Tuesday, July 14, 2009

US shared intelligence with Saddam even after Halabja

'As they rallied support for their respective wars, both President George H.W. Bush and his son President George W. Bush emphasized that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who had “gassed his own people.” At the time Saddam was doing the gassing, the Reagan Administration adopted the same indifferent posture toward Iraq’s use of these weapons on the Kurdish civilians as it had adopted toward the gassing of Iranian soldiers. Although the poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages begain in March 1987 - and were presumably known at least to U.S. intelligence agencies - neither U.S. officials nor anyone else in the international community said a word publicly.

On the morning of March 16, 1988, Iraqi warplanes flew over the small city of Halabja, on a plain east of the strategically important Darbandikan Dam in Eastern Kurdistan. The day before, Iranian Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and Kurdish peshmerga had captured the city, but both forces withdrew, possibly suspecting an Iraqi attack. Three years later, I was in Halabja and the survivors told me what happened next. There followed a smell that resembled burned almonds. Leaves turned brown, and people dropped dead. The corpses turned black. I was shown the basement of a house - still shut up for fear of the lingering effects of the poison - where fort-eight men, women, and children had taken shelter and died. The floor was littered with rotting clothes. At the graveyard, a man stuck his hand in a pile of dirt and pulled out two skulls. They were small, the skulls of children.

More than five thousand people died in the Halabja gassing. The Iranians saw a potential propaganda coup. They brought Iranian and Western journalists into the dead city. On a doorstep, a man wearing baggy Kurdish trousers and turban lay dead with the corpse of a swaddled baby in his arms. The photo of that scene was transmitted around the world.

World opinion reacted to Halabja with horror. In the U.S. Congress, Senator George Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, introduced a non-binding sense-of-the-Senate resolution denouncing Iraq for the attacks. Reagan’s tilt toward Iraq was running into trouble just when it seemed Iran might win the war. Although survivors described planes with Iraqi markings, the Reagan Administration suggested that both Iran and Iraq were responsible. It was an illogical lie - why would Iran attack its own allies - but one that successfully obscured the issue with the American media and foreign policy cognoscenti.

Over the next few months, the fortunes of the war shifted sharply in Iraq’s favor. Iraq retook the Faw Peninsula on April 17, 1988, in a thirty-five-hour amphibious operation that made extensive use of nerve gas. Video shot afterward showed the corpses of Iranian soldiers surrounded by syringes as they tried to inject themselves with atropine in a fruitless effort to administer an antidote. By the summer of 1988, the Iraqi Army had recaptured almost all the territory that Iran had taken since 1982. For six years, Iran had continued the war because Khomeini wanted Saddam Hussein’s head. At last, Khomeini recognized that this was not to be. Iran accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, which called for a cessation of hostilities and a return to the status quo ante. It was, said Khomeini, like drinking poison.

It was an apt metaphor. Poison gas was decisive to Saddam’s survival, and the American help with targeting was invaluable. While I have found no evidence that the Reagan Administration provided Iraq with battlefield intelligence related to the Halabja attack, this cannot be ruled out. Even after Halabja, the Reagan Administration continued to provide intelligence that Iraq used to target its chemical weapons more accurately.

Iran’s propaganda coup at Halabja backfired. The images shown on Iranian television were terrifying, and recruitment into the armed forces dropped precipitously. With massive international debts, Iraq was in no position to resist international pressure to stop using chemical weapons. By falsely suggesting that Iran was also responsible for the atrocity, the Reagan Administration helped make sure there was no such pressure.

On August 20, 1988, an armistice went into effect between the two countries.'

--Peter W. Galbraith, The End of Iraq

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