NPR: In the run-up to the Iraq war, President Bush frequently cited Saddam Hussein’s attacks on his own people as a reason to fear the Iraqi dictator could strike again with “weapons of mass destruction.” A new book examines the horror of the chemical weapons campaign Saddam waged during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. It takes a close-up look at US involvement with Saddam at that time and the legacy of that involvement. The book’s author is Joost Hiltermann, a veteran Middle East watcher with the International Crisis Group and a frequent guest here on NPR. Hiltermann’s new book is called, “Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja.” I spoke with him last week. … Joost Hiltermann, you say, “Where were you on March 16th? And where was I? Memory fails where conscience demands it.”
Joost Hiltermann: Well, the thing is it is such a huge event to have an entire town attacked with chemical weapons. I mean, there is no precedent for it in history. So why weren’t we more conscious of it at the time? Frankly, I do not remember what I knew at the time. And now things get all blurred. Maybe there was some kind of recognition at the time. But I do know, going back to the newspapers of the time, that there was clearly some consciousness that something major had happened. But it didn’t last. That moment of recognition passed very quickly.
NPR: But the pictures were so stunning when they came out. 3,000 people, bodies curled up in the streets, people gassed in their homes and their trucks, men curling around infants – was there an international recoil?
JH: Well, there was. And the pictures have remained until now. What has changed was the awareness of who was responsible. Clearly at first everybody thought – and knew deep down – that it was Iraq that had done it. And in fact Iraq did do it. But soon another narrative appeared that suggested that in fact Iran was at least partially to blame for the gassing of the Halabjans.
NPR: In fact, you’ve got an example here. You say that almost immediately a critical piece of disinformation enters the international coverage of Halabja. On March the 23rd – the attack occurred on the 16th – a US State Department official, Charles Redmond, says the Iranians might have used chemical weapons there. And that night, on “Nightline,” Ted Koppel says there’s some ambiguity about who was behind this attack. Indeed, it has framed the debate almost until now.
JH: That’s right. The story originated in the Defense Intelligence Agency – the military intelligence branch of the Pentagon. It was really designed to take the pressure off Iraq.
NPR: Why did we want to take the pressure off Iraq? Obviously, there was a great fear of Iran after the 1979 revolution.
JH: Well, that was one thing. The other was the hostage crisis in the beginning of the 1980’s. There was a lot of animus against Iran. So when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, it didn’t take very long for the Reagan administration to put its support largely behind Iraq. This was the “Iraq tilt.” And as part of this, the Reagan administration closed its eyes to some of the worst activities of the Iraqi regime, both internally and its use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
NPR: Remind us of other ways in which America showed its support. Secretary of State George Schultz sent very conflicting signals to the Iraqis. Don Rumsfeld makes his visit to Baghdad in 1983. This is basically to shore up Saddam Hussein’s confidence.
JH: Yes. And this was just at the time when the Reagan administration had become aware, through its intelligence agencies, that Iraq had started using chemical weapons. Because the first recorded, seriously documented use of mustard gas was in July-August of 1983.
NPR: You mean this was the first time chemical weapons had been used as greatly since World War I.
JH: That’s true. This was the first time that we had a situation roughly similar to the First World War where you have trench warfare and the use of gas on enemy forces.
NPR: And every time Iran made major incursions – which it did almost annually in the spring into Iraqi territory – these chemical weapons would be used nearly every day.
JH: The Iranians would send this young, so-called volunteers across minefields where many were blown up, of course – and many of these were teenagers – towards the Iraqis, and the Iraqis would be sitting there with the machine guns, firing, firing, firing, killing a lot of these guys. But there would be more coming. The machine guns would heat up and jam. So the Iraqis were really afraid of being overwhelmed by these human wave assaults. The only weapon they could think of that could effectively counter them was gas.
NPR: Did Iraq feel that it could literally get away with murder?
JH: Well, I think so! Because each time it used a new chemical agent and it was starting to gas civilians as well, nothing happened. There was silence. And so it knew it could go ahead. And of course this of course benefited it tremendously, especially toward the end of the war, when it was going for advantage.
NPR: Getting on towards near the end of the war, how did the Iran-Contra affair encourage Saddam Hussein?
JH: The Iran-Contra affair was a huge slap in the face of the Iraqis. They had already suspected but now they had the evidence that the US was in fact arming its arch enemy and was giving it very critical weapons systems. So when this was uncovered and became a big public scandal, the State Department and the US government more broadly went out of their way to increase the tilt toward Iraq. The credit guarantees went up. The intelligence-sharing went up. The US presence, through the US defense attaché and military intelligence in Iraq, was ramped up. And so we get a very close, fairly intimate relationship, especially on the intelligence level, between the US and Iraq.
NPR: Did the American intelligence agencies actually share satellite photos or data about where Iranian positions were in northern Iraq or along the border?
JH: Along the southern front in particular they did. And so this helped the Iraqis hugely especially in terms of directing chemical fire – they knew now where the Iranian troops were…
NPR: But certainly American officials at that point knew there was no question that Iraq was using this on the Iranians?
JH: Oh, US intelligence documents make it abundantly clear that there was full knowledge of this from at least the summer of 1983 on.
NPR: I want to talk to you now about the implications for Iraq and for Iran today. Let’s start with the Kurds. You’ve been to Kurdistan and to Kirkuk many times. The campaign, which is called “anfal” – meaning “despoil” – that cleared and depopulated northern Iraq and killed tens of thousands of people, this is such a live memory.
JH: It’s a traumatic experience for the Kurds – both the anfal campaign and the Halabja attack which coincided in 1988. Until now, this trauma has shaped the Kurdish posture in modern Iraq, to the extent that they are trying to use the current situation to maximize their future possibility of seceding from Iraq. They do this by maximizing the territory that falls under their control and maximizing the powers they have within that territory. They know they’re never – ever – going to be able to trust another Iraqi government to not do the same thing to them as happened in 1988.
NPR: Finally, Iran. You write that its memory of the weapons that Saddam used in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran very much alive. There was fear at one point that Teheran itself might be gassed. Iranians see the US as being complicit, of course, in the chemical campaign. And you suggest this figures into their drive for nuclear weapons.
JH: Well, I think it’s directly related because the Iranians, of course, had a nuclear program under the Shah. Khomeini stopped that. But then later this was resumed because of the direct experience Iran had in the war with Iraq. To be totally vulnerable to chemical weapons attacks with no similar response capability, and realizing that the Iraqis were also starting to develop biological and nuclear weapons, and so they started to develop their own programs. Plus, they learned that you could not rely on the international community to abide by its own international treaties like the 1925 Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical weapons! The Iranians kept saying to the United Nations, “This is your international convention. Why do you not observe it? Why is Iraq allowed to use chemical weapons against us?” So now they sign all these treaties themselves but they know that it’s just ink on paper.