Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the past is repeatedly cited by the US and British governments as justification for his removal from power now. But just what was their response to his use of poison gas against Iranian troops and Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s? Far from condemning his actions, they stepped up their support for Baghdad.
One of the most damning revelations to come out of the Scott inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq affair was the British government’s secret decision to supply Saddam with even more weapons-related equipment after he shelled the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 with gas bombs, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians and maiming thousands more. Saddam said he had punished the Kurds for “collaboration” after the town had been successfully attacked by Iran. The weapons were produced with German-supplied chemicals.
At the end of the Iraq-Iran war later that year, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, drew up a paper entitled The Economic Consequences of the Peace. There were “major opportunities for British industry”, he said. But he was terrified his plan to increase British arms exports to Iraq, secretly agreed by the government, would be leaked.
“It could look very cynical if so soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales,” one of his officials told the Scott inquiry. The government’s decision to change its policy, but keep MPs and the public in the dark, was even more cynical, replied Lord Scott.
As Whitehall turned a blind eye to exports to Baghdad of equipment which ministers and officials admitted could be used to produce chemical and nuclear weapons, Howe ordered his paper to be kept under wraps until, in the words of Ian Blackley, a senior Foreign Office diplomat, the “cloud had passed” – a reference to the attack on Halabja.
This cynicism and hypocrisy was matched only by the US. Soon after the attack, Washington approved the export to Iraq of virus cultures and a $1bn contract to design and build a petrochemical plant the Iraqis planned to use to produce mustard gas. And while the Reagan administration condemned the use of chemical weapons during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, US officers were secretly supplying Iraqi generals with bomb-damage assessments and detailed information on Iranian troop deployments.
“The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern,” Walter Lang, a former senior US defence intelligence officer, told the New York Times this week. Washington was worried about the threat of Iran spreading its Islamic revolution to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Ever since TE Lawrence and his admirers in Whitehall drew the map of the modern Middle East after the first world war, the British and, later, American approach to the region has been dictated by naked self-interest. It is an approach which demanded a totally craven approach towards human rights. Saudi Arabia, no respecter of these and a past funder of Islamist extremism in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, remains one of Britain’s biggest arms markets and a key supplier of oil to the US.
Whatever the reasons, and there are many, for seeing the back of Saddam, don’t listen to Bush or Blair when they talk of morality, democracy and good governance. The evidence of Lord Howe and his officials to the Scott inquiry revealed the government’s priorities. This might be salutary to remember as the government prepares to respond to pressure for a debate about the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq.
“Public opposition in this country might have been embarrassingly vociferous, particularly in view of the use by Iraq of chemical weapons,” Scott told Howe. Howe replied that he wanted to defend British corporate interests from “malicious commentators” and “emotional misunderstandings”. The decision to prevent MPs from knowing about the government’s shift in policy was a “perfectly legitimate management of news”, he said.
Then, the evidence against Saddam was there for all to see, but conveniently ignored. Britain and the US were desperate to benefit from Saddam’s massive arms procurement programme. Now, we are told, Saddam must be overthrown because he is again said to be developing weapons of mass destruction, but we are not given the evidence.
A senior Foreign Office official told the Scott inquiry: “If there had been an outcry [over the change in policy towards Iraq] I am not sure it would necessarily have reflected the view of the country, only of the number of people prepared to comment.” Those words may be worth recalling in the weeks ahead.
· Richard Norton-Taylor is the author of Truth is a Difficult Concept: Inside the Scott Inquiry