History of complicity

Did the first President Bush, in 1991, and President Reagan, in the late '80s, cynically choose to ignore Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Iraqis?

Published November 19, 2004 8:19PM (EST)

As the dust settles over the ruins of Fallujah, U.S. officials are estimating that some 1,200 insurgents were killed in the recent assault. How on earth do they know? Since they refused to allow men and boys of military age to leave the city, how can they tell which shattered corpse is which? Even more delusional, Lt. Gen. John Sattler of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force recently told CNN that he knew of not a single Iraqi civilian killed in the devastating attack on Fallujah. So the United States is suddenly interested again in counting bodies in Iraq?

When the Bush administration sought to justify its invasion of Iraq, it shone a spotlight on the number of Iraqis murdered by Saddam Hussein. But since April 2003, when the United States took charge in Baghdad, statistics on Iraqi casualties -- civilian and military -- have no longer been considered important. As Gen. Tommy Franks remarked after the invasion, "We don't do body counts."

More than a decade earlier, the United States performed the same sleight of hand -- now we condemn civilian casualties, now we don't -- with regard to Saddam's actions in the aftermath of the Gulf War, even when it involved Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction. There is strong evidence that the administration of George H.W. Bush covered up the Iraqi dictator's use of chemical weapons to put down a Shiite uprising in 1991. That uprising, and its ruthless repression, which the current Bush administration prefers not to acknowledge, set the stage for the current turmoil in Iraq.

One of the greatest concerns of coalition forces during Desert Storm was that Saddam would unleash his WMD. U.S. officials repeatedly warned that America's response would be immediate and devastating. Facing such threats, Saddam kept his weapons holstered, or so we were led to believe. In fact, Saddam did use them, not against coalition forces but against his own people, the Iraqi Shiites, who rose up in the wake of Desert Storm. The Shiites had good reason to believe the United States would support their revolt because they had been encouraged to rise up in the first place by President George H.W. Bush. But what was the reaction of Bush I's White House to Saddam's attack on the Shiites? Apparently, there was none.

Confirmation of that attack is contained in the recent report of the Iraq Survey Group, which investigated Saddam's WMD and discovered that he no longer had any at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Because the subject of Saddam's earlier use was not the focus of the report, this information has gone almost universally unnoticed by the media. (A notable exception is Juan Cole in his Oct. 7 "WMD Myth Meant to Deter Iran.")

Charles Duelfer, who headed the ISG team, wrote in its report that the rapid spread of the Shiite uprising in March 1991 panicked Saddam and other government officials. "According to a former senior member of the [chemical weapons] program," says Duelfer, "the regime was shaking and wanted something 'very quick and effective' to put down the revolt."

According to the report, the Iraqis at first considered using mustard gas but decided against it because "of its detectable persistence," fearing that the Americans would discover it. Instead, on March 7, the Iraqi military filled R-400 aerial bombs with sarin, a binary nerve agent. "Dozens of sorties were flown against Shi'a rebels in Karbala and the surrounding areas," the ISG report said. But apparently the R-400 bombs were not very effective, having been designed for high-speed delivery from planes, not slow-moving helicopters. So the Iraqi military switched to dropping CS, a very potent tear gas, in large aerial bombs.

According to Duelfer's report, Saddam and his generals knew they were taking a serious risk. "That the regime would consider this option with coalition forces still operating within Iraq's boundaries demonstrates both the dire nature of the situation and the Regime's faith in 'special weapons.'"

The lingering question, then, is why there was no reaction from members of the U.S. coalition to Saddam's use of chemical weapons. It's virtually impossible to believe they didn't know about it at the time. While preparing a documentary with me on the coming trial of Saddam for French TV's Canal Plus, French journalist Michel Despratx heard repeated charges from Shiite survivors of the uprising that the Iraqi dictator helped crush the rebellion with chemical weapons. They have been making such accusations for years.

What we learned from these Shiites was corroborated by Rocky Gonzalez, a veteran of the U.S. Special Forces whom we interviewed several months before Duelfer's ISG report was issued. In March 1991, Gonzalez, a warrant officer, was acting as an Arabic interpreter with the 101st Division stationed in southern Iraq near an-Najaf and Karbala, two key centers of the uprising. He told us that "people started showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns, burns on their face, on their hands, on places where their skin was exposed. They were coming to us in streams. They said they'd been attacked by chemical weapons."

When I interviewed Gonzalez again after the Duelfer report was issued, he maintained that, contrary to what the report said about mustard gas, many of the refugees who fled to U.S. lines were indeed victims of that chemical. "Their tongues were swollen," he said, "and they had severe burns on the mucous tissue, on the inside of their mouths and nasal passages. Our chemical officer also said it looked like mustard gas."

Gonzalez suggested that local Iraqi military and Baathist officials, desperate to put down the uprising, may have used mustard gas without permission from on high. Gonzalez said he heard from refugees that nerve gas was also being used. He observed Iraqi helicopters making repeated bomb runs over an-Najaf. One of the helicopters, he said, was outfitted as a crop sprayer.

What did Gonzalez's unit do with that intelligence? "A lot of that was kept quiet," he said, "because we didn't want to panic the troops. We stepped up our training with gas masks, because we were naturally concerned. We were downwind from where Saddam was using the weapons." Despite such caution, however, "there were reports generated at our level," Gonzalez said. "I mean the people themselves said they were being gassed. So we filed the reports. Whether they went above our division, I have no idea." Gonzalez's former commander turned down my request for an interview.

At the time, few subjects were more militarily and politically sensitive than Saddam's use of WMD. It's difficult to believe that reports from Gonzalez's unit weren't flashed immediately up the chain of command in the Gulf and Washington.

And there were other American witnesses to what happened. U.S. helicopters and planes flew overhead at the time, constantly observing as Saddam's helicopters decimated the rebels. Some of those aircraft, according to Gonzalez, provided real-time video of the occurrences below. A reliable U.S. intelligence source confirmed that such evidence does indeed exist.

Why was there no statement of outrage or threat of retaliation from the administration of the elder Bush? There can be only one explanation: Denouncing Saddam for using chemical weapons would have greatly increased pressure on the U.S. president to come to the aid of the Shiites. And that was the last thing Bush I wanted to do.

In February 1991, still battling Saddam, President Bush twice called for Iraqis to rise up. "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop," he declared, "and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and to force Saddam Hussein to step aside." The president's message was repeatedly broadcast across Iraq by clandestine CIA-backed stations and by millions of leaflets dropped by U.S. airplanes over southern Iraq. Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north were also rising up. Many in the military joined in the revolt.

But when it looked as if the revolt might actually succeed, Bush abruptly turned his back. He and his coalition partners wanted a neat military coup to replace Saddam, not an uncontrolled revolt that could lead to chaos and the collapse of Iraq as a state, extending the influence of Iran. In an Iraqi vacuum, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, wrote in "A World Transformed" in 1998, the United States "could conceivably" be drawn into becoming "an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." They wanted a regime change, nothing more: a malleable general to take the place of the mercurial Saddam.

The idea had been that a popular uprising would be another way of weakening Saddam's grip on power and allowing the Iraqi military to take over. Commenting on the U.S. tactic in an interview for the documentary, Thomas Pickering, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, "All of the efforts to debilitate Saddam and to create problems for him in order to remove him from Kuwait were justified." I asked: "Even though the U.S. couldn't follow up afterwards to help the people who rose up?" He replied: "In war and love, all's fair."

So the United States stood by while Saddam's tanks and helicopters put down the Shiite revolt and then headed north to deal with the Kurds. When the peace treaty was signed at the end of Desert Storm, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf gave Saddam's generals permission to keep flying their helicopters. When they turned them against the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings with devastating effect, the Bush administration asserted that, unfortunately, its hands were tied by the peace agreement -- and made it very clear that the United States didn't want to become involved militarily in any way. On April 3, 1991, President Bush said: "I do not want to push American forces beyond our mandate. Of course I feel a frustration and a sense of grief for the innocents that are being killed brutally, but we are not there to intervene."

That was the case until CNN broadcast worldwide pictures of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam's vengeance in the north. Bush, on a golfing vacation, was obliged to react. He declared a no-fly zone in the north and ordered Saddam to cease his attacks. Saddam very quickly backed down. In the south, however, there was no such TV coverage and no U.S. reaction. The slaughter of the Shiites continued. A complete no-fly zone was established there only many months later.

The United States was not just a neutral bystander to the Shiite uprising. In Iraq this year, several survivors of the Shiite revolt told my colleague Despratx that U.S. troops blocked their attempts to march on Baghdad. Others asserted that American forces destroyed huge stocks of captured Iraqi arms rather than turn them over to the rebels. Former Special Forces officer Gonzalez confirmed that his unit repeatedly blew up caches of captured weapons that the insurgents were trying to obtain.

But 1991 was not the first time U.S. leaders closed their eyes to Saddam's use of chemical weapons. When word first broke in 1983 that Iraq was using mustard gas against Iranian troops, the Reagan administration (after an oral tap on the wrist delivered by then Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld) studiously ignored the issue. Saddam, after all, was then the West's de facto partner in a war against the feared fundamentalist regime of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam's chemical weapons were provided largely by companies in Germany and France. The United States provided him with --among many other things -- vital satellite intelligence on enemy troop positions.

U.S. support for Saddam increased in 1988 when Rick Francona, then an Air Force captain, was dispatched to Baghdad by the Defense Intelligence Agency. His mission: to provide precise targeting plans to the Iraqis to cripple a feared a new Iranian offensive. Shortly after arriving, Francona discovered that the Iraqis were now using even more deadly chemical weapons -- nerve gas -- against the Iranians. He informed his superiors in Washington.

The response, he said, was immediate. "We were told to cease all of our cooperation with the Iraqis until people in Washington were able to sort this out. There were a series of almost daily meetings on 'How are we going to handle this, what are we going to do?' Do we continue our relations with the Iraqis and make sure the Iranians do not win this war, or do we let the Iraqis fight this on their own without any U.S. assistance, and they'll probably lose? So there are your options -- neither one palatable." Francona concluded, "The decision was made that we would restart our relationship with the Iraqis ... We went back to Baghdad, and continued on as before. "

This policy continued even after it was discovered that Saddam was using chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds of Halabja. Fourteen years later, in March 2003, attempting to justify the coming invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush repeatedly cited the Halabja atrocity. "Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky," he said. "The chemical attack on Halabja provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to commit." But President Bush never explained the assistance that the United States had given Saddam at the time.

When news first broke about the atrocity in 1988, the Reagan administration did its utmost to prevent condemnation of Saddam, fighting Congress' attempt to impose restrictions on trade with Iraq. President Bush's father was then vice president. Another key administration figure involved in the fight was Reagan's national security advisor, Gen. Colin Powell.

Now, to return to the original question: Did the first Bush administration cynically choose to ignore Saddam's use of chemical weapons in March 1991, just as the Reagan administration did in the late 1980s? And has the current Bush administration brushed this history of complicity with real WMD under the rug, while using nonexistent WMD as a reason for war? The indisputable answer is yes.

By Barry Lando

Barry Lando, a former producer for CBS's "60 Minutes," lives in Paris. The documentary "The Trial of Saddam Hussein -- The Trial You'll Never See," which he co-produced with Michel Despratx, was broadcast Oct. 26 on Canal Plus, a cable TV station in France.

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