Did the first
President Bush, in 1991, and President Reagan, in the late '80s,
cynically choose to ignore Saddam's use of chemical weapons against
- - - - - - - - - - -
As the dust settles over the ruins of Fallujah, U.S. officials are
estimating that some 1,200 insurgents were killed in the recent
assault. How on earth do they know? Since they refused to allow men and
boys of military age to leave the city, how can they tell which
shattered corpse is which? Even more delusional, Lt. Gen. John Sattler
of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force recently told CNN that he knew of
not a single Iraqi civilian killed in the devastating attack on
Fallujah. So the United States is suddenly interested again in counting
bodies in Iraq?
When the Bush administration sought to justify its invasion of Iraq, it
shone a spotlight on the number of Iraqis murdered by Saddam Hussein.
But since April 2003, when the United States took charge in Baghdad,
statistics on Iraqi casualties -- civilian and military -- have no
longer been considered important. As Gen. Tommy Franks remarked after
the invasion, "We don't do body counts."
More than a decade earlier, the United States performed the same
sleight of hand -- now we condemn civilian casualties, now we don't --
with regard to Saddam's actions in the aftermath of the Gulf War, even
when it involved Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction. There is
strong evidence that the administration of George H.W. Bush covered up
the Iraqi dictator's use of chemical weapons to put down a Shiite
uprising in 1991. That uprising, and its ruthless repression, which the
current Bush administration prefers not to acknowledge, set the stage
for the current turmoil in Iraq.
One of the greatest concerns of coalition forces during Desert Storm
was that Saddam would unleash his WMD. U.S. officials repeatedly warned
that America's response would be immediate and devastating. Facing such
threats, Saddam kept his weapons holstered, or so we were led to
believe. In fact, Saddam did use them, not against coalition forces but
against his own people, the Iraqi Shiites, who rose up in the wake of
Desert Storm. The Shiites had good reason to believe the United States
would support their revolt because they had been encouraged to rise up
in the first place by President George H.W. Bush. But what was the
reaction of Bush I's White House to Saddam's attack on the Shiites?
Apparently, there was none.
Confirmation of that attack is contained in the recent report of the
Iraq Survey Group, which investigated Saddam's WMD and discovered that
he no longer had any at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Because the subject of Saddam's earlier use was not the focus of the
report, this information has gone almost universally unnoticed by the
media. (A notable exception is Juan Cole in his Oct. 7 "WMD Myth Meant
to Deter Iran.")
Charles Duelfer, who headed the ISG team, wrote in its report that the
rapid spread of the Shiite uprising in March 1991 panicked Saddam and
other government officials. "According to a former senior member of the
[chemical weapons] program," says Duelfer, "the regime was shaking and
wanted something 'very quick and effective' to put down the revolt."
According to the report, the Iraqis at first considered using mustard
gas but decided against it because "of its detectable persistence,"
fearing that the Americans would discover it. Instead, on March 7, the
Iraqi military filled R-400 aerial bombs with sarin, a binary nerve
agent. "Dozens of sorties were flown against Shi'a rebels in Karbala
and the surrounding areas," the ISG report said. But apparently the
R-400 bombs were not very effective, having been designed for
high-speed delivery from planes, not slow-moving helicopters. So the
Iraqi military switched to dropping CS, a very potent tear gas, in
large aerial bombs.
According to Duelfer's report, Saddam and his generals knew they were
taking a serious risk. "That the regime would consider this option with
coalition forces still operating within Iraq's boundaries demonstrates
both the dire nature of the situation and the Regime's faith in
The lingering question, then, is why there was no reaction from members
of the U.S. coalition to Saddam's use of chemical weapons. It's
virtually impossible to believe they didn't know about it at the time.
While preparing a documentary with me on the coming trial of Saddam for
French TV's Canal Plus, French journalist Michel Despratx heard
repeated charges from Shiite survivors of the uprising that the Iraqi
dictator helped crush the rebellion with chemical weapons. They have
been making such accusations for years.
What we learned from these Shiites was corroborated by Rocky Gonzalez,
a veteran of the U.S. Special Forces whom we interviewed several months
before Duelfer's ISG report was issued. In March 1991, Gonzalez, a
warrant officer, was acting as an Arabic interpreter with the 101st
Division stationed in southern Iraq near an-Najaf and Karbala, two key
centers of the uprising. He told us that "people started showing up at
our perimeter with chemical burns, burns on their face, on their hands,
on places where their skin was exposed. They were coming to us in
streams. They said they'd been attacked by chemical weapons."
When I interviewed Gonzalez again after the Duelfer report was issued,
he maintained that, contrary to what the report said about mustard gas,
many of the refugees who fled to U.S. lines were indeed victims of that
chemical. "Their tongues were swollen," he said, "and they had severe
burns on the mucous tissue, on the inside of their mouths and nasal
passages. Our chemical officer also said it looked like mustard gas."
Gonzalez suggested that local Iraqi military and Baathist officials,
desperate to put down the uprising, may have used mustard gas without
permission from on high. Gonzalez said he heard from refugees that
nerve gas was also being used. He observed Iraqi helicopters making
repeated bomb runs over an-Najaf. One of the helicopters, he said, was
outfitted as a crop sprayer.
What did Gonzalez's unit do with that intelligence? "A lot of that was
kept quiet," he said, "because we didn't want to panic the troops. We
stepped up our training with gas masks, because we were naturally
concerned. We were downwind from where Saddam was using the weapons."
Despite such caution, however, "there were reports generated at our
level," Gonzalez said. "I mean the people themselves said they were
being gassed. So we filed the reports. Whether they went above our
division, I have no idea." Gonzalez's former commander turned down my
request for an interview.
At the time, few subjects were more militarily and politically
sensitive than Saddam's use of WMD. It's difficult to believe that
reports from Gonzalez's unit weren't flashed immediately up the chain
of command in the Gulf and Washington.
And there were other American witnesses to what happened. U.S.
helicopters and planes flew overhead at the time, constantly observing
as Saddam's helicopters decimated the rebels. Some of those aircraft,
according to Gonzalez, provided real-time video of the occurrences
below. A reliable U.S. intelligence source confirmed that such evidence
does indeed exist.
Why was there no statement of outrage or threat of retaliation from the
administration of the elder Bush? There can be only one explanation:
Denouncing Saddam for using chemical weapons would have greatly
increased pressure on the U.S. president to come to the aid of the
Shiites. And that was the last thing Bush I wanted to do.
In February 1991, still battling Saddam, President Bush twice called
for Iraqis to rise up. "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop,"
he declared, "and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people
to take matters into their own hands and to force Saddam Hussein to
step aside." The president's message was repeatedly broadcast across
Iraq by clandestine CIA-backed stations and by millions of leaflets
dropped by U.S. airplanes over southern Iraq. Meanwhile, the Kurds in
the north were also rising up. Many in the military joined in the
But when it looked as if the revolt might actually succeed, Bush
abruptly turned his back. He and his coalition partners wanted a neat
military coup to replace Saddam, not an uncontrolled revolt that could
lead to chaos and the collapse of Iraq as a state, extending the
influence of Iran. In an Iraqi vacuum, Bush and his national security
advisor, Brent Scowcroft, wrote in "A World Transformed" in 1998, the
United States "could conceivably" be drawn into becoming "an occupying
power in a bitterly hostile land." They wanted a regime change, nothing
more: a malleable general to take the place of the mercurial Saddam.
The idea had been that a popular uprising would be another way of
weakening Saddam's grip on power and allowing the Iraqi military to
take over. Commenting on the U.S. tactic in an interview for the
documentary, Thomas Pickering, then U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations, said, "All of the efforts to debilitate Saddam and to create
problems for him in order to remove him from Kuwait were justified." I
asked: "Even though the U.S. couldn't follow up afterwards to help the
people who rose up?" He replied: "In war and love, all's fair."
So the United States stood by while Saddam's tanks and helicopters put
down the Shiite revolt and then headed north to deal with the Kurds.
When the peace treaty was signed at the end of Desert Storm, Gen.
Norman Schwarzkopf gave Saddam's generals permission to keep flying
their helicopters. When they turned them against the Shiite and Kurdish
uprisings with devastating effect, the Bush administration asserted
that, unfortunately, its hands were tied by the peace agreement -- and
made it very clear that the United States didn't want to become
involved militarily in any way. On April 3, 1991, President Bush said:
"I do not want to push American forces beyond our mandate. Of course I
feel a frustration and a sense of grief for the innocents that are
being killed brutally, but we are not there to intervene."
That was the case until CNN broadcast worldwide pictures of Kurdish
refugees fleeing Saddam's vengeance in the north. Bush, on a golfing
vacation, was obliged to react. He declared a no-fly zone in the north
and ordered Saddam to cease his attacks. Saddam very quickly backed
down. In the south, however, there was no such TV coverage and no U.S.
reaction. The slaughter of the Shiites continued. A complete no-fly
zone was established there only many months later.
The United States was not just a neutral bystander to the Shiite
uprising. In Iraq this year, several survivors of the Shiite revolt
told my colleague Despratx that U.S. troops blocked their attempts to
march on Baghdad. Others asserted that American forces destroyed huge
stocks of captured Iraqi arms rather than turn them over to the rebels.
Former Special Forces officer Gonzalez confirmed that his unit
repeatedly blew up caches of captured weapons that the insurgents were
trying to obtain.
But 1991 was not the first time U.S. leaders closed their eyes to
Saddam's use of chemical weapons. When word first broke in 1983 that
Iraq was using mustard gas against Iranian troops, the Reagan
administration (after an oral tap on the wrist delivered by then Middle
East envoy Donald Rumsfeld) studiously ignored the issue. Saddam, after
all, was then the West's de facto partner in a war against the feared
fundamentalist regime of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam's chemical
weapons were provided largely by companies in Germany and France. The
United States provided him with --among many other things -- vital
satellite intelligence on enemy troop positions.
U.S. support for Saddam increased in 1988 when Rick Francona, then an
Air Force captain, was dispatched to Baghdad by the Defense
Intelligence Agency. His mission: to provide precise targeting plans to
the Iraqis to cripple a feared a new Iranian offensive. Shortly after
arriving, Francona discovered that the Iraqis were now using even more
deadly chemical weapons -- nerve gas -- against the Iranians. He
informed his superiors in Washington.
The response, he said, was immediate. "We were told to cease all of our
cooperation with the Iraqis until people in Washington were able to
sort this out. There were a series of almost daily meetings on 'How are
we going to handle this, what are we going to do?' Do we continue our
relations with the Iraqis and make sure the Iranians do not win this
war, or do we let the Iraqis fight this on their own without any U.S.
assistance, and they'll probably lose? So there are your options --
neither one palatable." Francona concluded, "The decision was made that
we would restart our relationship with the Iraqis ... We went back to
Baghdad, and continued on as before. "
This policy continued even after it was discovered that Saddam was
using chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds of Halabja.
Fourteen years later, in March 2003, attempting to justify the coming
invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush repeatedly cited the Halabja atrocity.
"Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard
agents descending from the sky," he said. "The chemical attack on
Halabja provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to
commit." But President Bush never explained the assistance that the
United States had given Saddam at the time.
When news first broke about the atrocity in 1988, the Reagan
administration did its utmost to prevent condemnation of Saddam,
fighting Congress' attempt to impose restrictions on trade with Iraq.
President Bush's father was then vice president. Another key
administration figure involved in the fight was Reagan's national
security advisor, Gen. Colin Powell.
Now, to return to the original question: Did the first Bush
administration cynically choose to ignore Saddam's use of chemical
weapons in March 1991, just as the Reagan administration did in the
late 1980s? And has the current Bush administration brushed this
history of complicity with real WMD under the rug, while using
nonexistent WMD as a reason for war? The indisputable answer is yes.
About the writer
Lando, a former producer for CBS's "60 Minutes," lives in Paris. The
documentary "The Trial of Saddam Hussein -- The Trial You'll Never
See," which he co-produced with Michel Despratx, was broadcast Oct. 26
on Canal Plus, a cable TV station in France.