Washington – In warning against a possible Iraqi chemical or biological strike against U.S. troops, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked last week that “there’s a danger that Saddam Hussein would do things he’s done previously – he has in the past used chemical weapons.”
Rumsfeld should know. Declassified State Department documents show that when he had an opportunity to raise the issue of chemical weapons with the Iraqi leadership in 1983, he failed to do so in any meaningful way. Worse, he may well have given a signal to the Iraqis that the United States would close its eyes to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during its war with Iran, providing an early boost to Iraq’s plans to develop weapons of mass destruction. As President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy for the Middle East, Rumsfeld in December 1983 made the first visit by a U.S. official of his seniority to Baghdad, where he met President Saddam Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. Iraq had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States in June 1967. Now both sides hoped that the talks in Baghdad would facilitate a resumption of formal ties.
The visit came at a time when Iraq was facing Iranian “human wave” assaults that posed a serious threat to the regime. In response, Iraq had started to use chemical weapons on the battlefield – primarily mustard gas, a blister agent that can kill. This was known in Washington at least as early as October 1983. State Department officials had raised the alarm, suggesting ways of deterring further Iraqi use. But they faced resistance. Washington, while taking a formal position of neutrality in the Gulf conflict, had started a pronounced tilt toward Iraq, providing it with significant financial and political support. As talking points and minutes of the meetings show, the aim of Rumsfeld’s mission was to inform the Iraqi leadership of America’s shifting policy in the Middle East. It was also intended to explore a proposal to run an oil pipeline from Iraq to the Jordanian port of Aqaba (a U.S. business interest involving the Bechtel Corporation), and to caution the Iraqis not to escalate the war in the Gulf through air strikes against Iranian oil facilities and tankers (which Washington feared might draw the United States into the war).
There is no indication that Rumsfeld raised U.S. concerns about Iraq’s use of poison gas with Saddam Hussein. But in a private meeting with Tariq Aziz, he made a single brief reference to “certain things” that made it difficult for the United States to do more to help Iraq. These things included “chemical weapons, possible escalation in the Gulf, and human rights.” There is no record of further discussion of chemical weapons or human rights at these meetings, which covered the length and breadth of the warming relationship. Rumsfeld did, however, place considerable emphasis on the need for Iraq to prevent an escalation in the Gulf conflict via attacks on Iranian oil installations and tankers. Certainly nothing suggests that he told the Iraqi leadership to take care of “certain things” before diplomatic relations could be restored.
The senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad reported a few days later with evident delight that “Ambassador Rumsfeld’s visit has elevated U.S.-Iraqi relations to a new level.” But, he noted, “during and following the Rumsfeld visit we have received no commitment from the Iraqis that they will refrain from military moves toward escalation in the Gulf.”
The record of the war suggests that, flush with their new confidence in U.S. backing, the Iraqis may have felt that they were now less restrained. They attacked Iranian oil facilities and ended up drawing the United States into the war, in 1987.
In the first Iranian offensive after Rumsfeld’s visit, in February 1984, Iraq used not only large amounts of mustard gas but also the highly lethal nerve agent tabun. It was the first recorded use of the nerve agent in history. In November 1984, shortly after Reagan’s re-election, diplomatic relations between the Washington and Baghdad were restored.
Iraq made increasing use of chemical weapons on the battlefield and even against civilians. This culminated in the wholesale gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, causing the deaths of several thousand innocent men, women, and children.
Eventually Iraq was able to force a cease-fire with Iran after eight years of fighting.
The American public should demand a full accounting for the support its leadership provided Iraq in the past, including its green light to chemical weapons use – weapons that Washington is belatedly claiming should be destroyed.
The writer is preparing a book on U.S. policy toward Iraq, with partial support from the Open Society Institute and the MacArthur Foundation. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.