Shaking Hands With The Devil - U.S. Complicity in Iraq

How and Why America Colluded With Saddam

Debbie Maimon - Yated Ne'eman - February 29, 2004

[Originally published December 26, 2003]

Revelations from newly released documents from the National Security Archives have raised troubling questions about the U.S. government's embrace of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980's, despite clear knowledge that the "butcher of Baghdad" was using chemical warfare against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians.

The disclosures may affect the fate of the captured Saddam, experts say. They may play a role in determining whether the U.S. government will agree to fully relinquish control over his trial to the Iraqi government, or to an international tribunal of independent judges.

Although the disclosures uncover a web of U.S. operations to arm Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war that lasted from 1980 until1988, the full outlines of that long-running episode are still shrouded in secrecy. But that might change, experts say, once the Iraqi dictator is transferred out of U.S. jurisdiction.

The secrets Saddam has in his possession may lift the veil on an entire panorama of foreign policy intrigues in the Middle East that were kept secret from the American people and frequently conducted without the knowledge of Congress.

Those secrets would cause no small amount of embarrassment to the U.S. government, including former president Ronald Reagan, former president George Bush senior, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, informed sources say.

They would also incriminate a host of past presidential aides, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in covert Middle East policies dating back to the Reagan and Bush administrations.

While publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraq attacked Kurds in Halabja in March 1988, these men were the architects of a clandestine program of military support for Iraq in its engagements with Iran, the Washington Post reports.

In the name of protecting America's oil interests in the Persian Gulf, they spearheaded the policy of "shaking hands with the devil"-embracing the ruthless Saddam -in order to thwart those they considered far more dangerous - Khomeini revolutionaries out to spread Muslim extremism throughout the Gulf region.

Both Reagan and Bush senior, along with their top aides, saw Saddam's regime as an important ally and bulwark against the threat posed by the militant Khomeini regime that rose to power in the 1979 revolution in Iran, and to counter that threat they were willing to turn a blind eye to Saddam's devastating use of chemical warfare.

Rumsfeld Key Player in Pro-Iraq Tilt

The declassified documents highlight the role of Donald Rumsfeld, President Ronald Reagan's special Middle East envoy, who served as chief liaison between Washington and Baghdad in the early 1980's.

Rumsfeld went to Iraq in 1984 with instructions from Secretary of State Shultz to reinforce a message that a recent move to condemn Iraq's use of chemical weapons was strictly for public consumption and should not worry Saddam. America's priority was to prevent an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq war and to improve bilateral ties, Rumsfeld was instructed to say.

A photograph of Saddam firmly shaking hands with Rumsfeld on an earlier trip in the winter of 1983, released last year, caused a stir at the height of the heated debate about whether the United States should proceed with war plans against Iraq.

The archival material released with the photograph reveals that the two men discussed a wide range of topics -- shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Washington's efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq's oil.

No mention of chemical weapons was made in this discussion, according to detailed notes on the meeting. Nor did Rumsfeld raise the subject of the terrorists Saddam was sheltering in Baghdad. Or Saddam's monstrous record of torture and murder.

Rumsfeld's instructions were to "establish personal rapport" with the dictator and to make it clear that the United States firmly supported Iraq in the war it had started with Iran.

Rumsfeld's trip was regarded as a success by both sides. A February 3, 2003 article in the Sydney Morning Herald cites a Washington Post report that after Rumsfeld's 1983 visit with Saddam, "U.S. intelligence and logistical support played a crucial role in shoring up Iraqi defenses," despite express warnings from the U.S. State Department that Iraq was engaged in "almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]" against Iran.

In an earlier 2000 probe in of the undercover U.S.-Iraq relationship, the New York Times reported that United States gave Iraq vital battle-planning help during its war with Iran as part of a secret program under President Reagan -even though U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of the Iraqis' plans to unleash chemical weapons.

"The covert program involved more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency who helped Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran by providing detailed information on Iranian military deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments," the article states.

This clandestine assistance continued for years while the United States publicly maintained neutrality during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Privately, however, the administrations of Reagan and the first President Bush sold military goods to Iraq, including poisonous chemicals and deadly biological agents, worked to stop the flow of weapons to Iran, and circumvented Congress in their efforts to improve relations with Saddam.

Amazingly, much of this has long been a matter of public record, but stirred only passing interest when it first came to light. U.S. shipments of deadly biological agents to Iraq, for example, were detailed in a 1994 Senate Banking Committee report and a follow-up letter from the Centers for Disease Control in 1995.

They showed that Iraq was allowed to purchase batch after batch of lethal pathogens -- anthrax, botulism, E. coli, West Nile fever, gas gangrene, dengue fever. At a time when Washington knew that Iraq was using chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iranian troops, the CDC was shipping germ cultures directly to the Iraqi unconventional weapons facility in al-Muthanna.

Saddam's Doomsday Project

In addition to Saddam's chemical weapons program, documents reveal, the Iraqi dictator developed an ambitious plan, called Saad 16, to lay the foundations for an entire ballistic missile manufacturing industry in northern Iraq, outside of Mosul.

"Long range was absolutely crucial. For the missiles to win Saddam's approval, they had to be capable of reaching Israel," writes Kenneth Timmerman in "The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq."

"Saddam's doomsday project was complex and expensive. But with credit from the United States to put food on the table of ordinary Iraqis, Saddam felt confident that he could free up the necessary funds. Without that billion-dollar-per-year aid, the Iraqi leader would have been less likely to go ahead. For by 1984, he was spending some $14 billion on new weapons each year, fully one-half of his gross domestic product."

Israel, which had received intelligence information about Saad 16, was so worried about developments there that it sent RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft over the site. Israeli intelligence officials repeatedly warned the United States about the buildup of Iraq's military industries.

Although Jonathan Pollard, a civilian analyst for American Naval Intelligence, had provided Israel with reports concerning the status of the Saad 16 weapons complex starting in the spring of 1984, the CIA repeatedly assured the Israelis that it was merely a small scale civilian industrial project!

The official response from the CIA was outright denial: Iraq does not have chemical weapons, and there are no facilities in Iraq to manufacture chemical weapons.

It was only after Pollard turned over to Israel documents that showed the existence of the ballistic missile plant that Israel was able to pressure America to cut off sales to Saad 16, writes Timmerman.

"As one can well imagine, the Israelis were horrified when they got their first look at what was really going on in Mosul. It's hard to say what scared them more, the size of the Iraqi undertaking or the implication of the blatant lies coming from a trusted ally," Timmerman said.

On the same day that Israel received the official denial from Washington, Pollard handed over American satellite photos of the Iraqi chemical weapons plants to his Israeli contacts. Shortly afterwards, a little more than a year after Donald Rumsfeld's second trip to Iraq, Pollard was arrested.

For passing information to Israel about Saddam's plans to scorch Israel using arms Iraq had amassed thanks to covert American "support," Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment. His discovery that America was facilitating Iraq's acquisition of chemical and biological agents and supplying Iraq with intelligence information , made mortal enemies out of individuals like Weinberger who had spearheaded the pro-Iraq policy.

That information included details of Iraq's chemical warfare production capabilities, including maps showing the location of factories and storage facilities, some of which were apparently constructed by Bechtel Inc., a company originally belonging to none other than Caspar Weinberger.

Weinberger Exposed

Weinberger was enraged by the exposure. Because Pollard's arrest threatened to call public attention to the massive involvement of the U.S. in arming Iraq at a time when its public posture in the Iran/Iraq war was "neutral", a trial had to be avoided at all costs.

A vindictive Weinberger, as Secretary of Defense in 1985, took the outrageous, unprecedented step of personally intervening in the Pollard sentencing, after a plea bargain was worked out to avoid a trial.

Weinberger falsely accused Pollard of treason-a charge that had not been brought against him by the U.S. government-and used the authority of his office to influence the court to sentence him to life imprisonment, breaching the government's plea agreement not to seek a life term.

When he was asked (in an ABC Nightline interview some time ago) about Defense Department proposals to send arms to Iraq, Weinberger tried to deny any involvement. "The little that I know was that it was all handled by the C.I.A." On being pressed to the wall, he admitted, "There might have been a role by some people in the Pentagon. But I didn't keep a hand in that."

Finally, caught lying when shown two highly classified memos sent directly to him in 1982 and 1983 outlining Defense Department proposals to arm Saddam Hussein, Weinberger then refused to discuss the matter any further, citing "national-security concerns."

Years later, Caspar Weinberger recounted his rise to the top of the defense establishment and his controversial tenure there in his autobiography, "In the Arena," where he takes pains to make it very clear he is not Jewish. Asked in an interview with author Edwin Black why he omitted the Pollard incident in his book, Weinberger casually admitted, "Because it was, in a sense, a very minor matter but made very important."

(A minor matter? Yet Pollard was sentenced to a life term with no hope of parole based on Weinberger's charges that he had done "catastrophic" damage to national security!)

Asked to elaborate, Weinberger repeated, "As I say, the Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance."

Pressed on why the case was blown so far out of proportion, Weinberger offered this cogent answer: "I don't know why - it just was."

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