Dying to Forget

Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction is the Bush administration’s most consistently cited justification for going to war against Saddam Hussein, a war whose purpose is additionally rationalized in regional and global terms. Citing the President’s State of the Union address, former CIA officer Kenneth M. Pollack observed that it was “important that the president argued that Saddam’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction creates a threat to the entire region and is a human rights catastrophe.”1

Few would argue that weapons of mass destruction constitute a threat, that their use has catastrophic effects, or that the Iraqi leader sought to acquire them. But how many  recall that Presidents Reagan and Bush played critical roles in providing Saddam Hussein with the means to create such weapons? And how many remember that such policies were an integral part of U.S.-Iraqi relations in the 1980s, when major U.S. corporations- with prominent political assistance- were uncritical advocates of a U.S.-Iraqi connection? The evidence is available in press reports, in televised discussions,  in hearings held in the U.S. Senate and House in the early 1990s,  in parallel inquiries concerning U.K. policies toward Iraq and in other investigations being conducted on U.S.-Iraqi relations.

For the most part, however, the available evidence-including that which has appeared in the mainstream media-has elicited little public reaction. For some, the news is no longer new. It belongs to a different past, one  perceived as disconnected from the troubled present. For others, such past policies need no apology, given the actors involved.

In the political logic that dominated U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in the 1980s- and earlier- military preemption was a permanent option. National security documents left no doubt that access to the region’s oil resources was considered a central objective of U.S. policy. Its implementation assumed the existence of a reliable network of regional allies prepared to carry out U.S. policies. The 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran undermined one of the pillars of that network. U.S. policy in its aftermath focused on compensating this loss. Saddam Hussein was to be one of the two anchors replacing Iran, the other being Saudi Arabia, a long time “reliable” ally of the U.S. Israel’s place in U.S. calculations was not neglected. Tel Aviv viewed Tehran under the Ayatollah  much as did Washington, which did not prevent Israel or the U.S. from dealing with Iran, as the revelations of the Iran/Contra affair later disclose.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the conditions that subsequently led to the withdrawal of  U.S. Marines from Lebanon, were viewed in Washington as the product of  an unacceptable victory for Syria and Iran’s allies in southern Lebanon. Donald Rumsfeld was on the scene. His subsequent visit to Baghdad, as special U.S. envoy, emerged out of this scenario. It followed Pres. Reagan’s decision to remove Iraq from the list of nations supporting ‘international terrorism,’ which, in turn, opened the door to closer military and intelligence cooperation. Crucial to Reagan’s turn toward Iraq was the willingness of U.S. allies in the region to act as third party conduits for the transmission of U.S. military and intelligence data to Baghdad. After the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S.-Iraqi military connection continued. Iraq’s domestic politics, the repressive nature of its regime, the evidence of human rights atrocities, in no way impeded Washington’s relations with the regime. Nor did it prevent a delegation of  US Senators from visiting the Iraqi leader  in 1990  with then President Bush’s approval.

There were other forms of U.S. assistance to Baghdad that contributed to the military enhancement of Iraq in this period. Between 1985 and 1990, according to Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas, “the Reagan and Bush Administrations approved 771 export licenses for Iraq-239 of these approvals came from the  Bush Administration. Much of the equipment shipped to Iraq under these licenses ended up enhancing Iraq’s military capability…” [2] An estimate prepared by the CIA indicates that $4.7 billion was extended in credit guarantees by the CCC (Commodity Credit Corporation) between 1983 and 1990 ($2.6 billion of which was authorized in the first thirty months of the Bush administration) had transformed Iraq into the largest Middle Eastern market for US agricultural produce (which represented a massive 85 percent of all U.S. sales to Iraq), enabling Iraq to divert funds needed for its military industrialization drive.” [3] Playing a crucial role in the extension of credit to Iraq was the Atlanta, Georgia branch of the Italian BNL (Banca Nazionale del Lavoro), which granted additional extra-generous sums to Baghdad, and was eventually the subject of a magnum U.S. investigation.

 Without reviewing Iraq’s political history, it is useful to recall that in the period 1971-75, Iraq relied heavily on military support from the former USSR, after which its sources diversified and came to include France, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium, West Germany and Chile, the UK and the U.S as well as others acting as  conduits for the transshipment of relevant supplies. The role of German companies in providing Iraq with the means necessary for the production of chemical weapons including poison gas, as well as other forms of military technology, has long been documented.[4] Between 1987 and 1990, the U.K., sent Iraq “an entire inventory of military and militarily useful equipment,”[5] which was the subject of the Scott Inquiry, which incidentally disclosed US connections.  The findings of that inquiry were published in 1996.

In the interim, in 1990,1992 and after, U.S. Congressional hearings and reports, some of which involved continuing investigations into US-Iraqi policies and their health impact on US Gulf Veterans and their families, revealed the nature and extent of US support for Iraq, as well as the efforts of previous administrations to block such inquiries.

On Oct.2, 2002, the American Gulf War Veterans’ Association (AGWVA) issued a statement calling for the resignation of the US Secretary of Defense. The reason for this action was his denial of knowledge concerning the past US shipment of biological weapons to Iraq. “If our Secretary of Defense is unaware of the sales of biological materials to a country with which we are about to go to war, or if he is in denial over the fact that these sales occurred, the AGWVA believes that he represents a clear and present danger to the lives of our military, our country, and the American people, and should be considered a very serious threat to the national security. It is for this reason that the AGWVA calls for his resignation and removal from office.” [6]

Two months later, the Iraqi government presented its voluminous report on weapons to the UN Security Council. UN officials let it be known that they would not disclose names of foreign companies that had supplied Iraq with weapons. At the same time, U.S. efforts to sanitize the document, justified  for reasons of international security, failed to keep  data relevant to foreign companies that dealt with Saddam Hussein out of the public eye. The information was leaked  to a German paper that identified 150 US, British, German and French companies that had done business in conventional and unconventional weapons with Iraq. The information, appearing in Die Tageszeitung in Berlin, was immediately reported in The Independent, (“Leaked Report Says German and US Firms Supplied Arms to Saddam,” Dec.18, 2002, London), which disclosed that “eighty German firms and 24  US companies are reported to have supplied Iraq with equipment and know-how for its weapons programs from 1975 onwards and in some cases support for Baghdad’s conventional program had continued until last year.” The list included corporations involved in the production of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as rockets and missiles, such as: Honeywell, Spektra Physics, Semetex, TI Coating, UNISYS, Sperry Corp., Tektronix, Rockwell, Leybold Vacuum Systems, Finnifan-MAT-US, Hewlett Packard, Dupont, Eastman Kodak, Bechtel, International Computer Systems, American Type Culture Collection, Consarc, and others. Die Tageszeitung disclosed that “these companies are shown to have supplied entire complexes, building elements, basic materials and technical know-how for Saddam Hussein’s program to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction,’” and with these, ‘rockets and complete conventional weapons systems.’”

At the same time that the Iraqi report was leaked, U.S. media reports disclosed elements of past U.S. policy towards Iraqi. In late December 2002, The Washington Post published a wide ranging review of U.S. policy in support of Saddam Hussein under the Reagan and Bush administrations, while citing evidence of U.S. complicity in directly and indirectly furbishing Iraq’s armament program. The news reiterated the position, confirmed by former officials in military intelligence and the National Security Council, that the knowledge of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons did not deter the Reagan or Bush administrations from pursuing relations with Iraq’s regime. To those who justified such actions, apologies were not called for. U.S. policy was to be understood as a just response to the predicament posed by Iran’s 1979 revolution. The Ayatollahs, in short, made us do it, a response welcomed by U.S. allies in the region whose fear of expanded Iranian influence was readily conveyed to Washington.

In late August, The New York Times published an article on U.S. support for Iraq in the face of the latter’s use of “mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents.” [7]As one of the Pentagon sources quoted maintained, this was “just another way of killing people- whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make any difference.”

The American Gulf Veterans’ charges against the U.S. Sec of Defense, cited above, were based on evidence that had been accruing since the early-1990s. That evidence came out of 1992 and later hearings held in the Senate under the Chairmanship of Donald Riegle investigating “U.S. Chemical and Biological Exports to Iraq and Their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Persian Gulf War.” Considered in conjunction with the hearings  held under the Chairmanship of Representative Henry Gonzalez in the House Banking Committee, they implicated the Reagan and  Bush administrations in Iraq’s accumulation of weapons of mass destruction.

James J. Tuite, 11, Principle Investigator of the Riegle Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, disclosed in Staff Report No. 3, on “Chemical Warfare Agent Identification, Chemical Injuries, and Other Findings,” that the U.S. “had exported chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile-system equipment to Iraq that was converted to military use in Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons program. Many of these weapons- weapons that the U.S. and other countries provided critical materials for- were used against us during the war.”[8]

On Feb. 9, 1994, the Chair of the Senate Committee, Donald W. Riegle, Jr. reported to the Senate, on the basis of his Committee’s investigation, that “the U.S. government actually licensed the export of deadly microorganisms to Iraq. It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program.” [9]  In his statement before the Senate, Riegle  further added that the biological materials sent to Iraq were “full pathogens capable of being reproduced by Iraq once they got there. Between the years of 1985 and 1989, the United States Government approved the sales of quantities of potentially lethal biological agents that could have been cultured and grown in very large quantities in an Iraqi biological warfare program.” [10] The list of materials sent was included in the Senate statement. As Riegle reported on the same occasion, he had been distressed to learn that the materials in question had been requested by and “sent to Iraqi Government agencies, including the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education, the State Company for Drug Industries, and the Ministry of Trade.”  This and related information was presented in letters addressed to the Secretaries of the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Health and Human Services. The full report to the Senate was presented on May 25, 1994.

On the matter of nuclear weapons, the Senate Banking Committee also heard testimony relevant to nuclear weapons. Thus, on Oct. 27, 1992,  Riegle’s Committee heard the testimony of Ted Jacobs, who was chief counsel of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer and Monetary Affairs of the House Committee on Government Operations. Jacobs addressed the question of  export licenses for Iraqi destined products, the evidence of the administration’s tampering with the evidence relevant to loan guarantees to Iraq, and the matter of nuclear materials. Jacobs confirmed that the Commerce Department “did indeed license materials which were later utilized by the Iraq regime for nuclear missile and chemical purposes.” [11] 

Following Jacobs was David Kay, Secretary General of the Uranium Institute, ex-head of UN Weapons Inspection group in Iraq. Kay’s testimony included the following statement: “The simple answer to the question of whether U.S. produced equipment and technology has been found to be part of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is yes. It was there. It was an essential part.”  To this, Kay added: “The volume of U.S. produced equipment is not great when measured against the multi-billion dollar scale of the nuclear weapon program. On the other hand it was modern and it was essential to the Iraqi effort.”

Gary Milhollin was another witness. Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, he confirmed that “American equipment contributed vitally to the Iraq nuclear program, the missile program and the chemical program and I’m afraid I also believe that we knew that the risk was very high, if not certain that it would contribute when it was licensed.”

Millholin introduced other evidence, mass spectrometers, which, as he explained, were “used to measure the quality of nuclear weapon fuel as it’s being produced. There were two U.S. mass spectrometers in the Iraqi nuclear weapon program.” After referring to the training of Iraqi scientists in the U.S. in 1989, Millholin indicated that in his estimate, Saddam Hussein would have been “close to making a bomb today with American machine tools,” had he not made the move to invade Kuwait.

On the same day on which he testified before the Committee, Millholin, spoke on public radio, (“All Things Considered, NPR, Oct. 27, 1992), reporting on a “nuclear smuggler” who was known to have sent “strategic US equipment straight into the Iraqi bomb and missile programs even after the Commerce Department is told that the export is going to help make military rockets.” As Millholin pointed out, there was a system that was designed to check such exports but it failed to work, most likely “ undermined from the top.”  The story was picked up by the mainstream press in the U.S. and abroad. In Washington, on the other hand, Republicans supportive of the administration charged partisan politics.

The Riegle Committee began its investigation in 1991. In June 1990 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Clairborne Pell convened to discuss the more general question of U.S.-Iraqi relations.[12]

Its witnesses included U.S. Senators who charged the Administration with violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, demanding to know why the U.S. conducted business with the Iraqi despot with an abysmal human rights record- as the then U.S.  Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, John  Kelly- conceded. They wanted to know why the Administration was importing Iraqi oil and offering Saddam Hussein credits to promote his purchases of U.S. products. Kelly’s response was straightforward. Commercial credits, in operation since 1983, were a matter of promoting good business since Iraq was the  “largest (U.S.) export market for rice, which comprises 23 percent of total U.S. exports, for cattle, eggs, chickens, lumber, tobacco, and a variety of other agricultural products.” Kelly indicated that the U.S. had given Iraq “some $500 million in credit guarantees,” in addition to that offered by the Ex-Im Bank. 

And then there was the matter of strategic interest, Iraqi oil, and the questions of military assistance. On this,  Kelly maintained that “we do not sell items on the munitions list to Iraq. We do not cooperate with Iraq’s nuclear program. An interagency committee reviews licensing requests on the Department of Commerce’s nuclear referral list and rejects all of those which it determines would contribute to Iraqi capabilities to develop nuclear weapons. All items on the missile technology control regime annexes are reviewed for possible use in Iraq’s missile program. Fifty chemicals are now on the list of CW precursors who (sic)  export to Iraq and certain other countries is controlled.”

At the time, Senator Jesse Helms  challenged Kelly’s account, pointing to the evidence provided by former Defense Department official, Stephen Bryen, who maintained that the US and its allies had “been accomplices in the development and stockpiling of the Middle East major chemical warfare capability.” Helms went on, “its true for the development of germ warfare, ballistic missiles, potentially nuclear weapons.”  Further, Helms claimed  that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta sent “some of the world’s deadliest viruses to Iraq,” among other states–including those of the former Communist bloc.

But it was not fear of the Communist bloc that inspired the Bush administration to issue a National Security Directive, signed several months after the above hearings. Nor could the war between Iran and Iraq be used to justify the U.S. position expressed in NSD-26. That document expressly stated that “normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East. The United States Government should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate its behavior and to increase our influence with Iraq. At the same time, the Iraqi leadership must understand that any illegal use of chemical and/or biological weapons will lead to economic and political sanctions, for which we would seek the broadest possible support from our allies and friends….” [13]

NSD-26 had considerably more to say about U.S.-Iraqi relations as well as about U.S. interests in the Gulf and the “security of key friendly states in the area [that] are vital to U.S. national security.” That security was defined in terms of “access to Persian Gulf Oil,” which provided the foundation of the first Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq, the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.

Iraq’s role serves the same purpose in the second Bush administration, in a Middle East galaxy in which the Gulf has become all but an American military preserve and Saudi Arabia’s privileged position  as one of the two reliable ‘pillars’ is under a rapidly darkening cloud. Oil remains central, but in the larger political and military context in which oil interests operate, the legacy of past policies is not easily forgotten.


[1] Michael R. Gordon, “Bush Enlarges Case for War by Linking Iraq with Terrorists,” The New York Times, Jan. 29, 2003, p.A11.

[2] Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1997,  cited on p.43.

[3] Ibid., p.37.

[4] Jochen Hippler, “Iraq’s Military Power: The German Connection,”  Middle East Report, January-February 1991, see references and in the more recent work of  M. Phythian, op.cit.

[5] Ibid., p.67.

[6] The statement appears on the AGWVA website: http://www.gulfwarvets.com

[7] Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq Despite Use of Gas,” The New York Times, Aug.18,2002, p.1.

[8] James J Tuite 111, Committee Staff Report No. 3: Chemical Warfare Agent Identification, Chemical Injuries, and Other Findings. http://www.chronicillnet.org/PGWS/tuite/chembio.htm.

[9] Ibid., p.2 of online text.

[10] Congressional Record (Senate) February 9, 1994.

[11] Oct.27, 1992, Senate Banking Committee Hearing on US Export Control Policy Toward Iraq Prior to 1990 Invasion of Kuwait, Donald Riegel (D-MI) Chair.

[12] Federal News Service, 15 June 1990. hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the subject of U.S.-Iraq Relations.

[13] Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1997, p.41.

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