Global Politics

History of Iraq part III: US-Iraq relations

This story is a part of a series

History of Iraq

This story is a part of a series

History of Iraq

us_iraq_relations.JPG

Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution & Islamic Republic of Iran Army used many zu-23 in Iran-iraq war.

Credit:

Wikipedia

US policymakers put their strategic goals for the Persian Gulf down on paper decades ago: ensuring access to oil, defending Israel and preventing any one power from dominating the region. 

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

After War World II, America's energy demands began to outstrip its supply. It turned to the Middle East to quench its thirst and the security of the Gulf became a priority. 

In the 1950s as the Cold War set in, Washington cultivated allies there to stave off the Soviets. One of those allies was Iraq. 

But not for long. 

In 1958 a revolution overthrew the pro-Western monarchy. Baghdad turned toward Moscow. US distaste for Iraq only deepened through the 1960s and 70s. It wasn't just that Iraq's new leaders leaned toward the Soviets, Iraq was also aggressively anti-Israel. Washington put it in the category of radical Arab states that deserved pariah status. Meanwhile, US officials made friends with other countries in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two became the so-called "twin pillars" of US support in the region. Then came the Iranian revolution.

"In 1979 when the Islamic revolution sweeps Iran, there is a tremendous fear that the Islamic revolution is going to catch fire throughout the Middle East," says former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, who is now at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"We just didn't know what we were dealing with. We saw a very charismatic figure in the Ayatollah Khomeini leading the revolution in Iran, calling for the Islamic revolution to be spread throughout the Muslim world. And we took it very seriously," he says.

Americans felt unusually threatened by the revolution. That only intensified when Iranian students took diplomats and marines hostage in the US embassy in Tehran. They held them for more than a year. Next to Iran, Iraq didn't look so bad anymore. So when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Washington didn't protest. But Iraq's president Saddam Hussein had miscalculated. He thought Iran would be weak. But in 1981, Iran recovered from the initial onslaught and went on the offensive. Iranian forces pummelled the Iraqis, according to Pollack.

"By 1982 the Iranians had regained all of their territory and were poised ready for a massive invasion of Iraq which the Ayatollah Khomeini was proclaiming would be intended not only to overthrow the government of Iraq but was intended to provide the springboard for a larger drive into the Middle East," Pollack says.

Washington went on the alert. US officials made the decision to begin supporting Iraq in order to contain Iran and stop the fundamentalist revolution from spreading. Never mind Iraq's pariah status or the brutal tactics of its dictator. Policymakers argued Saddam Hussein was no different from other dictators the United States had worked with over the years: Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet, the Shah of Iran. Even so, the decision to take sides with Iraq against Iran was a significant change in US policy. 

Bruce Jentleson of Duke University wrote a book about Washington's new strategy called "With Friends Like These."

"The essence of the strategy throughout this period from '82 all the way through '90 when the Gulf War starts was the classical calculation that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. There is a logic to that and there were some bases for the United States tilting towards Iraq, but the key flaw in the reasoning was forgetting that the enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy too," he says.

At the time, Saddam Hussein was already making chemical weapons.

In 1982, Said Aburish was a consultant to the Iraqi government, helping it procure technology from European businesses. Officials in Baghdad asked him to find a company to build a pesticide plant. They gave him a blueprint of what they wanted.

"Being totally untechnical I actually made several copies of this thing and handed it over to people who built pesticide plants. It was the third company, Imperial Chemicals in the UK, that telephoned me and a man with an angry, justifiably, very angry voice, said Mr. Aburish, do you realize what you're trying to buy? I said, yes, a pesticide plant. And he said my friend, this is not a pesticide plant. This is a chemical warfare plant," Aburish says.

Aburish says he handed the blueprint back to the Iraqis and his resignation along with it. The same year the Reagan Administration removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Not because Saddam Hussein had stopped supporting terrorism, but because getting Iraq off the list would allow the United States to help it in its war against Iran. In 1983, President Reagan sent an envoy to Baghdad to make nice with Saddam Hussein. That envoy was Donald Rumsfeld. All this was happening at the same time reports were reaching the West that Iraq had started using mustard gas on the battlefield. Iranian soldiers were turning up in Tehran hospitals with burns and respiratory problems. They would describe seeing Iraqi planes, usually flying in groups.

"Aircraft dropped their bombs. As soon as the boys ran towards the area hit by the bombs the aircraft dropped another one. I myself got up to see where the bomb had fallen. As soon as I got up I felt as if I had been splashed by cold water. I knew immediately it was chemicals. It had a sickening smell as well," an Iranian soldier testified.

The United Nations confirmed Iraq's use of prohibited weapons. The State Department condemned Baghdad but took no punitive action. And later the same year, 1984, President Reagan quietly restored diplomatic ties with Iraq for the first time in nearly two decades. After this, the United States only increased its support for Iraq. Washington gave Baghdad critical battlefield intelligence on Iranian troop movements. The US government provided agricultural credits to Iraq to buy food from the United States. That in turn allowed Iraq to spend the money it saved on weapons.

And, says Pollack, Washington loosened export controls on weapons technology. To do so, US officials had to turn a blind eye to what was really happening.

"We encouraged our allies to basically do the same thing, to look the other way at Iraqi transgressions, to liberalize their own export laws and as a result of this, a whole range of countries began selling Iraq all kinds of military equipment and technology related to their weapons of mass destruction program. And had it not been for the US and our NATO allies allowing Iraq to buy this technology, none of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs could have gotten nearly as far as they did," he says.

The US contribution included selling Iraq strains of anthrax. No one looks back on this period of US policy with any pride. But Richard Murphy, a senior State Department official in the Reagan Administration, is unapologetic about American support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

"I don't regret the gestures we made, the credits we extended, the intelligence we shared. It did help to bring about the end of that war, which do remember was a concern to Washington on the grounds that it might spread against the Arab states of the Arabian Peninsula," Murphy says.

But the war didn't spread. It ended in a virtual stalemate. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein then turned his attention to crushing enemies inside his own borders. The Iraqi Kurds had always chafed against rule from Baghdad. During the Iran-Iraq war many Kurdish rebels sided with Iran, hoping to see the end of Saddam Hussein. In 1987, the Iraqi leader unleashed a ferocious campaign against the Kurds, civilians included. It was called al Anfal, the "spoils."

Peter Galbraith was on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time. He saw the effects of the campaign when he visited the Kurdish region with a colleague.

"We were amazed because villages and towns that existed on the map, and we had very detailed Defense Department maps, weren't there. And we saw in some places villages in the process of being destroyed, where for example on one side of the road there would be nothing but rubble, but on the other side of the road there would be bulldozers and partially destroyed villages. And the further into Kurdistan we got, we simply arrived at places where all signs of human habitation had been obliterated," Galbraith says.

Over the next year, reports of other atrocities against the Kurds made their way back to the West. The most notorious was an aerial gas attack against the town of Halabja, in March 1988.

The BBC's Morris Gent reached Halabja a few days later.

"I saw very very many dead bodies," Gent reported. "The smell was certainly almost overpowering at times. I think possibly some of those bodies were left there to prove the point that there has been a gas attack, a gas attack of considerable proportions."

The enduring image from Halabja is a man sprawled in the street cradling his baby as if to protect the infant from the poison - to no avail. Over the next few months there were more stories about chemical attacks. Back home in the US, Galbraith stumbled on one newspaper report and had a chilling realization.

"I put this together with what I'd seen of the destruction of the villages and I became very afraid that what Iraq was doing was committing genocide against the Kurdish population," Galbraith says.

Galbraith drafted legislation to bring US sanctions against Iraq. It was now September 1988. By then, Saddam Hussein's forces had killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds and levelled thousands of their villages. With the Iran-Iraq war now over, Galbraith couldn't see any compelling strategic reason why the US government should not punish Iraq for its treatment of the Kurds. The Senate didn't either; it passed the bill in a day. But then the legislation ran into trouble. 

Jentleson says the House watered it down and the Reagan Administration killed it.

"And it did it for two reasons. One, economic interests. In addition to oil, Iraq at that point had become the second-largest recipient of government agricultural credits to buy American agriculture, second only to Mexico, and there was a lot of lobbying in Washington by those interests. And secondly, was this continual blinders of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So it's worth bearing in mind that at that point in time there was not a lot of weight put on the plight of the Kurds," Jentleson says.

It was a disillusioning experience for the young Senate staffer Peter Galbraith. He says the United States was deluded to think the Iraqi regime could be a friend.

"The kind of regime that would launch an unprovoked attack on its neighbor Iran, that would become the first state to use chemical weapons in violation of the 1925 Geneva Convention banning the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, that would then use chemical weapons against its own people, that would commit genocide against the Kurds, was not the sort of regime that could ever be a reliable strategic partner, as the Bush Administration learned on the Second of August 1990," Galbraith says.

That was the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was a watershed moment. US policy makers suddenly, belatedly, realized Saddam Hussein posed a grave threat to the region, if not the world. The job of standing up to him fell to President George Bush.

"We call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces," President Bush announced. "There is no place for this sort of naked aggression in today's world. And I have taken a number of steps to indicate the deep concern that I feel."

Those steps included immediate US sanctions against Baghdad, a move Peter Galbraith had fought for two years earlier. A few months later, Operation Desert Storm pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Much has happened since--but nothing that has rehabilitated Saddam Hussein in American eyes. The man Washington was once so content to do business with is now seen only as a monstrous tyrant. American complicity in arming and legitimizing him is rarely mentioned. 

That's too bad, according to Said Aburish, the former consultant to Iraq who went on to write a biography of Saddam Hussein.

"In judging the period of cooperation between Saddam and the West, the United States in particular, one comes to the very sad conclusion that it is the United States that committed a crime, and not Saddam Hussein. We didn't expect anything different from Saddam Hussein. But we expected a great deal from the United States of America," he says.

Whatever its past policies, the United States is now poised to go to war against Iraq, for the second time. The stated reason is to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, weapons Washington helped him amass in the first place. US policy toward Iraq is no longer the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Nor is it centered on traditional strategic goals in the Persian Gulf. US policy toward Iraq is now distinctly post September 11th: to wipe out threats to American interests before they materialize. 

It's a strategy full of risk. It could well succeed. It could also backfire - as US policy toward Iraq has done in the past.