Saddam gasses his own people...

bon moun sherrynstan at
Thu Feb 20 04:56:44 MST 2003

[Forgive me if I've posted this earlier, but yesterday as I went over this
it occurred to me that as one page after another falls from the Bush
Encyclopedia Pretexta, the bit about "Saddam gassed his own people" remains
one of the final stand-bys.  Pelletiere can not be accused of being an
"ideologue," on the contrary, he was a career spook with the CIA's Iraq
Section (Senior Analyst).  I would suggest that we get familiar with his
presentation, pass it along to everyone we can send it to (I grow daily
more convinced of the democratic and anti-imperialist potential of the
internet, at least in the metropoles), and begin to think about writing
columns, etc, for the mass media.  This is a direct attack on Bush's
legitimacy, which is all he's got left... aside from Tomahawk Cruise
missiles, of course.  -SG]

A War Crime or an Act of War?

By Stephen C. Pelletiere
The New York Times
January 31, 2003

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. - It was no surprise that President Bush, lacking
smoking-gun evidence of Iraq's weapons programs, used his State of the
Union address to re-emphasize the moral case for an invasion: "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

The accusation that Iraq has used chemical weapons against its citizens is
a familiar part of the debate. The piece of hard evidence most frequently
brought up concerns the gassing of Iraqi Kurds at the town of Halabja in
March 1988, near the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. President Bush
himself has cited Iraq's "gassing its own people," specifically at Halabja,
as a reason to topple Saddam Hussein.

But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with
poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi
chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the
Halabja story.

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's
senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a
professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of
the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with
the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how
the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified
version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about
in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical
weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in
northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who
died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not
Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States
Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report,
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.

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle
around Halabja. 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.

These facts have long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily, as
often as the Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned. A
much-discussed article in The New Yorker last March did not make reference
to the Defense Intelligence Agency report or consider that Iranian gas
might have killed the Kurds. On the rare occasions the report is brought
up, there is usually speculation, with no proof, that it was skewed out of
American political favoritism toward Iraq in its war against Iran.

I am not trying to rehabilitate the character of Saddam Hussein. He 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.

In fact, those who really feel that the disaster at Halabja has bearing on
today might want to consider a different question: Why was Iran so keen on
taking the town? A closer look may shed light on America's impetus to
invade Iraq.

We are constantly reminded that Iraq has perhaps the world's largest
reserves of oil. But in a regional and perhaps even geopolitical sense, it
may be more important that Iraq has the most extensive river system in the
Middle East. In addition to the Tigris and Euphrates, there are the Greater
Zab and Lesser Zab rivers in the north of the country. Iraq was covered
with irrigation works by the sixth century A.D., and was a granary for the

Before the Persian Gulf war, Iraq had built an impressive system of dams
and river control projects, the largest being the Darbandikhan dam in the
Kurdish area. And it was this dam the Iranians were aiming to take control
of when they seized Halabja. In the 1990's there was much discussion over
the construction of a so-called Peace Pipeline that would bring the waters
of the Tigris and Euphrates south to the parched Gulf states and, by
extension, Israel. No progress has been made on this, largely because of
Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of course, all that could

Thus America could alter the destiny of the Middle East in a way that
probably could not be challenged for decades - not solely by controlling
Iraq's oil, but by controlling its water. Even if America didn't occupy the
country, once Mr. Hussein's Baath Party is driven from power, many
lucrative opportunities would open up for American companies.

All that is needed to get us into war is one clear reason for acting, one
that would be generally persuasive. But efforts to link the Iraqis directly
to Osama bin Laden have proved inconclusive. Assertions that Iraq threatens
its neighbors have also failed to create much resolve; in its present
debilitated condition - thanks to United Nations sanctions - Iraq's
conventional forces threaten no one.

Perhaps the strongest argument left for taking us to war quickly is that
Saddam Hussein has committed human rights atrocities against his people.
And the most dramatic case are the accusations about Halabja.

Before we go to war over Halabja, the administration owes the American
people the full facts. And if it has other examples of Saddam Hussein
gassing Kurds, it must show that they were not pro-Iranian Kurdish
guerrillas who died fighting alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Until
Washington gives us proof of Saddam Hussein's supposed atrocities, why are
we picking on Iraq on human rights grounds, particularly when there are so
many other repressive regimes Washington supports?

Stephen C. Pelletiere is author of "Iraq and the International Oil System:
Why America Went to War in the Persian Gulf."
© 2003 The New York Times Company

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