Jeremy Scahill is an investigative journalist who has recently written
an article called “The Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet.”
He is a co-producer of “Democracy Now,” a nationally
syndicated radio show. He has also provided reports from East
Timor, Yugoslavia, and Iraq for “Free Speech Radio News”
and “Democracy Now.”
DAVID ROSS: You’ve recently posted an
article at zmag.org and counterpunch.org called “The
Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet.” Can you start
from the top and explain what you found in your research?
JEREMY SCAHILL: An article came out in the New York Times
on August 18 detailing what it calls an American covert program
during the 1980s that helped Iraq plan battles at a time when
U.S. intelligence indicated Iraq would use chemical weapons
against Iran. This follows my article on August 2 called
The Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet, in which
I wrote about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and
Donald Rumsfeld, the current U.S. Defense Secretary. You have
to go back some 20-plus years, to a time when Ronald Reagan
was president and the Iran-Iraq war was escalating dramatically.
The United States was giving aid and weapons to both Iran
and Iraq with the understanding, as Henry Kissinger put it,
“that it’s best to let them kill each other off,”
and, “oil is too valuable a commodity to be left in the
hands of the Arabs.”
The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 shook the foundations
of power in Washington so the United States began actively
backing Iraq. In 1982, Ronald Regan moved to take Iraq off
the list of nations that sponsored terrorism. That allowed
a floodgate of U.S. “aid” to go into Iraq. The Reagan
administration was actively encouraging manufacturers to sell
to Iraq and Saddam Hussein was aggressively buying everything
he could get his hands on from the United States. That included
the sale of helicopters that had been “demilitarized.”
Ronald Reagan dispatched his special envoy to Iraq with a
hand-written letter from Reagan to be given to Saddam Hussein,
with a clear message that what Washington wanted was to restore
normal relations. They had been severed in 1967 during the
Arab-Israeli War. Iraq broke them off in protest of U.S. policy.
So when this envoy arrived in Baghdad, not only did he have
a hand-written letter, but he also gave Saddam Hussein a pair
of golden cowboy spurs, as a present from Ronald Reagan. He
shook Saddam’s hand, called him “Mr. President,”
and had a meeting that the Iraqi foreign ministry described
at the time as being about “topics of mutual interest.”
That envoy, who began the process of restoring relations between
Washington and Iraq, a man who stood with Saddam Hussein in
1983, was Donald Rumsfeld, the current U.S. Defense Secretary.
Rumsfeld was in Iraq as the U.S. was aggressively selling
to Iraq, and just a short time after that visit, some allegations
started to emerge about Iraq’s use and possession of
On March 5, 1984 (Rumsfeld’s visit was in 1983), the
U.S. State Department issued a public alert, saying that it
had evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons against
Iranian solders. A couple weeks after that report came out,
Rumsfeld was back in Baghdad, meeting with Tariq Aziz, then
Iraqi Foreign Minister. The day that Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad,
the United Nations issued a report saying that a team of UN
scientists on the ground in the front lines of the Iran-Iraq
war had determined that chemical weapons had been used multiple
times against Iranian solders. Donald
Rumsfeld was in Baghdad when the United Nations had said yes,
we have proof from our scientists that chemical weapons had
been used against Iran and Rumsfeld said nothing. He was in
the prime position to address the alleged Iraqi threat when
it first emerged.
to an article in Covert Action Quarterly a number of
years ago, the U.S. government provided the elements for Saddam’s
chemical weapons through the U.S. Agricultural Department.
Not only that,
it was at a time when the Reagan administration was faced
with the prospect that the American economy was in trouble
and so he viewed the wealthy economy of Iraq as an open market
for U.S. corporations. It wasn’t so much a covert thing,
there were companies in Maryland selling components that were
used to make chemical weapons. It wasn’t just the United
States. It was German, French, and British companies—all
of the major western powers in Europe and the Western hemisphere
were bolstering Saddam Hussein’s military capacity.
so-called democracies were major supporters of Saddam Hussein’s
chemical weapons program. You can also find receipts on the
Internet from U.S. companies that sold these chemical components
The whole story of U.S. sales to Iraq was openly talked about
under the Reagan administration and at the beginning of Bush,
the Elder’s administration. It wasn’t something
that Washington was ashamed of. Remember, Saddam Hussein was
considered an SOB, but he was considered Washington’s
Why does the U.S. government want to attack Iraq again?
When I was in Iraq this past May and June, Iraq celebrated
the 30th anniversary of its nationalization of foreign oil
companies. They celebrated it with a jolting announcement,
if you’re an oil dictator in Washington. The country’s
oil minister, Mohamed Rashid, announced on national television
in Iraq (and it was something that was carried all over the
Arab world on al Jazeerra and other outlets) that Iraq
was going to begin oil exploitation in two of the largest
untapped oil and natural gas reserves in the world—two
fields in Iraq: one called West Qurnan and the other called
Majnun. These two fields had been allocated to two companies,
one a French and one a Russian company, but because of U.S.
pressure and U.S. sanctions, the Russians and the French never
began drilling in those oil fields.
So Iraq was not going to wait for the Russians and the French
to stand up to America. It was not going to wait for a time
when the sanctions were lifted. Iraq said that they could
nearly double their oil production in the next three years.
Iraq could theoretically surpass Saudi Arabia as the number
one producer of oil in the world. Already they’re number
two and they’re under economic sanctions.
Saudi Arabia, which is now being attacked in the U.S. press
by the government, has an enormous border with Iraq. If that
border was erased and the U.S. controlled those two countries—the
U.S. would control the world oil markets. Saudi Arabia is
now saying it doesn’t want to provide the U.S. the use
of its airbases or its territories to attack Iraq. It’s
one of the countries that is leading Iraq’s normalization
within the Arab world. Another
reason is the way in which Iraq has completely normalized
relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon,
and other nations throughout Africa. The trend in the Middle
East is to say, “Yes, Saddam Hussein is a dictator; yes,
he’s a ruthless tyrant, but the people of Iraq deserve
So what the United States has done to punish countries like
Saudi Arabia is to begin floating stories about how the Saudis
support terrorism, how the Saudis are the biggest enemy of
America in the region. There was a meeting of the Defense
Policy Review Board, which is an advisory clique to Rumsfeld
at the Pentagon, headed by Richard Pearle. They had a meeting
around mid-July and the story came out in the beginning of
August in which the RAND Corporation did a briefing on Saudi
Arabia, calling it the greatest threat to America in that
The United States is using the Iraq example almost like a
crucifix at the gates of Rome, to say that, if you defy the
empire, if you stand up against America, you will pay a price,
like the 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqi children who die every month.
Iraq is the crucifix of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia
is aware of that, so I think it will be interesting to watch
what countries participate in a U.S. attack. Just in late
June, new satellite imagery was published by globalsecurity.org
that showed that the U.S. was building a massive air base
and central command center in Qatar. That’s because the
Prince Sultan Air Base has been declared off limits by the
Saudis to use as a base from which to launch an attack on
Iraq, so the U.S. is moving all of its operations to Qatar
and that will, I would imagine, become the staging grounds
for the attack.
Whoever controls the oil of the world, controls the world,
basically. Is that true?
During the Yugoslavian bombing a lot of people on the Left
in America wanted to focus on the importance of the Caspian
Sea, which is one of the single greatest reserves of natural
gas in the world. There were plans to build a pipeline through
Yugoslavia, particularly Kosovo. While I think oil played
a significant factor in the Yugoslavia bombing, one has to
be much more cynical in analyzing U.S. foreign policy. Dominating
oil is a central aim of U.S. interests, but it’s not
the only aim.
What the United Sates is doing right now with its policy in
Iraq, as well as in Palestine, is attempting to create utter
chaos in the Middle East. Look, if Saddam Hussein takes a
bullet in the head, which I think is extremely unlikely, or
is overthrown in a military coup or is hit by a “lucky
strike” by a U.S. missile, do you think that everyone
in Iraq is going to somehow rally behind whoever assumes power?
The people in Washington—either they’re incredibly
ignorant of the religious, ethnic, communal, and tribal makeup
of Iraq, or they’re trying to create a massive bloody
civil war in Iraq, on top of what will undoubtedly be a large
U.S. bombing campaign as well.
In Iraq, you have three million members of the Baath party,
Saddam’s political party. Those people are going to be
attacked by their neighbors. There’s going to be communal
violence. We saw that in 1991, when Bush the elder told the
Shiite Moslems in the south of Iraq after the Gulf War, to
rise up against Saddam Hussein. They slaughtered, tortured,
hung, and executed hundreds of people from the Baath party
in a three-day blitzkrieg. Afterwards, Saddam Hussein’s
forces mercilessly crushed that rebellion as Norman Schwarzkopf
and his forces stood by. If
Saddam Hussein is taken out, there will be numerous warlords
of sorts, either generals, clan leaders, or tribal leaders,
who will be engaged in power grabbing and will also threaten
the stability of Saudi Arabia and potentially Kuwait. Iran
is very nervous about the prospect of Saddam Hussein being
assassinated or killed, even though Iran has actively tried
to get rid of him for many years.
During Bush I rule, the U.S. government destroyed the public
infrastructure of Iraq. What sort of human toll have
these sanctions had on the people of Iraq?
These sanctions are unprecedented in world history. Never
has a country been put under such severe economic sanctions
as Iraq has lived under for the last 12 years. Iraq was a
very modern country prior to the U.S. massacre that’s
now referred to as the Gulf War, where the water treatment
facilities were targeted, where the entire public infrastructure
of Iraq was destroyed.
At the time when there was proof, according to Washington,
which there isn’t now, that Iraq had, or was using, chemical
weapons, our government had no problem. They would sell Iraq
anything they wanted. Now, Rumsfeld has provided us with no
evidence. Bush has provided us with no evidence, and they’re
banning the sale of vitamin K. It’s unconscionable.
What can people do to stop the sanctions on Iraq and the
threatened invasion by the U.S. government?
There are a number of things people can do. I’m not a
big fan of lobbying Congress. I think it’s like urinating
in the ocean and hoping to find the urine somewhere else again
someday. It’s not going to happen. But the fact of the
matter is, that Congress right now—not everyone, despite
how it looks in the media, is on board with this. In particular,
the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should
be targeted and called and asked to hold honest and open hearings
in which people like Dennis Halliday, the former head of the
UN humanitarian program in Iraq, is called to testify. Also
people like Hans Von Sponeck, the person who followed and
also who resigned his position in protest, calling the sanctions
The other is to get involved with groups like the Iraq Peace
Team. This is a coalition of groups spearheaded by Voices
in the Wilderness, the Chicago based anti-sanctions group.
They are organizing delegations right now, going to Iraq—Americans,
British, people from all over the world—taking up residence
in anticipation of a U.S. attack on Iraq, to say “we
are going to stand with the Iraqi people if the United States
attacks.” Also on Voices of the Wilderness website there’s
a great number of resources and suggested actions people can
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
One of the things that’s interesting is why do articles
like the one in the New York Times and in other papers
appear at this time? Why is it that people within the Pentagon,
who I’m sure have no problem with war and bombing, are
very nervous about what the Bush administration is doing?
What that indicates to me is that not all is well in Washington.
I think that it’s very important to connect the dots
and ask why is it that some of the top people in the military
are leaking to the media war plans that are being discussed
in Washington? Is the use of a nuclear bomb being discussed?
Quite possibly. Israel is talking about it openly, saying,
“If the U.S. attacks Iraq, Israel will be a good soldier.”
Sharon Perez, the Israeli foreign minister who’s referred
to as a moderate, was on CNN this fall, saying that
the U.S. is waiting too long to attack Iraq and also saying
that if Iraq hits Israel with anything—a scud missile,
a conventional weapon—not nuclear, biological or chemical—Israel
will consider dropping a nuclear bomb on Iraq. I think the
most likely country to use a nuclear weapon in the next five
years is not the United States and it’s certainly not
Iraq. I think it’s Israel.
People need to be very concerned about Sharon that the U.S.
has bolstered and built up. He has 200 nuclear weapons and
has his people on national and international TV threatening
to use them against Iraq. Bill Clinton has said, “If
the Iraqi army crosses the Jordan River, I’ll die for
Israel.” What is going on in this country? Why is everyone
running to this war game right now with this unquestioning
support for Israel, who is threatening to use nuclear weapons?
Can you imagine if an Arab country threatened to use a nuclear
weapon in a regional conflict what would happen? It’s
Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio in Redway, CA. He has worked
on the Nader campaign, corporate accountability, U.S. imperialism,
and environmental issues.