iraqi use of chemical weapons in internal reports.
"We have recently received additional information confirming Iraqi use of chemical weapons," a November 1, 1983 State Department memo said. "We also know that Iraq has acquired a CW production capability, primarily from western firms, including possibly a US foreign subsidiary."
It said "our best present chance of influencing cessation of CW use may be in the context of informing Iraq of these measures."
Washington did not publicly denounce Iraqi use of chemical weapons until March, 1984 after it was documented in a UN study.
The Reagan administration opened full diplomatic relations with Baghdad in November, 1984. Iraqi chemical attacks continued not only on Iranian forces but also on Kurdish civilians, notably at Hallabja in 1987.
For its support, Pollack wrote, Washington got a bulwhark against Iran, cheap oil and Iraqi support for peace negotiations with Israel.
But when the Iran-Iraq war ended, Baghdad was left with huge debts and a large and menacing military looking for easy prey.
© Copyright 2004, AFP