LONDON – Evidence offered by a top CIA man could confirm the testimony given by Saddam Hussein at the opening of his trial in Baghdad Thursday that he knew of the Halabja massacre only from the newspapers.
Thousands were reported killed in the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in the north of Iraq in March 1988 toward the end of Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran. The gassing of the Kurds has long been held to be the work of Ali Hassan al-Majid, named in the West because of that association as “Chemical Ali.” Saddam Hussein is widely alleged to have ordered Ali to carry out the chemical attack.
The Halabja massacre is now prominent among the charges read out against Saddam in the Baghdad court. When that charge was read out, Saddam replied that he had read about the massacre in a newspaper. Saddam has denied these allegations ever since they were made. But now with a trial on, he could summon a witness in his defense with the potential to blow apart the charge and create one of the greatest diplomatic disasters the United States has ever known.
A report prepared by the top CIA official handling the matter says Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the massacre, and indicates that it was the work of Iranians. Further, the Scott inquiry on the role of the British government has gathered evidence that following the massacre the United States in fact armed Saddam Hussein to counter the Iranians chemicals for chemicals.
Few believe that a CIA man would attend a court hearing in Baghdad in defense of Saddam. But in this case the CIA boss has gone public with his evidence, and this evidence has been in the public domain for more than a year.
The CIA officer Stephen C. Pelletiere was the agency’s senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. As professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, he says he was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf.
In addition, he says he headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States, and the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.
Pelletiere went public with his information on no less a platform than The New York Times in an article on January 31 last year titled “A War Crime or an Act of War?” The article which challenged the case for war quoted U.S. President George W. Bush as saying: “The dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages, leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or disfigured.”
Pelletiere says the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report following the Halabja gassing, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need- to-know basis. “That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas,” he wrote in The New York Times.
The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja, he said. “The condition of the dead Kurds’ bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent that is, a cyanide-based gas which Iran was known to use. “The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.”
Pelletiere writes that these facts have “long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily, as often as the Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned.”
Pelletiere wrote that Saddam Hussein has much to answer for in the area of human rights abuses. “But accusing him of gassing his own people at Halabja as an act of genocide is not correct, because as far as the information we have goes, all of the cases where gas was used involved battles. These were tragedies of war. There may be justifications for invading Iraq, but Halabja is not one of them.”
Pelletiere has maintained his position. All Saddam would have to do in court now is to cite The New York Times article even if the court would not summon Pelletiere. The issues raised in the article would themselves be sufficient to raise serious questions about the charges filed against Saddam and in turn the justifications offered last year for invading Iraq.
The Halabja killings were cited not just by Bush but by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify his case for going along with a U.S. invasion of Iraq. A British government dossier released to justify the war on Iraq says that “Saddam has used chemical weapons, not only against an enemy state, but against his own people.” An inquiry report in 1996 by Lord Justice Scott in what came to be known as the arms-to-Iraq affair gave dramatic pointers to what followed after Halabja. After the use of poison gas in 1988 both the United States and Britain began to supply Saddam Hussein with even more chemical weapons.
The Scott inquiry had been set up in 1992 following the collapse of the trial in the case of Matrix Churchill, a British firm exporting equipment to Iraq that could be put to military use.
Three senior executives of Matrix Churchill said the government knew what Matrix Churchill was doing, and that its managing director Paul Henderson had been supplying information about Iraq to the British intelligence agencies on a regular basis.
The inquiry revealed details of the British government’s secret decision to supply Saddam with even more weapons-related equipment after the Halabja killings.
Former British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe was found to have written that the end of the Iraq-Iran war could mean “major opportunities for British industry” in military exports, but he wanted to keep that proposal quiet.
“It could look very cynical if so soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales,” one of his officials told the Scott inquiry. Lord Scott condemned the government’s decision to change its policy, while keeping MPs and the public in the dark.
Soon after the attack, the United States approved the export to Iraq of virus cultures and a billion-dollar contract to design and build a petrochemical plant the Iraqis planned to use to produce mustard gas.
Saddam Hussein has appeared so far without a lawyer to defend him. A Jordanian firm is reported to be speaking up for him. But the real defense for him could be waiting for him in Washington and London.