The Saddam in Rumsfeld's Closet
by Jeremy Scahill
CommonDreams.org, August 2, 2002
"Man and the turtle are very much
alike. Neither makes any progress without sticking his neck out."
Five years before Saddam Hussein's now
infamous 1988 gassing of the Kurds, a key meeting took place in
Baghdad that would play a significant role in forging close ties
between Saddam Hussein and Washington. It happened at a time when
Saddam was first alleged to have used chemical weapons. The meeting
in late December 1983 paved the way for an official restoration
of relations between Iraq and the US, which had been severed since
the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
With the Iran-Iraq war escalating, President
Ronald Reagan dispatched his Middle East envoy, a former secretary
of defense, to Baghdad with a hand-written letter to Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein and a message that Washington was willing at any
moment to resume diplomatic relations.
That envoy was Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld's December 19-20, 1983 visit
to Baghdad made him the highest-ranking US official to visit Iraq
in 6 years. He met Saddam and the two discussed "topics of
mutual interest," according to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.
"[Saddam] made it clear that Iraq was not interested in making
mischief in the world," Rumsfeld later told The New York
Times. "It struck us as useful to have a relationship, given
that we were interested in solving the Mideast problems."
Just 12 days after the meeting, on January
1, 1984, The Washington Post reported that the United States "in
a shift in policy, has informed friendly Persian Gulf nations
that the defeat of Iraq in the 3-year-old war with Iran would
be 'contrary to U.S. interests' and has made several moves to
prevent that result."
In March of 1984, with the Iran-Iraq war
growing more brutal by the day, Rumsfeld was back in Baghdad for
meetings with then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. On the day
of his visit, March 24th, UPI reported from the United Nations:
"Mustard gas laced with a nerve agent has been used on Iranian
soldiers in the 43-month Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq,
a team of U.N. experts has concluded... Meanwhile, in the Iraqi
capital of Baghdad, U.S. presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld held
talks with Foreign Minister Tarek Aziz (sic) on the Gulf war before
leaving for an unspecified destination."
The day before, the Iranian news agency
alleged that Iraq launched another chemical weapons assault on
the southern battlefront, injuring 600 Iranian soldiers. "Chemical
weapons in the form of aerial bombs have been used in the areas
inspected in Iran by the specialists," the U.N. report said.
"The types of chemical agents used were bis-(2-chlorethyl)-sulfide,
also known as mustard gas, and ethyl N, N-dimethylphosphoroamidocyanidate,
a nerve agent known as Tabun."
Prior to the release of the UN report,
the US State Department on March 5th had issued a statement saying
"available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical
Commenting on the UN report, US Ambassador
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was quoted by The New York Times as saying,
"We think that the use of chemical weapons is a very serious
matter. We've made that clear in general and particular."
Compared with the rhetoric emanating from
the current administration, based on speculations about what Saddam
might have, Kirkpatrick's reaction was hardly a call to action.
Most glaring is that Donald Rumsfeld was
in Iraq as the 1984 UN report was issued and said nothing about
the allegations of chemical weapons use, despite State Department
"evidence." On the contrary, The New York Times reported
from Baghdad on March 29, 1984, "American diplomats pronounce
themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United
States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored
in all but name."
A month and a half later, in May 1984,
Donald Rumsfeld resigned. In November of that year, full diplomatic
relations between Iraq and the US were fully restored. Two years
later, in an article about Rumsfeld's aspirations to run for the
1988 Republican Presidential nomination, the Chicago Tribune Magazine
listed among Rumsfeld's achievements helping to "reopen U.S.
relations with Iraq." The Tribune failed to mention that
this help came at a time when, according to the US State Department,
Iraq was actively using chemical weapons.
Throughout the period that Rumsfeld was
Reagan's Middle East envoy, Iraq was frantically purchasing hardware
from American firms, empowered by the White House to sell. The
buying frenzy began immediately after Iraq was removed from the
list of alleged sponsors of terrorism in 1982. According to a
February 13, 1991 Los Angeles Times article:
"First on Hussein's shopping list
was helicopters -- he bought 60 Hughes helicopters and trainers
with little notice. However, a second order of 10 twin-engine
Bell "Huey" helicopters, like those used to carry combat
troops in Vietnam, prompted congressional opposition in August,
1983... Nonetheless, the sale was approved."
In 1984, according to The LA Times, the
State Department-in the name of "increased American penetration
of the extremely competitive civilian aircraft market"-pushed
through the sale of 45 Bell 214ST helicopters to Iraq. The helicopters,
worth some $200 million, were originally designed for military
purposes. The New York Times later reported that Saddam "transferred
many, if not all [of these helicopters] to his military."
In 1988, Saddam's forces attacked Kurdish
civilians with poisonous gas from Iraqi helicopters and planes.
U.S. intelligence sources told The LA Times in 1991, they "believe
that the American-built helicopters were among those dropping
the deadly bombs."
In response to the gassing, sweeping sanctions
were unanimously passed by the US Senate that would have denied
Iraq access to most US technology. The measure was killed by the
Senior officials later told reporters
they did not press for punishment of Iraq at the time because
they wanted to shore up Iraq's ability to pursue the war with
Iran. Extensive research uncovered no public statements by Donald
Rumsfeld publicly expressing even remote concern about Iraq's
use or possession of chemical weapons until the week Iraq invaded
Kuwait in August 1990, when he appeared on an ABC news special.
Eight years later, Donald Rumsfeld signed
on to an "open letter" to President Clinton, calling
on him to eliminate "the threat posed by Saddam." It
urged Clinton to "provide the leadership necessary to save
ourselves and the world from the scourge of Saddam and the weapons
of mass destruction that he refuses to relinquish."
In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld was in a position
to draw the world's attention to Saddam's chemical threat. He
was in Baghdad as the UN concluded that chemical weapons had been
used against Iran. He was armed with a fresh communication from
the State Department that it had "available evidence"
Iraq was using chemical weapons. But Rumsfeld said nothing.
Washington now speaks of Saddam's threat
and the consequences of a failure to act. Despite the fact that
the administration has failed to provide even a shred of concrete
proof that Iraq has links to Al Qaeda or has resumed production
of chemical or biological agents, Rumsfeld insists that "the
absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
But there is evidence of the absence of
Donald Rumsfeld's voice at the very moment when Iraq's alleged
threat to international security first emerged. And in this case,
the evidence of absence is indeed evidence.
Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist.
He reports frequently for Free Speech Radio News and Democracy
Now! In May and June 2002, he reported from Iraq. He can be reached
The Bush page
Index of Website