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Context of 'August 25, 1988: Iraq Begins Poison Gas Attacks against Iraqi Kurds'

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Albert Hakim.Albert Hakim. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]During a morning intelligence briefing, President Ronald Reagan signs the authorization for the US to allow Israel to sell Iran 4,000 US-made antitank missiles (see January 7, 1986). As they have consistently done before, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz register their opposition to the arms deals with Iran. National Security Adviser John Poindexter notes in a February 1986 e-mail that Vice President George Bush supports the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, writing that the “President and VP are solid in taking the position that we have to try.” The reasons the various administration officials have for agreeing to sell arms to Iran are complex. Reagan is motivated by his belief that supporting Iran thwarts Soviet plans for Middle East domination (see May 1985), and by his own personal sorrow over the plight of the hostages. Others have more overtly political motives primarily fueled by the upcoming midterm elections. If, as in 1980, the American hostages currently held by Islamist radicals can be freed before the elections, the Republicans would likely reap the political benefits. Iranian-born arms merchant Albert Hakim, who is involved in the arms deals, will later tell Congress’s Iran-Contra committee, “We had to meet a deadline in releasing hostages, because the elections were coming up.” Even National Security Council aide Oliver North, one of the chief facilitators of the deals with Iran, will admit to the committee, “There are political concerns.” The US insists that before it deliver any of the antitank missiles, all of the hostages must be released. Iran refuses, and a deadlock ensues that will last for months. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: John Poindexter, Caspar Weinberger, George Herbert Walker Bush, Iran-Contra Committee, National Security Council, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, Oliver North

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, Iran-Contra Affair

Terry Waite.Terry Waite. [Source: BBC]Negotiations between Iran and the US for more arms sales hit another snag, with the Iranians merely releasing some American hostages and kidnapping more (see September 19, 1986). CIA Director William Casey decides to reprise the earlier strategy of exhorting Iraq to escalate its air strikes against Iran, thus forcing Iran to turn to the US for more military aid (see July 23, 1986). Casey secretly meets with two high-level Iraqi officials, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Iraq’s ambassador to the US, Nizaar Hamdoon, to urge that the Iraqis once again intensify their bombing runs deep into Iranian territory. The Iraqis comply. But the Iranians’ return to the bargaining table is complicated by the October 5 shooting down of a CIA transport plane in Nicaragua, and the capture by the Sandinistas of the lone survivor, a cargo hauler named Eugene Hasenfus, who tells his captors of the US involvement with the Nicaraguan Contras (see October 5, 1986). Soon after, the Iranians release a single American hostage, but the Hasenfus revelation is followed by that of the Iran-US arms-for-hostages deals by a Lebanese newspaper, Al Shiraa (see November 3, 1986), and similar reports by US news organizations. With the public now aware of these embarrassing and potentially criminal acts by the Reagan administration, support for Iran within the administration collapses, most of the pro-Iranian officials leave government service, and the pro-Iraqi wing of the executive branch, led by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz, wins out. The closing months of the Reagan administration will feature a marked tilt towards Iraq in the war between Iraq and Iran. The Reagan administration will, in coming months, provide Iraq with a remarkable amount of military and economic aid, including technology to develop long-range ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and even nuclear weapons. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992] Interestingly, one of the terrorist groups holding American hostages, the Islamic Jihad Organization (a group closely affiliated with Hezbollah and not the group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri), who released American captive David Jacobson in early November, urged the US to “proceed with current approaches that could lead, if continued, to a solution of the hostages issue.” Reagan officials publicly deny that anyone in the US government has made any “approaches” to Iran or anyone else. As a side note, the release of Jacobson also shows the efforts of Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former hostage himself, to facilitate the release of the hostages in a different light. Waite’s untiring efforts have obviously been sincere, but never as effective as publicly portrayed. Instead, both the US and Iran have used Waite’s efforts as cover for their secret negotiations. One Israeli official calls Waite’s efforts the “cellophane wrapping” around the hostage releases. He says: “You cannot deliver a gift package unwrapped. That is why there will be no more hostage releases until he returns to the region.” (Waite has temporarily suspended his attempts to free the hostages, complaining about being used as a pawn in international power games.) [Time, 11/17/1986]

Entity Tags: Terry Waite, William Casey, Reagan administration, George Shultz, Islamic Jihad Organization, David Jacobson, Caspar Weinberger, Al Shiraa, Nizaar Hamdoon, Eugene Hasenfus, Hezbollah

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

Neoconservative academics and authors Laurie Mylroie and Daniel Pipes write an article for the New Republic entitled “Back Iraq: Time for a US Tilt in the Mideast.” Mylroie and Pipes argue that the US must publicly embrace Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship as a bulwark against the Islamic fundamentalism of Iran. Backing Iraq “could lay the basis for a fruitful relationship” that would benefit US and Israeli interests, they write. They believe Washington should move to a closer relationship with Hussein because Iraq holds a more moderate view of Israel and the US than other countries in the Middle East. “The American weapons that Iraq could make good use of include remotely scatterable and anti-personnel mines and counterartillery radar.” Mylroie and Pipes argue not just for weapons sales to Iraq, but for the US to share intelligence with that nation: “The United States might also consider upgrading intelligence it is supplying Baghdad.” Mylroie and Pipes are apparently uninterested in the stories of Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against both Iranians and his own citizens (see March 5, 1984, March 1988, and August 25, 1988). After the 9/11 attacks, Mylroie will change her opinion and join the call for Hussein’s overthrow, blaming him for a raft of terror attacks going back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (see 1990, October 2000, and September 12, 2001). [New Republic, 4/27/1987 pdf file; CounterPunch, 8/13/2003; Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 68]

Entity Tags: Laurie Mylroie, Daniel Pipes

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s, Neoconservative Influence

According to several accounts, Iraq uses US-supplied Bell helicopters to deploy chemical weapons during its campaign to recapture lost territories in its war with Iran. One of the towns that is within the conflict zone is the Kurdish village of Halabja, with a population of about 70,000. Between 3,200 and 5,000 Halabja civilians are reportedly killed by poison gas (see August 25, 1988). Other accounts, however, suggest that Iranian gas is responsible for the attack on Halabja, a version that is promoted by the Reagan administration in order to divert the blame away from Iraq. Some believe the US version of the Halabja massacre is “cooked up in the Pentagon.” A declassified State Department document “demonstrate[s] that US diplomats received instructions to press this line with US allies, and to decline to discuss the details.” [US Department of the Navy, 12/10/1990; Los Angeles Times, 2/13/1991; Washington Post, 3/11/1991; International Herald Tribune, 1/17/2003; New York Times, 1/31/2003]

Entity Tags: Bell Helicopter, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

August 20, 1988: Iran-Iraq War Ends

The Iran-Iraq war ends in stalemate after both sides reluctantly accept a UN-brokered peace agreement. The border between the two countries does not change. The war cost at least 1.5 million lives. The major arms supplier for Iraq was the Soviet Union, while France was the biggest supplier to Iran. The US covertly sold arms to both sides during the war, though towards the end of the conflict, the US, after its clandestine arms-for-hostage deals with Iran were exposed in the international press (see November 3, 1986), tilted towards Iraq (see Early October-November, 1986). The Iranian and Iraqi regimes will set about slaughtering their own dissidents after the war—the Iraqis primarily focusing on separatist Kurds and Iran-sympathetic Shi’ites, and the Iranians focusing on its leftist dissident population. [ZMag, 2/1990; New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Infoplease, 2007]

Entity Tags: United Nations

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran, US-Iraq 1980s, Iran-Contra Affair

Kurds gassed in Halabja.Kurds gassed in Halabja. [Source: PersianEye / Corbis]Days after the end of the Iran-Iraq War (see August 20, 1988), Saddam Hussein begins the first of a series of poison-gas attacks on Kurdish villages inside Iraq. A September 1988 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee states: “Those who were very close to the bombs died instantly. Those who did not die instantly found it difficult to breathe and began to vomit. The gas stung the eyes, skin, and lungs of the villagers exposed to it. Many suffered temporary blindness… . Those who could not run from the growing smell, mostly the very old and the very young, died.” While the gas attacks are continuing, Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead circulates a highly classified memo among senior State Department officials recommending that the US cultivate even closer ties with Iraq, whom it supported over Iran in the last few years of the war (see Early October-November, 1986). Whitehead offers a Cold War rationale: “[Soviet] clout and influence is on a steady rise as the Gulf Arabs gain self-confidence and Soviet diplomacy gains in sophistication. The Soviets have strong cards to play: their border with Iran and their arms-supply relationship with Iraq. They will continue to be major players and we should engage them as fully as possible.” Whitehead adds, “It should be remembered… that we have weathered Irangate” (see January 17, 1986). More must be done to develop closer ties with “the ruthless but pragmatic Saddam Hussein.” (Also see September 8, 1988.) [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, John Whitehead, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

Veteran diplomat Joseph Wilson arrives in Baghdad to assume the post of Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) under US Ambassador April Glaspie. Wilson has extensive experience throughout sub-Saharan and Central Africa, as well as brief stints on the staffs of Senator Al Gore (D-TN) and Representative Tom Foley (D-WA). Wilson will later write that he and his colleagues share the belief that Iraq is ruled by “a shockingly brutal regime… an ugly totalitarian dictatorship” and its leader, Saddam Hussein, a “sociopath.” For the next three years, Wilson and his colleagues will send harsh reports of Hussein’s systematic violations of the human rights of his subjects to Washington.
Walking a Fine Line between Isolation and Appeasement - Still, most of the embassy staff, including Wilson and Glaspie, are not advocates of totally isolating Hussein with extreme economic and diplomatic sanctions. Wilson will write, “Isolating a regime often results in isolating ourselves, and we then lose any leverage we might have to influence outcomes. On the other hand, when dictators are treated like any other leaders, it’s often interpreted by them as a free pass to continue in their autocratic ways, while critics label it as appeasement.… The merits of ideologically driven diplomacy versus a more pragmatic approach have been a recurring theme of foreign policy debates throughout the history of international relations and America’s own domestic policies.”
'Tread Lightly' - Wilson will note that “Iraq’s Arab neighbors unanimously urged us to tread lightly. They argued that after almost a decade of a grinding war with Iran, Saddam had learned his lesson and that his natural radicalism would now be tempered by the harsh experience.… [I]t was better to tie him to relationships that would be hard for him to jettison than to leave him free to make trouble with no encumbrances. Engaging with him at least kept him in our sights.” Iraq had behaved monstrously during its war with Iran, and had offended the world with its chemical attacks on its own citizens (see August 25, 1988) and its Iranian enemies (see October 1988). But it had emerged from the war as a powerful regional player both militarily and economically. The Bush administration is torn between trying to moderate Hussein’s behavior and treating him as an incorrigible, irredeemable enemy of civilization. And Washington wants Iraq as a balancing force against Iran, which is awash in virulently anti-American sentiment (a sentiment returned in full by many American lawmakers and government officials). No other country in the Gulf region will tolerate the presence of US forces as a counterbalance to Iran. So, as Wilson will write, “All of Iraq’s neighbors continued to argue for a softer approach; and since they clearly had at least as much at stake as we did, the Bush administration was willing to follow their lead.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 78-79, 451]

Entity Tags: Joseph C. Wilson, Saddam Hussein, April Glaspie

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

In a memo regarding the issue of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy writes, “The US-Iraqi relationship is… important to our long term political and economic objectives. We believe that economic sanctions will be useless or counterproductive to influence the Iraqis.” [Washington Post, 12/30/2002]

Entity Tags: Richard W. Murphy, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

State Department officials warn Secretary of State James Baker that Iraq is building chemical and biological weapons, and they detail a compendium of horrendous human rights violations carried out by the regime of Saddam Hussein against his own citizens (see August 25, 1988). [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, James A. Baker, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s

Saddam Hussein, emboldened by President Bush’s continued support for his regime even as he develops chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons (see September 1989) and is gassing his own citizens (see August 25, 1988), boasts that he now has chemical weapons and will “burn half of Israel.” Additionally, Iraqi forces on manuevers in the southern part of the country are being told that they are training to attack Israel. Nevertheless, the White House blocks efforts by the Commerce Department to stop the flow of US technology to Iraq, even technology that is being used to develop weapons of mass destruction (see 1990 and July 18, 1990-August 1, 1990). One White House official explains, “The president does not want to single out Iraq.” US diplomat Joseph Wilson, the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad (see September 5, 1988 and After), will later write: “While we were concerned about the tensions in Iraq’s relations with Kuwait (see May 28-30, 1990 and July 17, 1990), we did not suspect that the southern military exercises were, in fact, a first signal of Iraq’s intention to invade that country. We were more worried that Saddam’s hard line toward Israel would further inflame Arab passions and contribute to making any lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that much more difficult to achieve.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Wilson, 2004, pp. 95]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bush administration (41), US Department of Commerce, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

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