BAGHDAD (IPS) – The Iraq issue today may never have arisen if it were not for the support former U.S. president Ronald Reagan gave Saddam Hussein.
Reagan died Saturday June 5 in his Los Angeles home.
Reagan’s two terms as President correspond roughly to the Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional war of the 20th century.
Saddam Hussein invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980 with the stated goal of gaining control of the Shatt al-Arab, the river that has formed a border between Iran and Iraq, and which would give Iraq better access to the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. government was then interested in containing Iran, which had just become one of Washington’s major enemies after the Islamic Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini. U.S. hostages had been taken, and Ronald Reagan had just been elected partly on the strength of criticizing President Jimmy Carter’s inability to free them.
“America and Saddam thought the same way at that time, because America wanted to destroy the revolution in Iran,” retired Iraqi Brigadier-General Zekki Daoud Jabber told IPS in an interview in his Baghdad home.
When Reagan was President, Gen. Jabber was in charge of communication and radar for the Iraqi military. Almost from the beginning of the conflict, U.S.-manned AWACS aircraft leased to Saudi Arabia were used to relay intelligence to the Iraqi military.
“It was very important to us,” Gen. Jabber told IPS, “because it allowed us to know where Iran’s planes were; where they would strike.”
More significant assistance for Saddam’s regime would come later, but it took Reagan some time to arrange that.
Reagan took the first step in November 1983 when he removed Iraq from the U.S. government’s official list of “nations that support international terrorism.” That opened the door to full diplomatic and economic cooperation between Iraq and the United States.
The next month he sent an emissary to Baghdad bearing a personal letter for Saddam. That emissary was none other than current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
A declassified official note at the time read: “Saddam Hussein showed obvious pleasure with the President’s letter and Rumsfeld’s visits in his remarks.”
Rumsfeld also met Saddam’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz. According to a State Department memo made available by the National Security Archives in Washington, Rumsfeld told Aziz: “The United States and Iraq share many common interests,” and that the Reagan administration had a “willingness to do more” to “help Iraq.”
In 1984 Tariq Aziz, now under arrest after being on the list of Iraqis most wanted by the U.S. administration, traveled to Washington and met Ronald Reagan at the White House. Following that meeting, the United States made its intelligence in the Gulf available to Iraq on a regular basis, and set up direct links between the CIA and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Through this time the Reagan administration largely ignored reports that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against the Iranian army and against domestic Kurdish insurgents.
“While condemning Iraq’s resort to chemical weapons,” a U.S. government press release read, “the United States finds the Iranian regime’s intransigent refusal to deviate from its avowed objective of eliminating the legitimate government of Iraq to be inconsistent with accepted norms.”
Jabber says the Reagan administration never seriously tried to stop Iraq using chemical weapons. “Everything we did was checked with America,” he said. “They knew our policy was to use chemical weapons on the Iranian army when they entered our territory. We told them that and they continued to help us.”
As the war dragged on, Saddam’s tactics became increasingly more brutal. He launched al-Anfal in northern Iraq, a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing against his own Kurdish population, which tired of Saddam’s oppressive rule was siding with Iran. That campaign left tens of thousands of Kurds dead. Hundreds of thousands were led out of their villages at gunpoint, and their homes bulldozed behind them.
“I remember very well,” recalls Rafat Abdel Mohammed Amin, mayor of Benslawa, a Kurdish refugee camp outside Arbil in northern Iraq. “They came one morning, Saddam’s soldiers. They brought the bulldozers to destroy the house the moment we left it. Then they gave us a tent to live in. We were completely surrounded by check-points of the Iraqi Army.”
The Reagan administration barely took note of the Anfal campaign. While U.S. forces did nothing to protect Iraqi Kurds, they began to fight directly with Iran. On October 8, 1987 U.S. warships destroyed two Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf. Then, on April 18, 1988 U.S. warships blew up two Iranian oil rigs, sank a frigate and destroyed an Iranian missile boat.
Amin is forgiving. “The U.S.A. supported Saddam because they thought this relation with Saddam would benefit them. Every country does this. Then they changed their mind. They wanted to remove Saddam, so they started a war against him.”
But memories of the Reagan administration’s support for Saddam linger in northern Iraq where 150,000 Kurdish refugees still live in camps.
Seventeen years after Saddam Hussein gassed her home in Hallabja, packed mud and a canvas tarp still serve as the roof of Aftow Khafood’s home in Benslawa refugee camp. “We would like to improve our situation,” she says. “When it rains, we are afraid our house will collapse over our heads. We want to return to our homes and live like others in normal houses.”
As the eulogizing of President Reagan pours in, Khafood says the only international help she has got has come from the United Nations, which has provided her family with toilet facilities and 200 cinder blocks, which she stacked into makeshift walls.