ERIC BLACK, STAR TRIBUNE, MINNEAPOLIS, SEPTEMBER 10, 2006
As his trial resumes today, Saddam Hussein stands charged with massacring tens of thousands or more Kurds, including thousands who were killed by chemical weapons dropped from aircraft.
President Bush has often cited this atrocity as part of the justification for removing from power “a man who is willing to gas his own people.”
But coverage of the trial and stories about Saddam seldom emphasize an awkward historical fact: Saddam was an ally of the United States before, during and after the 1986-89 campaign of slaughter known in Arabic as al-Anfal.
Saddam started a war with Iran in 1980. Because of U.S. enmity with Iran, the Reagan administration “tilted” toward Iraq in 1981. In 1982, the State Department removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In December 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then Reagan’s special envoy to Baghdad, told Saddam that the United States wanted to resume full diplomatic relations. Saddam agreed.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States provided Saddam with military, economic and diplomatic aid. The U.S.-Iraq alliance was in place when Saddam began slaughtering Iraqi Kurds to punish them for rebellion.
The most famous attack was the gassing of Halabja, a mostly Kurdish city near the Iranian border, on March 16, 1988. Rebel Kurds, working with Iranian troops, had taken the town a few days earlier. The gassing, which killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds, was part of the Iraqi counterattack.
The killing continued after the war with Iran ended. The United States publicly condemned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, but never suspended its aid programs to Saddam.
Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., horrified at the attacks on the Kurds, persuaded the Senate to unanimously adopt the so-called Prevention of Genocide Act, which would have ended U.S. subsidies and purchases of Iraqi oil and banned the export to Iraq of technology that would help advance its weapons programs.
Still seeking to maintain its relationship with Iraq and mindful that U.S. farmers and U.S. corporations were making a lot of money selling goods to Iraq, the Reagan White House opposed the sanctions.
One internal State Department memo put the tradeoff among ethical, political and economic considerations this way: “Human rights and chemical weapons use aside, in many respects our political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq.”
The Prevention of Genocide Act died in the House.
In 1989, the first President George Bush opposed a second stripped-down Iraq sanctions bill, up to the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Within hours of the invasion, the bill passed 416-0 and Bush, by executive order, imposed an embargo on Iraq and a freeze on Iraqi assets in the United States.
Eric Black • firstname.lastname@example.org