Missing U.S.-Iraq History

Robert Parry

With all the hoopla surrounding the capture of Saddam Hussein—“caught like a rat,” read the Chicago Tribune headline—it is time to take a step back and consider the full story of the Saddam Hussein and his long time relationship with the U.S. government, beginning in 1959, when the CIA put Saddam on its covert operations payroll in a plot to assassinate then Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim.

In almost all of the instant histories that filled the news pages and the airwaves after his capture, the relationship between Saddam and successive U.S. presidential administrations has been ignored. National Public Radio, the
Washington Post, the New York Times, all ignored the documented fact that for the decade of the ’80s, Saddam was a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

What follows is an article by investigative reporter Bob Parry, in which he fills in some of the missing pieces. It originally appeared February 23, 2003, before the war started, on Consortiumnews.com. As a correspondent for the Associated Press and
Newsweek in the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. His latest book, Lost History, is available on the Consortiumnews.com order page. —Joel Bleifuss

Before George W. Bush gives the final order to invade Iraq—a nation that has not threatened the United States—the American people might want a few facts about the real history of U.S.-Iraq relations. Missing chapters from 1980 to the present would be crucial in judging Bush’s case for war.

But Americans don’t have those facts because Bush and his predecessors in the White House have kept this history hidden from the American people. When parts of the story have emerged, administrations of both parties have taken steps to suppress or discredit the disclosures. So instead of knowing the truth, Americans have been fed a steady diet of distortions, simplifications and outright lies.

This missing history also is not just about minor details. It goes to the heart of the case against Saddam Hussein, including whether he is an especially “aggressive” and “unpredictable” dictator who must be removed from power even at the risk of America’s standing in the world and the chance that a war will lead to more terrorism against U.S. targets.

For instance, George W. Bush has frequently cited Saddam Hussein’s invasions of neighbors, Iran and Kuwait, as justification for the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq. “By defeating this threat, we will show other dictators that the path of aggression will lead to their own ruin,” Bush declared during a speech in Atlanta on Feb. 20.

Leaving aside whether Bush’s formulation is Orwellian double-speak—aggression to discourage aggression—there is the historical question of whether Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush actually encouraged Saddam’s aggressions for geopolitical reasons or out of diplomatic incompetence.

Carter’s ‘Green Light’?

This intersection of Saddam’s wars and U.S. foreign policy dates back at least to 1980 when Iran’s radical Islamic government held 52 Americans hostage in Tehran and the sheiks of the oil-rich Persian Gulf feared that Ruhollah Khomeini’s radical breed of Islam might sweep them from power just as it had the Shah of Iran a year earlier.

The Iranian government began its expansionist drive by putting pressure on the secular government of Iraq, instigating border clashes and encouraging Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish populations to rise up. Iranian operatives sought to destabilize Saddam’s government by assassinating Iraqi leaders. [For details, see “An Unnecessary War,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2003.]

On Aug. 5, 1980, as tensions mounted on the Iran-Iraq border, Saudi rulers welcomed Saddam to Riyadh for the first state visit ever by an Iraqi president to Saudi Arabia. During meetings at the kingdom’s ornate palaces, the Saudis feted Saddam whose formidable Soviet-supplied army was viewed as a bulwark against Iran.

Saudi leaders also say they urged Saddam to take the fight to Iran’s fundamentalist regime, advice that they say included a “green light” for the invasion from President Carter.

Less than two months after Saddam’s trip, with Carter still frustrated by his inability to win release of the 52 Americans imprisoned in Iran, Saddam invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980. The war would rage for eight years and kill an estimated one million people.

The claim of Carter’s “green light” for the invasion was made by senior Arab leaders, including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, to President Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, when Haig traveled to the Middle East in April 1981, according to “top secret” talking points that Haig prepared for a post-trip briefing of Reagan.

Haig wrote that he was impressed with “bits of useful intelligence” that he had learned. “Both [Egypt’s Anwar] Sadat and [Saudi then-Prince] Fahd [explained that] Iran is receiving military spares for U.S. equipment from Israel,” Haig noted. “It was also interesting to confirm that President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through Fahd.”

Haig’s “talking points” were first disclosed at Consortiumnews.com in 1995 after I discovered the document amid records from a congressional investigation into the early history of the Reagan administration’s contacts with Iran. At that time, Haig refused to answer questions about the “talking points” because they were still classified. Though not responding to direct questions about the “talking points,” Carter has pooh-poohed other claims that he gave Saddam encouragement for the invasion.

But before the U.S. heads to war in 2003, both Carter and Haig might be asked to explain what they know about any direct or indirect contacts that would explain the Saudi statements about the alleged “green light.” Saudi Arabia’s longtime ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar also might be asked to give a complete account of what the Saudi government knows and what its leaders told Saddam in 1980.

[Haig’s “top secret” talking points have been posted on the Web for the first time here.]

Reagan’s Iraqi Tilt

Through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, as first one side and then the other gained the upper hand, the Reagan administration was officially neutral but behind the scenes tilted from one side to the other.

When Iran appeared to be winning in 1982, Reagan and his advisers made a fateful decision to secretly supply Saddam’s military, including permitting shipments of dual-use technology that Iraq then used to build chemical and biological weapons. Tactical military assistance also was provided, including satellite photos of the battlefield.

While congressional inquiries and press accounts have sketched out some of these facts over the years, the current Bush administration continues to plead ignorance or question the reliability of the stories.

Last September, for example, Newsweek reported that the Reagan administration in the 1980s had allowed sales to Iraq of computer databases that Saddam could use to track political opponents and shipments of “bacteria/fungi/protozoa” that could help produce anthrax and other biological weapons. [Newsweek issue dated Sept. 23, 2002]

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va,, asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the Newsweek story at a Senate hearing on Sept. 19. “Did the United States help Iraq to acquire the building blocks of biological weapons during the Iran-Iraq war?” Byrd inquired. “Are we, in fact, now facing the possibility of reaping what we have sown.”

?“Certainly not to my knowledge,” Rumsfeld responded. “I have no knowledge of United States companies or government being involved in assisting Iraq develop chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.”

So even the current U.S. secretary of defense—who served the Reagan administration as a special envoy to the Middle East in 1983-84 and personally met with Saddam—says he doesn’t know about this secret history. Promises of further investigation last September also haven’t brought answers to Byrd’s questions.

Senior Bush’s Advice

Beyond those “dual-use” supplies, other unanswered questions relate to whether then-Vice President? George H.W. Bush urged Saddam to use greater ferocity in waging his war with Iran, advice that led the Iraqi air force to bomb civilian centers in Tehran and other Iranian cities in 1986.

A lengthy article by Murray Waas and Craig Unger in the New Yorker in 1992 described the senior Bush passing on advice to Saddam, through Arab intermediaries, for this more aggressive bombing campaign. Yet the historical question has never been settled. The senior Bush has never been subjected to a careful questioning, though it is true that Saddam did intensify his air campaign after Bush’s trip.

The answer would be relevant now as the younger Bush asserts that Saddam’s penchant for military aggression justifies a new war. If Bush’s father actually was counseling Saddam to be more aggressive, that’s a fact that the American people ought to know.

Waas and Unger described the motive for the Reagan administration’s tactical advice as a kind of diplomatic billiard shot. By getting Iraq to expand use of its air force, the Iranians would be more desperate for U.S.-made HAWK anti-aircraft missile parts, giving Washington more leverage with the Iranians. Iran’s need to protect their cities from Iraqi air attacks gave impetus to the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostage scheme, which later became known as the Iran-contra affair. [See The New Yorker, Nov. 2, 1992.]

Another ‘Green Light’?

The devastation from the Iran-Iraq war, which finally ended in 1988, also set the stage for the Gulf War of 1990-91. The eight-year war had crippled the Iraqi economy and left Saddam’s government deeply in debt.

Having been egged on by the oil-rich sheikdoms to blunt the revolutionary zeal of Iran, Saddam felt betrayed when Kuwait wouldn’t write off Iraq’s debts and rejected a $10 billion loan. Beyond that, Saddam was furious with Kuwait for driving down world oil prices by overproducing and for slant-drilling into Iraqi oil fields. Many Iraqis also considered Kuwait, historically, a part of Iraq.

Before attacking Kuwait, however, Saddam consulted George H.W. Bush’s administration. First, the U.S. State Department informed Saddam that Washington had “no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.” Then, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”

As Foreign Policy magazine observed, “the United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did.” [Foreign Policy, Jan.-Feb. 2003]

While Glaspie’s strange diplomacy drew some congressional and press attention during the previous Gulf crisis, the full context of George H.W. Bush’s relationship with Saddam—which might help explain why the Iraqi dictator so disastrously misread the U.S. signals—has never been made explained.

A Clinton Cover-up?

Beyond that missing history of U.S.-Iraq relations, there’s the secondary issue of cover-ups conducted by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Democratic sources say Clinton heeded personal appeals from the elder Bush and other top Republicans to close the books on the so-called “Iraqgate” investigation—as well as probes intosecret Reagan-Bush dealings with Iran—soon after the Democrat defeated Bush in the 1992 election. Some Democrats say Clinton agreed to shelve the investigations out of concern for national security and the country’s unity. Others suggest that Clinton was tricked by the wily elder Bush with promises that a pullback on the Iran-Iraq investigations might win Clinton some bipartisanship with the Republicans in Congress, a tantalizing prospect that turned out to be a mirage.

Whatever the reasons, Clinton’s Justice Department did bail out the Reagan-Bush team in the mid-1990s when more disclosures about the secret dealings with Iraq flooded to the surface. Perhaps the most important disclosure was an affidavit by former Reagan administration official Howard Teicher that was filed in connection with a criminal trial in Miami in 1995. The Teicher affidavit was the first sworn public account by a Reagan insider of the covert U.S.-Iraq relationship.

Teicher, who served on Reagan’s National Security Council staff, traced the U.S. tilt to Iraq to a turning point in the war in 1982 when Iran gained the offensive and fears swept through the U.S. government that Iran’s army might slice through Iraq to the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“In June 1982, President Reagan decided that the United States could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran,” Teicher wrote in his affidavit. Teicher said he helped draft a secret national security decision directive that Reagan signed to authorize covert U.S. assistance to Saddam Hussein’s military.

“The NSDD, including even its identifying number, is classified,” Teicher wrote in 1995.

The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit. “The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.

In 1984, Teicher said he went to Iraq with Rumsfeld to convey a secret Israeli offer to assist Iraq after Israel had concluded that Iran was becoming a greater danger. “I traveled with Rumsfeld to Baghdad and was present at the meeting in which Rumsfeld told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz about Israel’s offer of assistance,” Teicher wrote. “Aziz refused even to accept the Israelis’ letter to Hussein offering assistance because Aziz told us that he would be executed on the spot by Hussein if he did so.”

Another key player in Reagan’s Iraq tilt was then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, according to Teicher’s affidavit.

“In 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran,” Teicher wrote. “This message was delivered by Vice President Bush who communicated it to Egyptian President Mubarak, who in turn passed the message to Saddam Hussein.

“Similar strategic operational military advice was passed to Saddam Hussein through various meetings with European and Middle Eastern heads of state. I authored Bush’s talking points for the 1986 meeting with Mubarak and personally attended numerous meetings with European and Middle East heads of state where the strategic operational advice was communicated.”

Teicher’s affidavit represented a major break in the historical mystery of U.S. aid to Iraq. But it complicated a criminal arms-trafficking case that Clinton’s Justice Department was prosecuting against Teledyne Industries and a salesman named Ed Johnson. They had allegedly sold explosive pellets to Chilean arms manufacturer Carlos Cardoen, who used them to manufacture cluster bombs for Iraq.

Red-Faced Prosecutors

Prior to trying the Teledyne case, Clinton’s Justice Department declared that its investigation “did not find evidence that U.S. agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq.” But the review noted, curiously, that the CIA had withheld an unknown number of documents that were contained in “sensitive compartments” that were denied to the investigators. Despite that denial of access, the Clinton investigators expressed confidence in their conclusions.

Two weeks after that exonerating report, however, Teicher’s affidavit was filed in federal court in Miami, embarrassing senior Justice Department officials. After taking the word of former Reagan-Bush officials and agreeing not to examine the CIA’s “sensitive compartments,” the Justice Department officials looked gullible, incompetent or complicit.

They took their fury out on Teicher, insisting that his affidavit was unreliable and threatening him with dire consequences for coming forward. Yet, while deeming Teicher’s affidavit false, the Clinton administration also declared the document a state secret, classifying it and putting it under court seal. A few copies, however, had been distributed outside the court and the text was soon posted on the Internet.

After officially suppressing the Teicher affidavit, the Justice Department prosecutors persuaded the judge presiding in the Teledyne-Johnson case to rule testimony about the Reagan-Bush policies to be irrelevant. Unable to mount its planned defense, Teledyne agreed to plead guilty and accept a $13 million fine. Johnson, the salesman who had earned a modest salary in the mid-$30,000 range, was convicted of illegal arms trafficking and given a prison term.

Before a U.S. invasion of Iraq begins, former President Clinton might be asked whether he was approached by George H.W. Bush or a Bush emissary with an request to drop investigations into Reagan-Bush policies in the Middle East.

Teicher, who has since 1995 refused to discuss his affidavit, could be given a congressional forum to testify about his knowledge. So could other surviving U.S. officials named in Teicher’s affidavit, including Gates and Rumsfeld. Foreign leaders mentioned in the affidavit also could be approached, including former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Mubarak and Aziz.

Junior Bush’s Hidden Records

George W. Bush also has some questions he should answer before missiles start crashing into Baghdad. When he took office in 2001, one of his first acts as president was to block the legally required release of documents from the Reagan-Bush administration.

Then, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a stunned nation rallied around him, Bush issued an even more sweeping secrecy order. He granted former presidents and vice presidents or their surviving family members the right to stop release of historical records, including those related to “military, diplomatic or national security secrets.” Bush’s order stripped the Archivist of the United States of the power to overrule claims of privilege from former presidents and their representatives. [For details on Bush’s secrecy policies, see the New York Times, Jan. 3, 2003]

By a twist of history, Bush’s order eventually could give him control of both his and his father’s records covering 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era and however long Bush’s own presidential term lasts, potentially a 20-year swath of documentary evidence.

As the junior Bush now takes the nation to war in the name of freedom and democracy, he might at least be challenged to reverse that secrecy and release all relevant documents on the history of the Reagan-Bush policies in the Middle East. That way, the American people can decide for themselves whether Saddam Hussein is an aggressive leader whose behavior is so depraved that a preemptive war is the only reasonable course of action.

Or they might conclude that Saddam, like many other dictators through history, operates within a framework of self-preservation, which means he could be controlled by a combination of tough arms inspections and the threat of military retaliation.

Without the full history—as embarrassing as that record might be to the last five U.S. presidents—the American people cannot judge whether the nation’s security will be enhanced or endangered by Bush’s decision to put the United States on its own aggressive course of action.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 80s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He is the author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush and Secrecy and Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. He is the editor of Consortium News.
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