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Sunday, August 18, 2002
 
American Officers Say U.s. Aided Iraq in 80's War Despite Its Use of Poison Gas

A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.

Those officers, most of whom agreed to speak on the condition that they not be identified, spoke in response to a reporter's questions about the nature of gas warfare on both sides of the conflict between Iran and Iraq from 1981 to 1988. Iraq's use of gas in that conflict is repeatedly cited by President Bush and, this week, by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as justification for "regime change" in Iraq.

The covert program was carried out at a time when President Reagan's top aides, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Gen. Colin L. Powell, then the national security adviser, were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraq attacked Kurds in Halabja in March 1988.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted, so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It has long been known that the United States provided intelligence assistance to Iraq in the form of satellite photography to help the Iraqis understand how Iranian forces were deployed against them. But the full nature of the program, as described by former Defense Intelligence Agency officers, was not previously disclosed.

***

In early 1988, after the Iraqi Army, with American planning assistance, retook the Fao Peninsula in an attack that reopened Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf, a defense intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, now retired, was sent to tour the battlefield with Iraqi officers, the American military officers said.

He reported that Iraq had used chemical weapons to cinch its victory, one former D.I.A. official said. Colonel Francona saw zones marked off for chemical contamination, and containers for the drug atropine scattered around, indicating that Iraqi soldiers had taken injections to protect themselves from the effects of gas that might blow back over their positions. (Colonel Francona could not be reached for comment.)

***

Col. Walter P. Lang, retired, the senior defense intelligence officer at the time, said he would not discuss classified information, but added that both D.I.A. and C.I.A. officials "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose" to Iran.

***

Colonel Lang asserted that the Defense Intelligence Agency "would have never accepted the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but the use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival." Senior Reagan administration officials did nothing to interfere with the continuation of the program, a former participant in the program said.

***

The Pentagon's battle damage assessments confirmed that Iraqi military commanders had integrated chemical weapons throughout their arsenal and were adding them to strike plans that American advisers either prepared or suggested. Iran claimed that it suffered thousands of deaths from chemical weapons.

The American intelligence officers never encouraged or condoned Iraq's use of chemical weapons, but neither did they oppose it because they considered Iraq to be struggling for its survival, people involved at the time said in interviews.

Another former senior D.I.A. official who was an expert on the Iraqi military said the Reagan administration's treatment of the issue — publicly condemning Iraq's use of gas while privately acquiescing in its employment on the battlefield — was an example of the "Realpolitik" of American interests in the war.

***

One officer said, "They had gotten better and better" and after a while chemical weapons "were integrated into their fire plan for any large operation, and it became more and more obvious."

***

The Pentagon "wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas," said one veteran of the program. "It was just another way of killing people — whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't make any difference," he said.


While this story shouldn't surprise too many people who won't dismiss it outright, it brings up some salient points with regard to our current situation with Iraq:

1) That this story is showing up in the NYT is significant. Its well-documented tendency in favor of covering its collective grey ass indicates the story is well-substantiated.

2) That this story is showing up anywhere is a stark indication of the depth of the armed services' opposition to an invasion of Iraq, and the Bush Administration's underestimation of same, which leads us to...

3) Said opposition (stemming, we must assume, from best-guess projections of unacceptable levels of potential losses) confirms suspicions that the administration hasn't thought through the implications of an invasion, and indicates a shallow motivation behind it, whether wag-the-dog political or personal animus against Saddam.

4) The Bush administration's credibility with the global community is now zero. Many people currently in the administration, and many others with close Bush ties, worked actively to help Saddam use chemical weapons. He was evil then, and we helped him. He's evil now, so we'll invade. Does not compute. The situation only confirms suspicions that Bush Administration foreign policy is utterly amoral.

We cannot take the high ground and proclaim that we need to rid the world of the Iraqi menace because it's the right thing to do. Either we need to formulate an argument that Saddam presents a clear and present danger greater than the cost of removing him, or we should just shut up about it.

Also, we owe the people of Iran an apology.