Revolution #76, January 14, 2007
U.S. & Saddam Hussein:
Co-Conspirators in Bloody Intrigue and Towering Crimes
Saddam Hussein’s U.S.-controlled trial and execution were a crude effort to bury the long history of American collaboration with Hussein, dating back to his rise to power in the 1960s. This included some of his worst crimes and atrocities: the massacre of communists and leftists in the 1960s, the betrayal of the Kurds in the 1970s, and the invasion of Iran and gassing of the Kurds and Iranians in the 1980s.
When the Hussein regime proved useful to the U.S. imperialist interests and policy of the moment, it was supported; when its actions or agenda got in the way, it was ruthlessly vilified and assaulted.
What follows is a brief history, taken from the book Oil, Power & Empire (by Larry Everest, Common Courage Press, 2003), of some of these twists, turns, and criminal complicity. (It is not, to be clear, a recounting of either all instances of U.S.-Ba’ath complicity, nor all U.S. imperialism’s towering and direct crimes against the Iraqi people, such as the killing of over 100,000 Iraqis in the 1991 Desert Storm war, of 500,000 to 1 million plus by 13 years of U.S.-backed sanctions, and of an estimated 655,000 as a result of the 2003 invasion and occupation.)
The U.S. Assists Hussein’s Rise to Power
The Ba’ath Party that Saddam Hussein would eventually head in Iraq was founded in Damascus, Syria in 1944. Its ideology was pan-Arabism, a variant of secular Arab nationalism which held that all Arabs constituted one nation. In social terms, it represented the interests and outlook of newly emerging bourgeois forces based in the military and state sectors. Iraq’s Ba’ath Party put forward vague promises of socialism and sharing the wealth under the slogan “unity, freedom, socialism.” It was also virulently anti-communist and upheld private property and inherited wealth as “natural rights.” It pursued a state-sponsored, oil-funded form of capitalist industrial development.
In 1958, the British- and U.S.-backed monarchy in Iraq was overthrown by a revolution headed by nationalist officers in the Iraqi army. The Ba’ath Party participated, but opposed the new government’s openness to ties with the Soviet Union and the somewhat egalitarian nature of its program. So did the U.S. imperialists.
On February 8, 1963, a combination of Ba’athists, Nasserists, and right-wing nationalists staged another military coup and seized power. The U.S. CIA directly provided the Ba’ath Party with lists of suspected communists, left-leaning intellectuals, progressives, and radical nationalists. On the night of the coup, the new Ba’ath regime used these lists to massacre between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Washington immediately offered diplomatic recognition. One Ba’ath Party cadre later admitted, “we came to power on an American train.”
By 1968, after a series of coups, the Ba’ath Party consolidated power and ruled Iraq until it was overthrown by the U.S. invasion in 2003. It purged the military and civil service, placed party loyalists in all key government positions, forcibly suppressed its opponents, and extended its reach into all corners of society, taking control of labor unions, student federations, women’s groups, and most especially the military.
Saddam Hussein was deeply involved in these intrigues. In 1966 Hussein was appointed Deputy Secretary General of the Ba’ath and soon he became head of the dreaded Mukhabarat or National Security Bureau. By the early 1970s, he was the most powerful figure in Iraqi politics, and in 1979 he became Iraq’s President.
Betraying the Kurds in the 1970s:
“Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”
By the early 1970s, tensions were rising between the U.S. and Iraq’s Ba’ath government because of its nationalization of Iraq’s oil industry, its new ties with the Soviet Union, and its hostility to Israel. So in 1972, Nixon, Kissinger and Iran’s Shah came up with a cynical plan: encourage an insurgency by Iraq’s Kurds in order to weaken Baghdad.
The Kissinger-Shah plan went into effect in 1972. Iran and the U.S. encouraged the Kurds to rise against Baghdad and provided them millions of dollars in weapons, logistical support, and funds.
The U.S. goal, however, was neither victory nor self-determination for Iraqi Kurds. The CIA feared such a strategy “would have the effect of prolonging the insurgency, thereby encouraging separatist aspirations and possibly providing to the Soviet Union an opportunity to create difficulties” for U.S. allies Turkey and Iran. Instead, the U.S. and the Shah sought to weaken Iraq and deplete its energies; the CIA viewed the Kurds as “a card to play” in this intrigue.
By 1975, the Kurdish insurgency posed the gravest threat the Ba’ath regime had yet faced, but Kissinger and the Shah wanted neither all-out war, nor the collapse of the Iraqi regime. As soon as Iraq agreed to U.S.-Iranian terms, the Shah and the U.S. cut off all aid to the Kurds —including food—and closed Iran’s border, cutting off Kurdish lines of retreat. The Kurds had no idea that they were about to be abandoned. But Iraq knew, and the next day it launched an all-out, “search-and-destroy” attack. The Kurds were taken by complete surprise, and deprived of Iranian support, their forces were quickly decimated. Between 150,000 and 300,000 Kurds were forced to flee into Iran. Kissinger dismissed criticism of U.S. actions: “Covert action,” he said, “should not be confused with missionary work.”
The Iran-Iraq War: U.S. Complicity in Hussein’s Biggest Crimes
In 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown, an Islamic government headed by Ayatollah Khomeini took power, and the U.S. imperialists faced a new and major challenge to their hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Saddam Hussein was also threatened by the Iranian revolution because Iraq’s government was basically secular and because the two countries had a history of conflict over their interests in the region. So the U.S. and Hussein made common cause against the new Islamist state: after a series of secret meetings and covert “green lights,” Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the fall of 1980.
The U.S. hoped Iraq’s invasion would weaken and perhaps destabilize the new Iranian government, as well as absorb Iraq’s energies. But when the tide of battle turned against Iraq, and the danger of an Iranian victory loomed (which could have threatened U.S. allies Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), the U.S. decided to back Hussein’s regime and prevent this. In June 1982—one month before the Dujail massacre took place (on July 8, 1982), President Ronald Reagan signed a secret directive to support Iraq with billions of dollars of credits, U.S. military intelligence and advice and access to weapons.
The U.S. program of arming Iraq was facilitated by Donald Rumsfeld, who traveled to Baghdad to meet with Hussein in December 1983 and again in March 1984, as Reagan’s special Middle East envoy. He assured Hussein of U.S. support and its readiness to restore diplomatic relations, which Iraq had broken after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Over the next eight years, the U.S. gave Iraq some $5 billion in economic aid and encouraged its allies to provide billions of dollars worth of arms. The British sold Iraq tanks, missile parts, and artillery; the French provided howitzers, Exocet missiles, and Mirage jet fighters; and the West Germans supplied technology used in Iraqi plants that reportedly produced nerve and mustard gas.
U.S. firms directly supplied Iraq with biological weapons, and the U.S. and its allies helped provide Iraq with chemical weapons. Between 1985 and 1990, U.S. corporations supplied $782 million in dual-use technology and equipment, including helicopters used in chemical attacks, computers which could be used in ballistic missile and nuclear weapon development, machine tools, graphics terminals, and lasers for designing and building ballistic missiles.
The U.S. also provided Iraq with critical military intelligence—which made its chemical attacks even more deadly. According to an August 2002 story in the New York Times, over 60 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] officers “were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for airstrikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq.” The Washington Post reported that Iraq used U.S. intelligence to “calibrate attacks with mustard gas on Iranian ground troops.” Iranian estimates of the dead and wounded from these gas attacks range between 50,000 and 100,000, including many civilians.
One senior defense intelligence officer told the New York Times, “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.” The newspaper continued, “What Mr. Reagan’s aides were concerned about, he said, was that Iran not break through to the Fao Peninsula and spread the Islamic revolution to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”
(The U.S. played both sides of the street in the war, prolonging it, weakening both Iran and Iraq, and greatly heightening the toll, an estimated one million casualties on both sides. For a complete overview, see Chapter 4 of Oil, Power and Empire.)
Gas Massacres in Kurdistan: the U.S. Role
The U.S. government not only supported the Hussein regime during its heinous gassing of Iraq’s Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War, it was directly complicit in those crimes.
Beginning in February 1988, as the war was winding down, the Hussein regime unleashed its “Al-Anfal” (spoils of war) campaign—a seven-month rampage of murder, destruction, and scorched-earth vengeance against Iraq’s Kurds. Chemical attacks were stepped up, fields were destroyed, villages bulldozed, and survivors forcibly transferred to government resettlement camps outside of Kurdistan.
Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. had supported attacks on Kurds throughout Greater Kurdistan, and steadfastly opposed recognizing their basic rights, let alone self-determination. This was done in service of overall U.S. objectives: preserving the “territorial integrity” and ruling governments of Iraq, Iran and Turkey and thus a regional balance of power that maintained U.S. dominance.
This support continued during Al-Anfal. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter states, “Wafiq Samarai, the former head of the Iraqi intelligence service responsible for Iraq,…said that U.S. advisers were sitting there as Iraq planned the inclusion of chemical weapons in the Anfal offensive.” After the gassing at Halabja in Kurdistan, Secretary of State Schultz condemned the attack as “abhorrent and unjustifiable,” but the Reagan and Bush administrations were still committed to turning Iraq into a strategic ally so blocked any action against Baghdad. Instead, U.S. aid and trade increased.
Why and how the U.S. finally turned against Hussein is detailed in Oil, Power & Empire.
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