U.S.-Iraqi Relations and the Kurdish Genocide Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein faces charges of genocide for allegedly ordering attacks on Kurdish population centers in northern Iraq in the late 1980s, in some cases using poison gas to wipe out entire villages. But at the time, the Reagan administration refused to back tough sanctions against Hussein's regime.

U.S.-Iraqi Relations and the Kurdish Genocide

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm joined now from Washington by Peter Galbraith. He's the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and while working for the Senate foreign relations committee in the late '80s, Ambassador Galbraith played a key role in uncovering and documenting the Kurdish genocide.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. PETER GALBRAITH (Former Ambassador to Croatia): Very good to be with you.

BRAND: Now on yesterday's program, I spoke with an Iraqi parliament member -Mahmoud Othman. He's a Kurd, and he spoke of international complicity in that genocide. And I asked him what countries he believes were involved, and this is what he said...

Mr. MAHMOUD OTHMAN (Iraqi Parliament Member): Well, the United States first. The Soviet Union, the European countries, and some companies, they give them material. They say they are giving these materials because for agriculture, but they use - they made chemical weapons with them and they knew about it.

BRAND: And I asked him later if the U.S. is responsible. He said, yes, the U.S. is indirectly responsible for the Kurdish genocide.

What do you make of his allegation?

Mr. GALBRAITH: I know of Mahmoud Othman for many years, and I have very high regard for him.

The principle U.S. involvement was an act of omission rather than commission. The Kurdish genocide began in 1987, and actually I stumbled across it with the U.S. diplomat Haywood Rankin that year when we went into Kurdistan, and we came across the destruction of the villages. We saw it as it was happening and people being relocated to concentration camps.

The Reagan administration at the time believed that Iraq could be a strategic partner. It had been an ally of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it would be like Egypt - become an ally of the United States. And also they were very concerned that Iraq not lose the Iran-Iraq war.

Beginning in 1983, Iraq had started using chemical weapons against the Iranians, and the United States had facilitated that effort by providing intelligence to the Iraqis - not for the purpose of targeting the chemical weapons, but that's how the Iraqis used it. We showed them where there were concentrations of Iranian troops, and they were then able to use the chemical weapons. It really was the only way to make them effective.

When the Kurdish genocide began, the Reagan administration very much downplayed the destruction of the villages, never said anything about it. And then the next year when it emerged that Iraq was using chemical weapons against the Kurds, and particularly when they struck at the city of Halabcha killing more than 5,000 people - the Reagan administration put out the word that both Iran and Iraq were responsible for the use of chemical weapons - in essence, obscuring the responsibility.

But then in August of 1988, five days after the Iran-Iraq war ended, Iraq launched another series of chemical weapons attacks in the final phase of the Anfal campaign - the campaign for which Saddam is now on trial - against Kurdish villages in northwest Iraq. So, far from Iran and after the Iran-Iraq war was over. So there was no question about responsibility.

The U.S. Senate then passed a comprehensive sanctions on Iraq. It was the prevention of genocide act. We then had a mission which I led that documented the use of the chemical weapons, although the Reagan administration fully agreed they'd been used.

They argued, however, that sanctions were premature - an inappropriate response much too severe.

BRAND: So it was more important then for U.S. policy makers to keep Iraq as an ally in the Middle East than to pursue these genocide charges.

Mr. GALBRAITH: Iraq wasn't really an ally. It was the hope, almost a fantasy that a regime like Saddam Hussein's could become a reliable ally.

And of course one of the ironies of the situation is that in 2003, President Bush used the fact that Iraq had gassed its own people as a rationale for the war. But at the time he was actually doing the gassing, the Reagan administration - of which his father was vice president - opposed even economic sanctions.

BRAND: Now where did he get the chemical weapons? From which companies?

Mr. GALBRAITH: There are a number of companies that supplied the weapons. In fact, I recently testified in a case in the Hague against a Dutch businessman who was supplying the chemicals, and he was found guilty of crimes and sentenced to a very lengthy prison term. But the point is that chemical weapons are a World War I technology and the materials are widely available. What was critical to the effective use of chemical weapons was the intelligence that enabled you to target them, and that could only come from the United States or the Soviet Union. These were the only countries that had the satellites that could show you where the Iranian troops were.

BRAND: Well, you know, in the other trial - the Dujail trial - Saddam Hussein has come off as a bit of a raving lunatic and turned the proceedings into a bit of a joke. Is it possible that he - when he raises these issues that they can be brushed aside as well, these are just the ravings of a deposed dictator?

Mr. GALBRAITH: I think there are enough people who know about the complicity of the Regan administration and blocking sanctions on Iraq that this is not going to be brushed off. But the fact that the U.S. was complicit and behaved - in my view in a shameful way - in no way makes Saddam Hussein innocent. It in no way diminishes his responsibility for these horrific crimes. I think as Americans we have to face up to this historical role that we had, But we should also should very much want to see justice, which is extraordinarily important to the people of Kurdistan. They're riveted to their television sets as this trial goes forward, and the on-fall is very much scarred the psyche of that country.

BRAND: Peter Galbraith is the author of the new book The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence created a war without end. Peter Galbraith, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. GALBRAITH: Thank you.

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