Did Saddam Hussein
Gas His Own People?

Jude Wanniski
November 18, 1998


Memo To: Sandy Berger, National Security Advisor
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Iraqi use of Poison Gas

On the Jim Lehrer "NewsHour" Monday night, you repeated the assertion that Saddam Hussein "gassed his own people." As the President's National Security Advisor, I had assumed you of all people would not make such assertions without having supporting evidence. Early this year, on the supposition that the Iraqi situation would blow up again, I made serious inquiries about this charge. On April 7, I sent the following memo to Chairman Jesse Helms of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If you have better information, Mr. Berger, I hope you can supply it, as this is the most serious of all charges made against Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis readily acknowledge using , chemical weapons against Iran a few times late in the war, but using such weapons in wartime is not nearly as serious as "gassing his own people."

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To Senator Helms:

I continue to make inquiry into the situation in Iraq, as it is likely to brew up into another crisis one of these days when the United Nations has no choice but to conclude that Iraq is not hiding any weapons of mass destruction — or if they are, they are so well hidden that nobody is going to find them. As you know, I'm sure, the warhawks in the United States will continue to insist that the embargo remain in place no matter what, and there will be assertions from around the world that we have not been acting in good faith. As you also know, I believe there are serious questions regarding our behavior toward Iraq that go back further. You would agree, I think, that at the very least our State Department gave a "green light" to Saddam Hussein to go into Kuwait in August 1990. The more I read of the events of the period, the more I believe history will record that the Gulf War was unnecessary, perhaps even that Saddam Hussein was willing to retreat back to his borders, but our government decided we preferred the war to the status quo ante.

In my previous correspondence with you on this matter, I had been in a quandary about the state of our relations with Baghdad during that critical period. In the months immediately preceding the "green light" given by our Ambassador, April Glaspie, a number of your Senate colleagues including Bob Dole had traveled to Baghdad, met with Saddam, and found him to be a head of state worthy of support. Even Sen. Howard Metzenbaum [D-OH], a Jewish liberal and staunch supporter of Israel, gave him a seal of approval. What disturbs me even now, Jesse, is that these meetings occurred after the Senate Foreign Relations committee had accused Iraq of using poison gas against its own people, i.e., the Kurds. Like all other Americans, in recent years I had assumed that what I read in the papers was true about Iraq gassing its own people. Once the war drums again began beating last November, I decided to read up on the history, and found Iraq denied having used gas against its own people. Furthermore, I heard that a Pentagon investigation at the time had also turned up no hard evidence of Saddam gassing his own people.

This is serious stuff, because the United Nations tells us that 1.4 million Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the sanctions, which is three thousand times more than the number of Kurds who supposedly died of gassing at the hands of Saddam. Many of my old Cold Warrior friends practically DEMAND that we not lift the sanctions because if Saddam would gas his own people, he would gas anyone. Now I have come across the 1990 Pentagon report, published just prior to the invasion of Kuwait. Its authors are Stephen C. Pelletiere, Douglas V. Johnson II, and Leif R. Rosenberger, of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The report is 93 pages, but I append here only the passages having to do with the aforementioned issue:

Iraqi Power and U.S. Security in the Middle East

Excerpt, Chapter 5

Introduction. Throughout the war the United States practiced a fairly benign policy toward Iraq. Although initially disapproving of the invasion, Washington came slowly over to the side of Baghdad. Both wanted to restore the status quo ante to the Gulf and to reestablish the relative harmony that prevailed there before Khomeini began threatening the regional balance of power. Khomenini's revolutionary appeal was anathema to both Baghdad and Washington; hence they wanted to get rid of him. United by a common interest, Iraq and the United States restored diplomatic relations in 1984, and the United States began to actively assist Iraq in ending the fighting. It mounted Operation Staunch, an attempt to stem the flow of arms to Iran. It also increased its purchases of Iraqi oil while cutting back on Iranian oil purchases, and it urged its allies to do likewise. All this had the effect of repairing relations between the two countries, which had been at a very low ebb.

In September 1988, however — a month after the war had ended — the State Department abruptly, and in what many viewed as a sensational manner, condemned Iraq for allegedly using chemicals against its Kurdish population. The incident cannot be understood without some background of Iraq's relations with the Kurds. It is beyond the scope of this study to go deeply into this matter; suffice it to say that throughout the war Iraq effectively faced two enemies — Iran and the elements of its own Kurdish minority. Significant numbers of the Kurds had launched a revolt against Baghdad and in the process teamed up with Tehran. As soon as the war with Iran ended, Iraq announced its determination to crush the Kurdish insurrection. It sent Republican Guards to the Kurdish area, and in the course of this operation — according to the U.S. State Department — gas was used, with the result that numerous Kurdish civilians were killed. The Iraqi government denied that any such gassing had occurred. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Schultz stood by U.S. accusations, and the U.S. Congress, acting on its own, sought to impose economic sanctions on Baghdad as a violator of the Kurds' human rights.

Having looked at all of the evidence that was available to us, we find it impossible to confirm the State Department's claim that gas was used in this instance. To begin with there were never any victims produced. International relief organizations who examined the Kurds — in Turkey where they had gone for asylum — failed to discover any. Nor were there ever any found inside Iraq. The claim rests solely on testimony of the Kurds who had crossed the border into Turkey, where they were interviewed by staffers of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

We would have expected, in a matter as serious as this, that the Congress would have exercised some care. However, passage of the sanctions measure through the Congress was unusually swift — at least in the Senate where a unanimous vote was secured within 24 hours. Further, the proposed sanctions were quite draconian (and will be discussed in detail below). Fortunately for the future of Iraqi-U.S. ties, the sanctions measure failed to pass on a bureaucratic technicality (it was attached as a rider to a bill that died before adjournment).

It appears that in seeking to punish Iraq, the Congress was influenced by another incident that occurred five months earlier in another Iraqi-Kurdish city, Halabjah. In March 1988, the Kurds at Halabjah were bombarded with chemical weapons, producing a great many deaths. Photographs of the Kurdish victims were widely disseminated in the international media. Iraq was blamed for the Halabjah attack, even though it was subsequently brought out that Iran too had used chemicals in this operation, and it seemed likely that it was the Iranian bombardment that had actually killed the Kurds.

Thus, in our view, the Congress acted more on the basis of emotionalism than factual information, and without sufficient thought for the adverse diplomatic effects of its action. As a result of the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq is now the most powerful state in the Persian Gulf, an area in which we have vital interests. To maintain an uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf to the West, we need to develop good working relations with all of the Gulf states, and particularly with Iraq, the strongest.

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I wonder, Senator, had you ever read this material? The entire report is worth reading, as a matter of fact, because of its credibility on the threshold of the Iraqi invasion. The authors are quite emphatic, by the way, in stating that Iraq was struggling for its financial survival at this point — because of its debts from the Iranian war, and the decline of the world oil price. That is, they did not believe Iraq would have expansionist designs in the Middle East for years to come, given how financially flattened they had been.

It does seem to me that if Congress did act more on the basis of emotionalism than factual information, it may have contributed substantially to the economic distress of our ally in the war with Iran. That is, by squeezing Saddam with sanctions that included a cutoff of IMF assistance, it thrust Saddam into the confrontation he had with the Emir of Kuwait over oil fields and better port access to the Gulf that the Iraqis claimed going back to World War I.

The more I pull on this piece of string, the more I believe you should commit resources of the Foreign Relations Committee to a review of this history. In this period, the Democrats did have control of Congress and another senator chaired Foreign Relations. It could be that a different viewpoint at a distance of time would enable even slight adjustments of policy. It is now a season where everyone is asking for apologies of events that occurred generations ago, even hundreds of years ago.  We should deal today with those issues which could grow into embarrassments for which our grandchildren will have to apologize. Meanwhile, I'll continue to keep you informed as I collect this Iraqi ball of string.