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Convenient And Not So Convenient Massacres


March 16 marked the fourteenth anniversary of the brutal chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish population of Halabja ordered by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The poison gas attack, which was part of a much broader campaign of repression against the Kurdish population, killed some 5,000 Kurds in the northeastern Iraqi town, near the border with Iran, and created thousands more refugees.

Today, the massacre is a frequent reference point for government officials and political commentators advocating “toppling Hussein,” as the military invasion of Iraq is euphemistically described. “He’s used chemical weapons on his own people,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reiterated on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on February 24.

On March 15, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher started off his daily press briefing by noting that “Tomorrow marks the fourteenth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s heinous chemical weapons attack on Halabja, the predominantly Kurdish city in northeastern Iraq. On March 16, 1988, the Iraqi military conducted an aerial bombardment of Halabja with mustard and other poison gases that killed roughly 5,000 civilians and injured another 10,000…. It is policies and practices such as those that led President Bush to characterize Iraq as part of an ‘axis of evil.’”

But the history of U.S. actions after the Halabja massacre took place are instructive. While the massacre is now a convenient one that serves U.S. propaganda purposes, when it happened in 1988, the Reagan-Bush administration and much of the media found it not that convenient at all.

“The issue is extremely sensitive because the Reagan Administration has moved closer to Iraq in recent years,” the New York Times explained on September 8, 1988. The U.S. government backed Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and had strong economic ties. “Iraq, which has the second-largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, is an important American trading partner. The United States buys an average of 447,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day, amounting to about $2 billion a year. Last year, the United States exported $1 billion in agricultural products, including rice, wheat and meat to Iraq,” the Times noted just six weeks before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

When news of what had happened at Halabja broke, the State Department issued a rote condemnation, but Washington continued its courtship with Iraq. As Jim Hoagland rightly predicted on March 26, 1988, “Washington’s friendship for Baghdad is likely to survive one night of poison gas and sickening television film. TV moves on, shock succeeds shock, the day’s horror becomes distant memory. The Kurds will stay on history’s margins, and policy will have continuity” (Washington Post).

“Iraq has not paid much of a diplomatic price for its actions,” the Christian Science Monitor rightly observed on December 13, 1988. Indeed, on September 8, 1988, when Secretary of State George Shultz met with Saadun Hamadi, Iraq’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Washington, he expressed only “concern” about Halabja. “The approach we want to take [toward Iraq] is that, ‘We want to have a good relationship with you, but that this sort of thing [the Halabja massacre] makes it very difficult,’” explained one State Department official.

In fact, the U.S. continued aid to Iraq, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in export credit guarantees through the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. From June 6-8, 1989, a delegation of U.S. businesspeople representing “23 US banks, oil and oil-service companies, and high-tech, construction, and defense contractors, with cumulative annual sales of $500 billion” visited Iraq and had “high-level” talks with the Baathist regime (Christian Science Monitor, August 31, 1989).

On April 12, 1990, five top U.S. senators “arrived in Baghdad on a trip that has received little notice” at the time August 12, 1990. “The senators carried a private message from President Bush that the United States wanted to improve relations with Iraq ‘notwithstanding the record of President Saddam Hussein.’” Three of the five — Bob Dole, Howard Metzenbaum, and Frank Murkowski — returned to lead the charge against sanctions against Iraq for its use of chemical weapons.

All of that soon changed, however. The Halabja massacre became a convenient massacre after Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In entering Kuwait, Iraq crossed a line, threatening the stability of the Middle East and U.S. control over the profits of its oil resources.

Selectivity remains with regard to crimes against Kurds today. So, for the purposes of propaganda, Iraq’s abuses of Kurdish rights merit condemnation and outrage. Meanwhile, Turkey, a critical U.S. ally, engages in massive ethnic cleansing of Kurds — using U.S.-supplied helicopters and military equipment — with impunity.

And should the U.S. invade Iraq, the Bush administration has made clear to Turkey that it will “ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity” (New York Times, March 10, 2002) and not allow the creation of an independent Kurdish state.

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