Saddam's Hidden History

by Joel Bleifuss

In These Times magazine, January 2004


Saddam Hussein's career as a world political figure is over; and a good thing that is. Yet with all the hoopla surrounding the capture, one would never know that the Iraqi president was once a dependable American ally.

Almost all of the instant histories that filled the news pages and the airwaves after his capture ignored the documented fact that throughout the '80s, Saddam was a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Consider the following:

* In 1959 the CIA put Saddam Hussein on its covert operations payroll. The CIA wanted to assassinate then-lraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim, who was buying weapons from the Soviet Union and putting Iraqi communists in positions of power. To that end, the agency hired Saddam, then 22, and five other men. The hit failed because Saddam began firing too soon, wounding Qasim and killing his driver.

Qasim finally met his end in a Ba'ath party coup in 1963. After the coup, the CIA provided the anti-communist Ba'athists with a list of suspected communists, who were rounded up and executed en masse. A former CIA official told the United Press International's Richard Sale: "It was a bit like the mysterious killing of Iran's communists just after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. A11 4,000 of his communists suddenly got killed."

* On September 22, 1980, Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran, beginning a war that lasted eight years and left an estimated 1 million dead. In April 1981, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig visited the Middle East and upon his return wrote a debriefing paper for President Ronald Reagan in which he said, "It was also interesting to confirm that President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through [Saudi then-Prince, now-King] Fahd."

(Haig's notes, marked "top secret," were discovered by investigative reporter Robert Parry in the documents from a congressional investigation into the Reagan administration's contacts with Iran. They can be viewed at, a Web site Parry founded. As a correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the '80s, Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. His chronicle of Saddam's relationship with the United States, "Missing U.S.-lraq History," can be read at

* In 1982, the Reagan administration, though officially neutral, began to fear an Iranian victory. In a 1995 affidavit in a federal criminal court case, Howard Teicher, a one-time member of Reagan's National Security Council staff, said that in 1982 he helped draft a secret National Security Decision Directive, signed by Reagan, to provide covert support to Iraq.

Teicher wrote, "The CIA, including both CIA Director [William] Casey and Deputy Director [Robert] Gates, knew of, approved of and assisted in the sale of non-U.S.-origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq." The Reagan administration also began providing Saddam Hussein's military with satellite photos of the battlefield and dual-use technology that Iraq used to build chemical and biological weapons. And the Reagan administration allowed Iraq to buy computer software that Saddam could use to track political opponents.

At a Senate hearing on September 19, 2002, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.) asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "Did the United States help Iraq to acquire the building blocks of biological weapons during the Iran-lraq war? Are we in fact, now facing the possibility of reaping what we have sown?" Rumsfeld, who was Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East in 1983 and 1984 and who met personally with Saddam on December 20, 1983, replied that he had "no knowledge" of such U.S. assistance. Was that a lie?

The Washington Post's Michael Dobbs, after poring through thousands of unclassified government documents, wrote in a December 30, 2002, article: "The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of numerous items that had both military and civilian applications, including poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses, such as anthrax and bubonic plague."

* In 1986, then Vice President George H.W. Bush encouraged Saddam, through Arab intermediaries, to strike Iran harder, according to a November 2, 1992 New Yorker story by Murray Waas and Craig Unger. Indeed, that year, the Iraqi air force began to bomb civilian neighborhoods in Tehran and other cities. The United States allegedly desired an intensified bombing to make Iran more dependent on U.S. supplies of anti-aircraft parts to defend their cities. Such spare parts were an integral part of the Reagan administration's illegal arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

In his 1995 affidavit, Teicher wrote, "In 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran. This message was delivered by Vice President Bush, who communicated it to Egyptian President Mubarak, who in turn passed the message to Saddam Hussein." The Clinton administration declared that Teicher's affidavit was false and then promptly classified it as a state secret.

* In 1988 it became known that Saddam Hussein had used his chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja. In response, a number of senators, including Al Gore (D-Tenn.), introduced the "Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988," which sought to impose sanctions against Iraq. The act passed the Senate unanimously, but the Reagan White House killed the bill in the House. Peter Galbraith, the former ambassador to Croatia who worked in the Senate as an Iraq expert at the time, wrote in the

Boston Globe Magazine: "Secretary of State Colin Powell was then the national security adviser who orchestrated Ronald Reagan's decision to give Hussein a pass for gassing the Kurds. Dick Cheney, then a prominent Republican congressman and now vice president and the Bush administration's leading Iraq hawk, could have helped push the sanctions legislation but did not."

* In 1990, with Iraq's economy devastated by the war with Iran, Saddam invaded Kuwait-but only after consulting with the Bush administration. The State Department informed Saddam that Washington had "no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait." And later, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Foreign Policy, in its January-February 2003 issue noted that the "United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."

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