It is suddenly de rigueur for US officials to say, "Saddam Hussein gassed his own people." They are evidently referring to the Iraqi military's use of chemical weapons in the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Halabja in March 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, and then in the area controlled by the Teheran-backed Kurdish insurgents after the cease-fire in August.
Since Baghdad's deployment of chemical arms in war as well as peace was known at the time, the question is: What did the US government do about it then? Nothing. Worse, so strong was the hold of the pro-Iraq lobby on the Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan, it succeeded in getting the White House to frustrate the Senate's attempt to penalize Baghdad for violating the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons, which it had signed. This led Saddam to believe that Washington was firmly on his side–a conclusion that paved the way for his invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, the full consequences of which have yet to play themselves out.
During the five years following October 1983, Iraq used 100,000 munitions, containing chiefly mustard gas, which produces blisters first on the skin and then inside the lungs, and nerve gas, which attacks the nervous system, but also cyanide gas. From the initial use of such agents in extremis to repel Iranian offensives, the Iraqis went on to deploy them extensively as a vital element of their assaults in the spring and summer of 1988 to retake lost territories. At the time, even as the US government had knowledge of these attacks, it provided intelligence and planning assistance to the Iraqi army, according to an August 18 front-page report by Patrick Tyler in the New York Times.
Iraq's use of poison gases to regain the Fao Peninsula, captured by Iran in early 1986, was so blatant that the United Nations Security Council could no longer accept Baghdad's routine denials. After examining 700 Iranian casualties, the UN team of experts concluded that Iraq used mustard and nerve gases on many occasions.
Yet, instead of condemning Iraq unequivocally for its actions, the Security Council, dominated by Washington and Moscow, both of them pro-Baghdad, balanced its condemnation of Iraq with its disapproval of "the prolongation of the conflict" by Iran, which had refused to agree to a cease-fire until the Council named Iraq the aggressor (which America got around to doing in 1998!).
Contrary to its proclamations of neutrality, Washington had all along been pro-Iraq. It lost little time in supplying Baghdad with intelligence gathered by the Saudi-owned but Pentagon-operated AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) flying in the region. This tilt became an embrace after the re-election of Reagan as president in November 1984, when Iraq and America re-established diplomatic ties.
From mid-1986, assisted by the Pentagon, which secretly seconded its Air Force officers to work with their Iraqi counterparts, Iraq improved its accuracy in targeting, hitting Iran's bridges, factories and power plants relentlessly, and extending its air strikes to the Iranian oil terminals in the Lower Gulf. Under the rubric of escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers, the Pentagon built up an armada in the gulf, which clashed with the puny Iranian navy and destroyed two Iranian offshore oil platforms in the Lower Gulf in retaliation for an Iranian missile attack on a US-flagged super-tanker docked in Kuwaiti waters.
It was against this backdrop that Iraq began striking Teheran with its upgraded Scud ground-to-ground missiles in late February 1988. To recapture Halabja, a town of 70,000 about fifteen miles from the border, from Iran and its Kurdish allies, who had seized it in March, the Iraqi Air Force attacked it with poison gas bombs, killing 3,200 to 5,000 civilians. The images of men, women and children frozen in instant death, relayed by the Iranian media, shocked the world. Yet no condemnation came from Washington.
It was only when, following the truce with Teheran in August, Saddam made extensive use of chemical agents to retake 4,000 square miles controlled by the Kurdish rebels that the Security Council decided to send a team to determine if Iraq had deployed chemical arms. Baghdad refused to cooperate.
But instead of pressing Baghdad to reverse its stance, or face an immediate ban on the sale of US military equipment and advanced technology to Iraq by the revival of the Senate's bill, US Secretary of State George Shultz chose merely to say that interviews with the Kurdish refugees in Turkey, and "other sources" (which remained obscure), pointed toward Baghdad's using chemical weapons. These two elements did not add up to "conclusive" proof. Such was the verdict of Shultz's British counterpart, Sir Geoffrey Howe. "If conclusive evidence is obtained, then punitive measures against Iraq have not been ruled out," he said. But neither he nor Shultz is known to have made a further attempt to get at the truth. Baghdad went unpunished.
That is where the matter rested for fourteen years–until "gassing his own people" became a catchy slogan to demonize Saddam in the popular American imagination.