An Inconvenient Truth
Saddam never lacked for partners. He had launched his original ill-fated attack on Iran in September 1980 after garnering an indirect endorsement from Washington via the Saudis. The best the UN Security Council could do in the face of this act of unprovoked aggression was to issue a statement appealing to both parties to "desist from all armed activity." Two years later, US official complacency was jarred by the unexpected revival of Iranian military fortunes and consequent Iraqi retreats. As a result, for the rest of the war US policy was geared toward preventing an Iraqi defeat by any means necessary.
Iraq first resorted to chemical weapons in the mountains of the Kurdish north. In July 1983, the Iranians attacked at Haj Omran, a strategic mountain pass in the far northeast of Iraq. In a telling example of the ethnic and political complexities of that part of the world, the attacking force included elements of the Badr Corps, Iraqi Shiite prisoners recruited from POW camps, along with anti-Saddam Kurds from the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani. Opposing this force were units of other Iraqi Kurds from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani, who between 1983 and 1984 was allied with Saddam against the Iranians. The attackers were initially successful, until Iraqi planes swooped overhead and dropped bombs. Fighters in the area suddenly smelled garlic and soon afterward developed breathing problems and skin lesions, symptoms that inexorably spread to those lower on the mountain as the gas--sulphur mustard developed during World War I--drifted downhill.
Confident that gas was the answer to Iranian "human wave" attacks, Iraq invested ever more heavily in chemical weapons, developing sophisticated techniques for their employment that were studied with keen attention by Western military staffs. Iran repeatedly protested, imploring the UN to take action, and the Security Council did indeed lament the violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical weapons, but tactfully avoided any mention of who was responsible. In Washington, meanwhile, the Administration knew perfectly well, at least by the fall of 1983, who was doing what to whom but was loath to say so. There was, after all, a lot of official outrage and agitation at that time over the alleged use of a biological weapon, the so-called Yellow Rain, by the Communist governments of Laos and Vietnam against their own people. The Secretary of State himself, Alexander Haig, had denounced this as a violation of an international agreement, a position that was for the most part endorsed by the press. Later, a Harvard team conclusively demonstrated that Yellow Rain was in fact bee shit. Was there one law for the Communists and another for Saddam Hussein? The answer was yes. So while issuing occasional pious denunciations of Iraqi chemical use, the United States was at pains to reassure Iraq that there would be no serious consequences. In November 1983, State Department officials expressed their concerns about chemical use to Iraq, but discreetly, so as to "avoid unpleasantly surprising Iraq through public positions we may have to take on this issue." Hypocrisy, as la Rochefoucauld observed, is the homage vice pays to virtue.
To convince the Iraqi leader that we really were his friends, the Administration dispatched the President's Special Middle East Envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, bearing a gift for Saddam from Reagan: a pair of golden spurs. In much of the Middle East, Rumsfeld was an unpopular figure--the US Ambassador in Damascus would leave town, after locking up the liquor cabinet in the residence, whenever he heard the envoy was on his way. But Rummy was popular in Baghdad, where Saddam's men enthused that they regarded him as "a good listener" and "liked him as a person." Rumsfeld did not spoil the party by giving chemical weapons more than a passing mention; instead he spent much of his private time with Saddam trying to sell his host on the idea of an Iraqi oil pipeline to Israel.
The following March, when news of Iraq's revival of poison gas as a weapon finally surfaced in the press, the State Department condemned "the prohibited use of chemical weapons wherever it occurs," while Rumsfeld was sent back to Baghdad to pass the word that the condemnation had been essentially pro forma and that the American desire to improve relations "at a pace of Iraq's choosing remain[s] undiminished." Meanwhile, US diplomats worked to quash discussion of the issue at international forums. No wonder Saddam exulted later that year over what he called "the beautiful atmosphere between us."
The "beautiful atmosphere" soured for a period when it emerged that the United States had been simultaneously selling arms to Iran. So cynically confused had American policy become in this period that in a bloody battle for the Faw Peninsula in February 1986, both sides acted on the basis of intelligence supplied by the United States. But Washington ultimately returned to the embrace of its friend in Baghdad, scrambling to reassure him that the United States could be trusted. Quite apart from the need to curb the ayatollahs, there was money to be made. US companies rushed to sew up lucrative contracts. Even Richard Nixon got in on the act, blessing an enterprise organized by some of his staff to supply uniforms sewn in Romania to the Iraqi army.
Again and again, Hiltermann stresses that the Iraqis were very conscious of international reaction and probably would have called a halt to the use of gas if there had been a political cost to pay. But there wasn't. He quotes a CIA assessment from late 1986 that laid out the marginal battlefield effectiveness of Iraq's chemical weapons, citing, in his words, "poor tactical employment, lessened element of surprise [and] increased Iranian preparedness." But, the assessment claimed, "because the political costs of continued CW use have been so small, we doubt that Iraq will abandon its use of chemical weapons in the foreseeable future." Although Hiltermann's overall account of the background to Halabja is indispensable, it is his theme of witting US complicity, backed by years of meticulous research, that strikes the most chilling note.