Five years before Saddam Hussein’s now infamous 1988 gassing of the Kurds, a key meeting took place in Baghdad that would play a significant role in forging close ties between Saddam Hussein and Washington. It happened at a time when Saddam was first alleged to have used chemical weapons. The meeting in late December 1983 paved the way for an official restoration of relations between Iraq and the US, which had been severed since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
That envoy was Donald Rumsfeld.
Just 12 days after the meeting, on January 1, 1984, The Washington Post reported that the United States “in a shift in policy, has informed friendly Persian Gulf nations that the defeat of Iraq in the 3-year-old war with Iran would be ‘contrary to U.S. interests’ and has made several moves to prevent that result.”
The day before, the Iranian news agency alleged that Iraq launched another chemical weapons assault on the southern battlefront, injuring 600 Iranian soldiers. “Chemical weapons in the form of aerial bombs have been used in the areas inspected in Iran by the specialists,” the U.N. report said. “The types of chemical agents used were bis-(2-chlorethyl)-sulfide, also known as mustard gas, and ethyl N, N-dimethylphosphoroamidocyanidate, a nerve agent known as Tabun.”
Commenting on the UN report, US Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “We think that the use of chemical weapons is a very serious matter. We’ve made that clear in general and particular.”
Most glaring is that Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq as the 1984 UN report was issued and said nothing about the allegations of chemical weapons use, despite State Department “evidence.” On the contrary, The New York Times reported from Baghdad on March 29, 1984, “American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name.”
Throughout the period that Rumsfeld was Reagan’s Middle East envoy, Iraq was frantically purchasing hardware from American firms, empowered by the White House to sell. The buying frenzy began immediately after Iraq was removed from the list of alleged sponsors of terrorism in 1982. According to a February 13, 1991 Los Angeles Times article:
In 1984, according to The LA Times, the State Department—in the name of “increased American penetration of the extremely competitive civilian aircraft market”—pushed through the sale of 45 Bell 214ST helicopters to Iraq. The helicopters, worth some $200 million, were originally designed for military purposes. The New York Times later reported that Saddam “transferred many, if not all [of these helicopters] to his military.”
In response to the gassing, sweeping sanctions were unanimously passed by the US Senate that would have denied Iraq access to most US technology. The measure was killed by the White House.
Eight years later, Donald Rumsfeld signed on to an “open letter” to President Clinton, calling on him to eliminate “the threat posed by Saddam.” It urged Clinton to “provide the leadership necessary to save ourselves and the world from the scourge of Saddam and the weapons of mass destruction that he refuses to relinquish.”
Washington now speaks of Saddam’s threat and the consequences of a failure to act. Despite the fact that the administration has failed to provide even a shred of concrete proof that Iraq has links to Al Qaeda or has resumed production of chemical or biological agents, Rumsfeld insists that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist. He reports frequently for Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now! In May and June 2002, he reported from Iraq. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.