Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld,
and the Golden Spurs

An interview with Jeremy Scahill

by David Ross

Z magazine, November 2002

Jeremy Scahill is an investigative journalist who has recently written an article called "The Saddam in Rumsfeld's Closet." He is a co-producer of "Democracy Now," a nationally syndicated radio show. He has also provided reports from East Timor, Yugoslavia, and Iraq for "Free Speech Radio News" and "Democracy Now."


DAVID ROSS: You've recently posted an article at and called "The Saddam in Rumsfeld's Closet." Can you start from the top and explain what you found in your research?

JEREMY SCAHILL: An article came out in the New York Times on August 18 detailing what it calls an American covert program during the 1980s that helped Iraq plan battles at a time when U.S. intelligence indicated Iraq would use chemical weapons against Iran. This follows my article on August 2 called The Saddam in Rumsfeld's Closet, in which I wrote about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld, the current U.S. Defense Secretary. You have to go back some 20-plus years, to a time when Ronald Reagan was president and the Iran-lraq war was escalating dramatically. The United States was giving aid and weapons to both Iran and Iraq with the understanding, as Henry Kissinger put it, "that it's best to let them kill each other off," and, "oil is too valuable a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs."

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 shook the foundations of power in Washington so the United States began actively backing Iraq. In 1982, Ronald Reagan moved to take Iraq off the list of nations that sponsored terrorism. That allowed a floodgate of U.S. "aid" to go into Iraq. The Reagan administration was actively encouraging manufacturers to sell to Iraq and Saddam Hussein was aggressively buying everything he could get his hands on from the United States. That included the sale of helicopters that had been "demilitarized."

Ronald Reagan dispatched his special envoy to Iraq with a hand-written letter from Reagan to be given to Saddam Hussein, with a clear message that what Washington wanted was to restore normal relations. They had been severed in 1967 during the Arab-lsraeli War. Iraq broke them off in protest of U.S. policy.

So when this envoy arrived in Baghdad, not only did he have a hand-written letter, but he also gave Saddam Hussein a pair of golden cowboy spurs, as a present from Ronald Reagan. He shook Saddam's hand, called him "Mr. President," and had a meeting that the Iraqi foreign ministry described at the time as being about "topics of mutual interest." That envoy, who began the process of restoring relations between Washington and Iraq, a man who stood with Saddam Hussein in 1983, was Donald Rumsfeld, the current U.S. Defense Secretary. Rumsfeld was in Iraq as the U.S. was aggressively selling to Iraq, and just a short time after that visit, some allegations started to emerge about Iraq's use and possession of chemical weapons.

On March 5, 1984 (Rumsfeld's visit was in 1983), the U.S. State Department issued a public alert, saying that it had evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian solders. A couple weeks after that report came out, Rumsfeld was back in Baghdad, meeting with Tariq Aziz, then Iraqi Foreign Minister. The day that Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad, the United Nations issued a report saying that a team of UN scientists on the ground in the front lines of the Iran-lraq war had determined that chemical weapons had been used multiple times against Iranian solders.

Donald Rumsfeld was in Baghdad when the United Nations had said yes, we have proof from our scientists that chemical weapons had been used against Iran and Rumsfeld said nothing. He was in the prime position to address the alleged Iraqi threat when it first emerged.


DR - According to an article in Covert Action Quarterly a number of years ago, the U.S. government provided the elements for Saddam's chemical weapons through the U.S. Agricultural Department.

JS - Not only that, it was at a time when the Reagan administration was faced with the prospect that the American economy was in trouble and so he viewed the wealthy economy of Iraq as an open market for U.S. corporations. It wasn't so much a covert thing, there were companies in Maryland selling components that were used to make chemical weapons. It wasn't just the United States. It was German, French, and British companies-all of the major western powers in Europe and the Western hemisphere were bolstering Saddam Hussein's military capacity.

Western so-called democracies were major supporters of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program. You can also find receipts on the Internet from U.S. companies that sold these chemical components to Iraq.

The whole story of U.S. sales to Iraq was openly talked about under the Reagan administration and at the beginning of Bush, the Elder's administration. It wasn't something that Washington was ashamed of. Remember, Saddam Hussein was considered an SOB, but he was considered Washington's SOB.


DR - Why does the U.S. government want to attack Iraq again ?

JS - When I was in Iraq this past May and June, Iraq celebrated the 30th anniversary of its nationalization of foreign oil companies. They celebrated it with a jolting announcement, if you're an oil dictator in Washington. The country's oil minister, Mohamed Rashid, announced on national television in Iraq (and it was something that was carried all over the Arab world on al Jazeerra and other outlets) that Iraq was going to begin oil exploitation in two of the largest untapped oil and natural gas reserves in the world-two fields in Iraq: one called West Qurnan and the other called Majnun. These two fields had been allocated to two companies, one a French and one a Russian company, but because of U.S. pressure and U.S. sanctions, the Russians and the French never began drilling in those oil fields.

So Iraq was not going to wait for the Russians and the French to stand up to America. It was not going to wait for a time when the sanctions were lifted. Iraq said that they could nearly double their oil production in the next three years. Iraq could theoretically surpass Saudi Arabia as the number one producer of oil in the world. Already they're number two and they're under economic sanctions.

Saudi Arabia, which is now being attacked in the U.S. press by the government, has an enormous border with Iraq. If that border was erased and the U. S. controlled those two countries-the U.S. would control the world oil markets. Saudi Arabia is now saying it doesn't want to provide the U.S. the use of its airbases or its territories to attack Iraq. It's one of the countries that is leading Iraq's normalization within the Arab world.

Another reason is the way in which Iraq has completely normalized relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and other nations throughout Africa. The trend in the Middle East is to say, "Yes, Saddam Hussein is a dictator; yes, he's a ruthless tyrant, but the people of Iraq deserve to live."

So what the United States has done to punish countries like Saudi Arabia is to begin floating stories about how the Saudis support terrorism, how the Saudis are the biggest enemy of America in the region. There was a meeting of the Defense Policy Review Board, which is an advisory clique to Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, headed by Richard Perle. They had a meeting around mid-July and the story came out in the beginning of August in which the RAND Corporation did a briefing on Saudi Arabia, calling it the greatest threat to America in that region.

The United States is using the Iraq example almost like a crucifix at the gates of Rome, to say that, if you defy the empire, if you stand up against America, you will pay a price, like the 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqi children who die every month. Iraq is the crucifix of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is aware of that, so I think it will be interesting to watch what countries participate in a U.S. attack. Just in late June, new satellite imagery was published by that showed that the U.S. was building a massive air base and central command center in Qatar. That's because the Prince Sultan Air Base has been declared off limits by the Saudis to use as a base from which to launch an attack on Iraq, so the U.S. is moving all of its operations to Qatar and that will, I would imagine, become the staging grounds for the attack.


DR - Whoever controls the oil of the world, controls the world, basically. Is that true ?

JS - During the Yugoslavian bombing a lot of people on the Left in America wanted to focus on the importance of the Caspian Sea, which is one of the single greatest reserves of natural gas in the world. There were plans to build a pipeline through Yugoslavia, particularly Kosovo. While I think oil played a significant factor in the Yugoslavia bombing, one has to be much more cynical in analyzing U.S. foreign policy. Dominating oil is a central aim of U.S. interests, but it's not the only aim.

What the United Sates is doing right now with its policy in Iraq, as well as in Palestine, is attempting to create utter chaos in the Middle East. Look, if Saddam Hussein takes a bullet in the head, which I think is extremely unlikely, or is overthrown in a military coup or is hit by a "lucky strike" by a U.S. missile, do you think that everyone in Iraq is going to somehow rally behind whoever assumes power'? The people in Washington-either they're incredibly ignorant of the religious, ethnic, communal, and tribal makeup of Iraq, or they're trying to create a massive bloody civil war in Iraq, on top of what will undoubtedly be a large U.S. bombing campaign as well.

In Iraq, you have three million members of the Ba'ath party, Saddam's political party. Those people are going to be attacked by their neighbors. There's going to be communal violence. We saw that in 1991, when Bush the elder told the Shiite Moslems in the south of Iraq after the Gulf War, to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They slaughtered, tortured, hung, and executed hundreds of people from the Ba'ath party in a three-day blitzkrieg. Afterwards, Saddam Hussein's forces mercilessly crushed that rebellion as Norman Schwarzkopf and his forces stood by.

If Saddam Hussein is taken out, there will be numerous warlords of sorts, either generals, clan leaders, or tribal leaders, who will be engaged in power grabbing and will also threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia and potentially Kuwait. Iran is very nervous about the prospect of Saddam Hussein being assassinated or killed, even though Iran has actively tried to get rid of him for many years.


DR - During Bush I rule, the U.S. government destroyed the public infrastructure of Iraq. What sort of human toll have these sanctions had on the people of Iraq?

JS - These sanctions are unprecedented in world history. Never has a country been put under such severe economic sanctions as Iraq has lived under for the last 12 years. Iraq was a very modern country prior to the U.S. massacre that's now referred to as the Gulf War, where the water treatment facilities were targeted, where the entire public infrastructure of Iraq was destroyed.

At the time when there was proof, according to Washington, which there isn't now, that Iraq had, or was using, chemical weapons, our government had no problem. They would sell Iraq anything they wanted. Now, Rumsfeld has provided us with no evidence. Bush has provided us with no evidence, and they're banning the sale of vitamin K. It's unconscionable.


DR - What can people do to stop the sanctions on Iraq and the threatened invasion by the U.S. government?

JS - There are a number of things people can do. I'm not a big fan of lobbying Congress. I think it's like urinating in the ocean and hoping to find the urine somewhere else again someday. It's not going to happen. But the tact of the matter is, that Congress right now-not everyone, despite how it looks in the media, is on board with this. In particular, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should be targeted and called and asked to hold honest and open hearings in which people like Dennis Halliday, the former head of the UN humanitarian program in Iraq, is called to testify. Also people like Hans Von Sponeck, the person who followed and also who resigned his position h, protest, calling the sanctions genocide.

The other is to get involved with groups like the Iraq Peace Team. This is a coalition of groups spearheaded by Voices in the Wilderness, the Chicago based anti-sanctions group. They are organizing delegations right now, going to Iraq-Americans, British, people from all over the world-taking up residence in anticipation of a U.S. attack on Iraq, to say "we are going to stand with the Iraqi people if the United States attacks." Also on Voices of the Wilderness website there's a great number of resources and suggested actions people can take.


DR - Is there anything else you'd like to add ?

JS - One of the things that's interesting is why do articles like the one in the New York Times and in other papers appear at this time? Why is it that people within the Pentagon, who I'm sure have no problem with war and bombing, are very nervous about what the Bush administration is doing?

What that indicates to me is that not all is well in Washington. I think that it's very important to connect the dots and ask why is it that some of the top people in the military are leaking to the media war plans that are being discussed in Washington? Is the use of a nuclear bomb being discussed? Quite possibly. Israel is talking about it openly, saying, "If the U.S. attacks Iraq, Israel will be a good soldier."

Shamon Perez, the Israeli foreign minister who's referred to as a moderate, was on CNN this fall, saying that the U.S. is waiting too long to attack Iraq and also saying that if Iraq hits Israel with anything-a scud missile, a conventional weapon-not nuclear, biological or chemical-Israel will consider dropping a nuclear bomb on Iraq. I think the most likely country to use a nuclear weapon in the next five years is not the United States and it's certainly not Iraq. I think it's Israel.

People need to be very concerned about Sharon that the U.S. has bolstered and built up. He has 200 nuclear weapons and has his people on national and international TV threatening to use them against Iraq. Bill Clinton has said, "If the Iraqi army crosses the Jordan River, I'll die for Israel." What is going on in this country? Why is everyone running to this war game right now with this unquestioning support for Israel, who is threatening to use nuclear weapons'? Can you imagine if an Arab country threatened to use a nuclear weapon in a regional conflict what would happen? It's incredible.


David Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio in Redway, CA. He has worked on the Nader campaign, corporate accountability, U.S. imperialism, and environmental issues.

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