Newly declassified CIA documents obtained by Foreign Policy (FP) reveal that the US knew about Saddam Hussein [Unlink]'s chemical warfare campaign against Iran during the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The US helped Iraq wage chemical weapons warfare by providing tactical support through intelligence obtained from satellite reconnaissance imagery.
The disclosure should provoke a scrutiny of the real strategic motives behind the moves by the Obama administration to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
According to FP, additional details about Iraq’s chemical warfare campaign against Iran were obtained through interviews with former intelligence officials. The evidence indicates that the US had information about Iraqi gas attacks as early as 1983.
FP comments that the decision by top US officials to conceal information about Iraq's chemical weapons use was "tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched."
Although, it was previously known that the US provided the Iraqis with intelligence support even when they knew that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons, the declassified CIA documents reveal new details about the extent of the complicity of the US in Iraq's chemical warfare campaign against Iran.
The documents show that US officials were regularly updated about the details of the scale of the Iraqi gas attacks even while the intelligence services continued providing the Iraqis with intelligence about the position and movement of Iranian troops.
The US was complicit in Iraq's chemical warfare against Iran despite the fact that the use of chemical weapons had been banned under the Geneva Protocol of 1925.
Although Iraq never signed the protocol, the US had agreed to it in 1975.
However, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned production and use of chemical agents in warfare, did not come into force until 1997 after the Iran-Iraq War.
The first use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis was in 1983 when they used mustard agent. According to FP, the US was not yet providing the Iraqis with intelligence at the time.
Although mustard gas is usually not fatal, it causes severe burns and blistering of the skin and mucus membranes. It can lead to potentially fatal complications such as infections, blindness and respiratory disease. It can also induce cancer.
Earlier in the war, the Americans were reluctant to provide the Iraqis with intelligence, but the policy changed in 1987 when CIA reconnaissance satellites obtained evidence that the Iranians were concentrating troops and equipment east of Basrah after they discovered a weakness in the Iraqi defenses in the area.
Fearing that the fall of Basrah could end the war in favor of Iran, Reagan authorized providing the Iraqis with information about Iranian troop movement and position, including details about the strength and capabilities of the Iranian military.
Saddam Hussein responded with sarin gas attacks, which cause dizziness, respiratory distress, convulsions and often death. CIA estimated that between "hundreds" and "thousands" of Iranian troops died as a direct result of the attacks.
The attacks were launched using bombs and artillery shells filed with sarin.
Relying on intelligence it received from the US, the Iraqi military launched a nerve gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq in March 1988.
Throughout the late stages of the war, the US continued providing the Iraqis with intelligence. They did it with the full knowledge that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons such as sarin and nerve gas to attack the Iranians.
Iraq's use of deadly gas attacks with US intelligence support helped Hussein gain major strategic advantage in the war and forced the Iranians to negotiating table.
Rick Francona, a retired Air Force officer and US military attaché in Baghdad during the war, told FP that he visited the Fao Peninsula, one of major theaters of the fighting, shortly after the Iraqis recaptured it. He found the battlefield strewn with injectors containing atropine used to treat sarin gas poisoning.
US officials have defended against allegations that the US supported Iraqi chemical warfare effort, saying that although they provided intelligence to the Iraqis they were not aware that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. They also said the Iraqis never told them they were going to use chemical weapons.
FP, however, reports that Francona said, "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew.”
The CIA documents show that the US had conclusive evidence of use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis as early as 1983. Top CIA officials and Director William Casey had information about Iraqi chemical weapons plants. They were also aware that the Iraqis purchased equipment from Italy to produce artillery rounds and explosives armed with chemical agents of warfare. Top CIA officials were regularly updated on Iraqi plans to use chemical weapons.
Although, the Iranians accused the Iraqis of using chemical agents in the war, they were never able to present conclusive evidence to back the claims, and although they had the evidence, US officials concealed it because they were more concerned about the impact of the use of the chemical agents on the outcome of the war than in the fact that use of the agents violated an international protocol.
In one of the CIA documents, officials appeared to justify the use of chemical agents as a matter of tactical expediency, noting that deadly gas attacks "could have a significant impact on Iran's human wave tactics, forcing Iran to give up that strategy."
A document dated November 1983, reveals officials worrying that the Iranians could obtain evidence against the Iraqis: "As Iraqi attacks continue and intensify the chances increase that Iranian forces will acquire a shell containing mustard agent with Iraqi markings. Tehran would take such evidence to the UN and charge US complicity in violating international law."