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When the U.S. government supported Saddam Hussein
The crimes of a U.S. ally

January 2, 2004 | Page 5

ALAN MAASS looks at the history of a U.S. ally who stepped out of line.

THE BUSH administration claims that it wants to see Saddam Hussein put on trial for his many crimes. But what about his co-conspirators? Will those who helped Saddam rise to power, supplied his weapons and supported his dictatorial rule be punished?

That's not likely--since any honest accounting of Saddam's history would count some of the current Bush administration officials baying for his blood as co-conspirators. The truth is that Saddam Hussein committed most of his crimes as an ally of the U.S. government. He only became the "new Hitler" when he stepped out of line--threatening Washington's control over the flow of Middle East oil.

The CIA unleashes a bloodbath

SADDAM FIRST made a name for himself in 1959, when he led a six-man team to assassinate Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem. Kassem had come to power the year before, leading a coup against the puppet rulers of Iraq put in place by the British colonialists. The murder plot failed, and Saddam fled to Egypt, where he reportedly made contact with the CIA and helped Washington's spooks to get involved in Iraq.

Britain had formed Iraq at the end of the First World War, throwing together three provinces of the toppled Ottoman Empire of Turkey and establishing a king to rule over them. With the discovery of oil in the region, Britain tightened its grip, using a succession of local warlords and military strongmen against all resistance--as well as its own military might.

Winston Churchill, then Britain's colonial secretary, defended his country's repressive methods. "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas," Churchill said after an assault on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes."

Kassem's 1958 coup put an end to the British-backed dictatorship. At first, the U.S. government was willing to tolerate Kassem's repressive regime. But Kassem grew more assertive, buying arms from Washington's Cold War enemy, the former USSR--and, in an echo of a future conflict, threatening to invade the small oil kingdom of Kuwait, on Iraq's southeastern border.

The U.S. aligned itself with Kassem's opponents, including the Baath Party, then still a small faction in the military distinguished by its fanatical anti-Communism. The CIA set up a command center in Kuwait to direct the opposition. In 1963, the conspirators rose up and toppled Kassem--who was machine-gunned to death and his bullet-riddled body displayed on Iraqi television.

"Almost certainly a gain for our side," Robert Komer, a National Security Council aide, wrote to President John F. Kennedy. The "gain for our side" led to a bloodbath.

Using lists of suspected Communists and other leftists provided by the CIA, the Baathists massacred an estimated 5,000 people--jailing and torturing thousands more. Five years later, the U.S. backed yet another coup that brought Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr to power--along with al-Bakr's right-hand man, Saddam Hussein.

Throughout this time, Washington depended most of all on its ally next door to Iraq--the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran, who also was helped into power by the CIA. But in 1979, a revolution toppled the Shah. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the head of an Islamist government in Iran--and became Washington's new arch-enemy.

Saddam, having shoved aside al-Bakr to become president of Iraq, saw an opportunity to bolster his position. He launched a war on Iran in 1980--a horrific conflict that would cost 1 million lives on both sides over the next eight years.

Concerned with containing Iran, U.S. officials quietly encouraged Saddam's invasion plans through its Middle East allies, such as King Hussein of Jordan. Officially, Washington was neutral in the war, content to see both sides suffer devastating casualties.

But whenever Iran began to gain the upper hand, the U.S. shifted behind Iraq. "While we want no victor, we can't stand to see Iraq defeated," said Richard Armitage--then an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, now a top deputy to Secretary of State Colin Powell--in testimony to Congress.

Pentagon officials were stationed in Baghdad to pass intelligence to the Iraqi military in order to help them target Iranian troops. Even more importantly, the U.S. led the biggest armada of warships since Vietnam into the Persian Gulf--attacking Iran's navy under the guise of protecting Kuwaiti oil tankers.

The U.S. intervention "had little to do with defending 'freedom of the seas' or neutrality," former Regan National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane admitted. "When, in early 1987, Iran made a strategic gain on the Faw Peninsula, we tilted blatantly in favor of Iraq, as we had at similar moments before...[O]ur naval presence...would ensure that Iraq received the supplies it needed to dominate the war."

U.S. corporations that supplied Iraq's weapons

NONE OF the current Bush administration's justifications for its invasion of Iraq would be complete without referring to how Saddam "gassed his own people." But Saddam's use of chemical weapons took place during the 1980s, when he was a U.S. ally. In fact, Iraq was already using chemical weapons--on an "almost daily basis," according to the Washington Post--when the Reagan administration sent a special envoy to Baghdad in 1983 to show its support.

The envoy was none other than Donald Rumsfeld--now the head of the Pentagon under Bush Jr. After discussing the war on Iran and reportedly pitching a proposal for an oil pipeline deal at the behest of the California-based Bechtel, Rumsfeld was photographed smiling and shaking hands with the man he now calls a brutal dictator.

According to the Associated Press, Saddam used chemical weapons to kill an estimated 190,000 Kurds between 1983 and 1988--along with 50,000 Iranian soldiers, about one in 10 casualties on the Iranian side during the war. All the while, the Reagan administration downplayed Saddam's poison gas massacres--even claiming at one point that its preferred enemy, Iran, was responsible.

In 1988, when a Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report exposed the killings of Kurds in northern Iraq, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) proposed the Prevention of Genocide Act to put pressure on the Iraqi government. But the Reagan administration orchestrated the measure's defeat in Congress.

In an echo of Winston Churchill's comment a half century before, one defense official told the New York Times, "The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern."

Part of the reason for Washington's silence about Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction was that U.S. corporations helped to supply them. Throughout the 1980s, the Iraqi government bought the ingredients for its biological weapons program legally--from suppliers in the U.S. and Europe.

Strains of anthrax, botulinum and other toxins came from a company in Rockville, Md.--or from the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When Iraq provided a report on its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs to United Nations inspectors at the end of 2002, the U.S. tried to censor information about American corporate suppliers.

But a German newspaper revealed that Iraq's report implicated 24 major U.S. corporations--including Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, Sperry, Rockwell, Dupont and Bechtel--for selling chemicals and weapons to Iraq while Saddam was Washington's allies. And this was only the tip of the iceberg. From the early 1980s, some of the biggest names in Corporate America--Amoco, Mobil, Westinghouse and Caterpillar, to name a few--joined a U.S.-Iraq Business Forum to lobby Washington to strengthen its ties to the Iraqi government.

"We need the oil"

BECAUSE OF Washington's intervention, the Iran-Iraq War went in Iraq's favor, and Iran was forced to concede defeat in 1988. For the next two years, the U.S. openly built up Saddam Hussein as its new strongman in the region. Weapons, high-tech equipment, technical assistance and economic aid flowed into the country.

U.S. leaders went to bat for the Iraqi regime against critics of its human rights abuses. In April 1990, four months before Iraq invaded Kuwait, a delegation of U.S. senators visited Baghdad and assured Saddam that Washington supported him. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) promised that George Bush Sr. would veto threatened sanctions, and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) attacked the "haughty and pampered" media that criticized Saddam's regime.

When Saddam summoned U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie to threaten military action against Kuwait for poaching Iraqi oil, Glasbie told Saddam, "we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait." In the end, it wasn't Saddam's brutal repression or his war crimes in the Iran-Iraq War that turned the U.S. government against him.

Only after Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which threatened the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, did Washington discover that its ally was "the butcher of Baghdad." Over the next six months, Bush Sr. organized a massive buildup of U.S. troops and weapons for one of the most destructive wars in modern history.

The first Gulf War was justified with rhetoric about defending democracy in the feudal monarchy of Kuwait. But even Bush Sr. himself had to admit, "We need the oil. It's nice to talk about standing up for freedom. But Kuwait and Saudi Arabia aren't exactly democracies."

Yet even after U.S. forces had devastated Iraq, the Bush administration showed that it preferred the iron fist of a Baath Party dictatorship to any uprising that might topple it. In both the Kurdish north and southern areas dominated by the oppressed Shiites, masses of Iraqis responded to the U.S. victory by rising up against Saddam.

The U.S. didn't just stand by as the uprisings were crushed. It intervened against the rebels. The Iraqi military was given clearance to fly its helicopter gunships against rebel positions. In one case, Iraqi Republican Guard troops were allowed through U.S. lines to reach one stronghold of the uprising--while the rebels were prevented from reaching weapons dumps to arm themselves.

As the New York Times reported, the Bush administration and its allies held the "strikingly unanimous view [that] whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country's stability than did those who have suffered his repression."

Through the 1990s, Washington continued its war on Iraq--but through economic means, imposing the strictest sanctions in history, at the cost of more than 1 million Iraqi lives.

Efforts to topple Saddam were limited to forces that the U.S. could count on the maintain "stability"--in other words, sections of Saddam's own Baathist regime, or the corrupt gangsters of the Iraqi exile groups headquartered in Washington and London. Both elements have shown up in the puppet government that the U.S. has imposed in occupied Iraq today--a gang of "little Saddams," as one Iraqi put it to a British reporter.

But the U.S. has never minded repression in Iraq. America's rulers saw Saddam Hussein as a valued ally for decades on end, as he came to rule his country with an iron fist. It was only when he stepped out of line that Saddam Hussein became the "enemy."

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