U.S. Links to Saddam During Iran-Iraq War

The war between Iran and Iraq begain 25 years ago Thursday, and it reshaped the way the United States looks at political alliances in the Middle East. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster about America's military and diplomatic support of Saddam Hussein during that decade-long war, and the consequences of those ties today.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

And here in the studio is DAY TO DAY's Alex Chadwick, who's been having a series of conversations about Iraq for our program, and he's here with one more.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Noah, I started this series of conversations a few weeks ago. I think we need to talk about Iraq and learn more about it. So far we've talked to the anti-war leader Cindy Sheehan and to a woman named Kayla Williams, who wrote a book about her experiences as a soldier in Iraq. She went there doubting the war. She came back thinking it was a good idea to be there.

One thing that people say again and again about Iraq is: Saddam Hussein--we created him; we made Saddam Hussein. And I wanted to just test out that history. So I went to NPR's Mike Shuster, diplomatic correspondent, been in the region a lot, read a lot, a lot of reporting, to put this series of questions to him: How did we get to where we area?

Mike Shuster, did the United States arm Saddam Hussein?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, the simple answer is that the Reagan administration--and that's what we're talking about, the Reagan administration now in the 1980s--did little in the realm of direct arms sales to Saddam Hussein. There were some sales of helicopters and aircraft early in the Iran-Iraq war that were said to be for civilian or agricultural purposes but not much. There's an irony here, Alex, because later in the war, the US did sell arms to Iran as part of the secret arms-for-hostages deal that eventually exploded into the Iran-Contra scandal, but that's another story.

What the Reagan administration did do to aid the war effort of Iraq was to share key battlefield intelligence, intelligence gleaned from satellite photos own by the United States with the Iraqis. And the US made available to Iraq hundreds of millions of dollars in food credits that permitted Baghdad to spend the revenues it might have needed for importing food on weapons. Iraq bought most of the weaponry, though, from the Soviet Union. France also sold Iraq important technologically advanced arms such as missiles.

CHADWICK: So when the Iran-Iraq war broke out back in 1980, the United States at that time had no relations with Iraq dating back to that country's anti-Israeli stance during the 1967 War. So what changed? What happened to lead the US to provide this help to Iraq?

SHUSTER: What changed was the Islamic revolution in Iran and the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1980, which turned Iran in the judgment of the Reagan administration into the US' greatest enemy in the Persian Gulf. It wasn't so much that the Reagan administration wanted Iraq to win the war; it just didn't want Iraq to lose it. Over the course of the war, Iraq's intelligence service formed a really close relationship with the CIA. This was the CIA of Director William Casey, and there's some evidence that Casey used the Chilean front company to supply cluster bombs to Iraq, which Iraq used to blunt the human wave attacks of the Iranian army.

In 1983, President Reagan sent a special envoy to Baghdad. He was Donald Rumsfeld, and that visit resulted in the now famous picture of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. This was in December of 1983. This was at a time when the US was secretly aware that Iraq was using chemical weapons against the Iranians almost daily. There's evidence that the battlefield intelligence provided to Iraq helped the Iraqis better calibrate their gas attacks against the Iranians. Around this time, the administration concluded that Iraq's defeat in the war would be contrary to US interests in the Persian Gulf. The economic aid to Iraq started in 1983, and by the end of the war amounted to more than a billion dollars.

CHADWICK: OK. How about this issue of weapons of mass destruction? Did the US play any role in providing Iraq with the technology that eventually went into its nuclear and chemical and biological weapons programs?

SHUSTER: Yes, but again the answer is in an indirect fashion. In 1985, the US began to issue export licenses for high-tech equipment. Some of the technology that Iraq subsequently purchased from the United States figured in its later prohibited weapons programs. When the European allies of the US learned of this shift in US policy, they, too, especially the Germans, began selling technology to Iraq that proved important in its unconventional weapons programs, especially chemical weapons.

After the first Gulf War, UN weapons inspectors went into Iraq in a big way, and they compiled an extensive dossier on many American and European companies that had secretly provided Iraq with dual-use equipment and technology that went into these weapons programs. The UN has never made that list of companies and all the details public, but it's known that chemical precursors for chemical weapons and tubes for missiles and biological agents, including anthrax samples, were sent by American suppliers. The importance of Iraq to US foreign policy in the region was underscored in 1988 in connection with this.

CHADWICK: This is when the war ended in '88.

SHUSTER: Near the end of the war when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own citizens, the Kurds. We know a great deal about this now. At the time, the United States prevented a move in the UN to impose economic sanctions against Iraq, saying that the sanctions would be useless or counterproductive. So in effect, the United States defended Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons even as late as 1988, and this kind of a relationship continued through the Reagan administration and into the first President Bush administration until the very day that Iraq invaded Kuwait in early August 1990.

CHADWICK: Can you say--is there any sense that the US created Saddam Hussein, that the United States essentially was responsible for the rule of Saddam Hussein?

SHUSTER: Well, certainly not created Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein came to power in the late 1960s in Iraq. He created Iraq's secret police and intelligence, and he became the number one strongman of Iraq in 1979. But after that, the United States did play a key role in all of his actions, military and political, in the Middle East. In effect, the United States chose Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, to be its surrogate for policy in the Persian Gulf region and to counter the actions of Iran, which the United States, the Reagan administration, saw as the biggest threat. And the fact that it supported Saddam Hussein in all these clandestine ways, a man who had been the pariah to the United States in the decade earlier, it seems to me could not have helped encourage Saddam's grandiosity about his role in the Arab world. He was meeting with senior US diplomats. They were looking the other way when he was using chemical weapons and developing other unconventional weapons. He couldn't have helped but to think that the United States was behind him.

CHADWICK: So whether you could say the United States created Saddam Hussein perhaps, no; enabled, maybe.

SHUSTER: Certainly enabled him. He may have been defeated by the Iranians had it not been for the key military support of the United States. And by the time he invaded Kuwait in 1990, it seems that he believed that the United States would look the other way with regard to that as well. There was a famous meeting right before his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 with the then US ambassador, which he believed signaled that the United States would look the other way. The Bush administration denies this and so does the former ambassador, but nevertheless, his action in Kuwait followed this long relationship with the United States during war time in which they pretty much backed him at every turn.

CHADWICK: Mike Shuster covers national security and diplomatic policy for NPR. Mike, thank you for joining us again on DAY TO DAY.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Alex.

ADAMS: That interview by DAY TO DAY's Alex Chadwick.

And NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Noah Adams.

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