The Saddam in Rumsfeld's Closet
by Jeremy Scahill
Five years before Saddam Hussein's now
infamous 1988 gassing of the Kurds, a key meeting took place
in Baghdad that would play a significant role in forging close
ties between Saddam Hussein and Washington. It happened at a
time when Saddam was first alleged to have used chemical weapons.
The meeting in late December 1983 paved the way for an official
restoration of relations between Iraq and the US, which had been
severed since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
With the Iran-Iraq war escalating, President
Ronald Reagan dispatched his Middle East envoy, a former secretary
of defense, to Baghdad with a hand-written letter to Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein and a message that Washington was willing at any
moment to resume diplomatic relations.
That envoy was Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld's December 19-20, 1983 visit
to Baghdad made him the highest-ranking US official to visit
Iraq in 6 years. He met Saddam and the two discussed "topics
of mutual interest," according to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.
"[Saddam] made it clear that Iraq was not interested in
making mischief in the world," Rumsfeld later told The New
York Times. "It struck us as useful to have a relationship,
given that we were interested in solving the Mideast problems."
Just 12 days after the meeting, on January
1, 1984, The Washington Post reported that the United States
"in a shift in policy, has informed friendly Persian Gulf
nations that the defeat of Iraq in the 3-year-old war with Iran
would be 'contrary to U.S. interests' and has made several moves
to prevent that result."
In March of 1984, with the Iran-Iraq war
growing more brutal by the day, Rumsfeld was back in Baghdad
for meetings with then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. On
the day of his visit, March 24th, UPI reported from the United
Nations: "Mustard gas laced with a nerve agent has been
used on Iranian soldiers in the 43-month Persian Gulf War between
Iran and Iraq, a team of U.N. experts has concluded... Meanwhile,
in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, U.S. presidential envoy Donald
Rumsfeld held talks with Foreign Minister Tarek Aziz (sic) on
the Gulf war before leaving for an unspecified destination."
The day before, the Iranian news agency
alleged that Iraq launched another chemical weapons assault on
the southern battlefront, injuring 600 Iranian soldiers. "Chemical
weapons in the form of aerial bombs have been used in the areas
inspected in Iran by the specialists," the U.N. report said.
"The types of chemical agents used were bis-(2-chlorethyl)-sulfide,
also known as mustard gas, and ethyl N, N-dimethylphosphoroamidocyanidate,
a nerve agent known as Tabun."
Prior to the release of the UN report,
the US State Department on March 5th had issued a statement saying
"available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical
Commenting on the UN report, US Ambassador
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was quoted by The New York Times as saying,
"We think that the use of chemical weapons is a very serious
matter. We've made that clear in general and particular."
Compared with the rhetoric emanating from
the current administration, based on speculations about what Saddam
might have, Kirkpatrick's reaction was hardly a call to action.
Most glaring is that Donald Rumsfeld was
in Iraq as the 1984 UN report was issued and said nothing about
the allegations of chemical weapons use, despite State Department
"evidence." On the contrary, The New York Times reported
from Baghdad on March 29, 1984, "American diplomats pronounce
themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United
States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored
in all but name."
A month and a half later, in May 1984,
Donald Rumsfeld resigned. In November of that year, full diplomatic
relations between Iraq and the US were fully restored. Two years
later, in an article about Rumsfeld's aspirations to run for the
1988 Republican Presidential nomination, the Chicago Tribune Magazine
listed among Rumsfeld's achievements helping to "reopen U.S.
relations with Iraq." The Tribune failed to mention that
this help came at a time when, according to the US State Department,
Iraq was actively using chemical weapons.
Throughout the period that Rumsfeld was
Reagan's Middle East envoy, Iraq was frantically purchasing
hardware from American firms, empowered by the White House to
sell. The buying frenzy began immediately after Iraq was removed
from the list of alleged sponsors of terrorism in 1982. According
to a February 13, 1991 Los Angeles Times article:
"First on Hussein's shopping list
was helicopters -- he bought 60 Hughes helicopters and trainers
with little notice. However, a second order of 10 twin-engine
Bell "Huey" helicopters, like those used to carry combat
troops in Vietnam, prompted congressional opposition in August,
1983... Nonetheless, the sale was approved."
In 1984, according to The LA Times, the
State Department-in the name of "increased American penetration
of the extremely competitive civilian aircraft market"-pushed
through the sale of 45 Bell 214ST helicopters to Iraq. The helicopters,
worth some $200 million, were originally designed for military
purposes. The New York Times later reported that Saddam "transferred
many, if not all [of these helicopters] to his military."
In 1988, Saddam's forces attacked Kurdish
civilians with poisonous gas from Iraqi helicopters and planes.
U.S. intelligence sources told The LA Times in 1991, they "believe
that the American-built helicopters were among those dropping
the deadly bombs."
In response to the gassing, sweeping sanctions
were unanimously passed by the US Senate that would have denied
Iraq access to most US technology. The measure was killed by
the White House.
Senior officials later told reporters
they did not press for punishment of Iraq at the time because
they wanted to shore up Iraq's ability to pursue the war with
Iran. Extensive research uncovered no public statements by Donald
Rumsfeld publicly expressing even remote concern about Iraq's
use or possession of chemical weapons until the week Iraq invaded
Kuwait in August 1990, when he appeared on an ABC news special.
Eight years later, Donald Rumsfeld signed
on to an "open letter" to President Clinton, calling
on him to eliminate "the threat posed by Saddam." It
urged Clinton to "provide the leadership necessary to save
ourselves and the world from the scourge of Saddam and the weapons
of mass destruction that he refuses to relinquish."
In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld was in a position
to draw the world's attention to Saddam's chemical threat. He
was in Baghdad as the UN concluded that chemical weapons had
been used against Iran. He was armed with a fresh communication
from the State Department that it had "available evidence"
Iraq was using chemical weapons. But Rumsfeld said nothing.
Washington now speaks of Saddam's threat
and the consequences of a failure to act. Despite the fact that
the administration has failed to provide even a shred of concrete
proof that Iraq has links to Al Qaeda or has resumed production
of chemical or biological agents, Rumsfeld insists that "the
absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
But there is evidence of the absence of
Donald Rumsfeld's voice at the very moment when Iraq's alleged
threat to international security first emerged. And in this case,
the evidence of absence is indeed evidence.
Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist.
He reports frequently for Free Speech Radio News and Democracy
Now! In May and June 2002, he reported from Iraq. He can be reached
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