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The Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet

by Jeremy Scahill Tuesday, Aug. 06, 2002 at 12:08 PM

“Man and the turtle are very much alike. Neither makes any progress without sticking his neck out.” —Donald Rumsfeld

Published on Friday, August 2, 2002 by

Five years before Saddam Hussein’s now infamous 1988

gassing of the Kurds, a key meeting took place in

Baghdad that would play a significant role in forging

close ties between Saddam Hussein and Washington. It

happened at a time when Saddam was first alleged to

have used chemical weapons. The meeting in late

December 1983 paved the way for an official

restoration of relations between Iraq and the US,

which had been severed since the 1967 Arab-Israeli


With the Iran-Iraq war escalating, President Ronald

Reagan dispatched his Middle East envoy, a former

secretary of defense, to Baghdad with a hand-written

letter to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and a message

that Washington was willing at any moment to resume

diplomatic relations.

That envoy was Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld’s December 19-20, 1983 visit to Baghdad made

him the highest-ranking US official to visit Iraq in 6

years. He met Saddam and the two discussed “topics of

mutual interest,” according to the Iraqi Foreign

Ministry. “[Saddam] made it clear that Iraq was not

interested in making mischief in the world,” Rumsfeld

later told The New York Times. “It struck us as useful

to have a relationship, given that we were interested

in solving the Mideast problems.”

Just 12 days after the meeting, on January 1, 1984,

The Washington Post reported that the United States

“in a shift in policy, has informed friendly Persian

Gulf nations that the defeat of Iraq in the 3-year-old

war with Iran would be ‘contrary to U.S. interests’

and has made several moves to prevent that result.”

In March of 1984, with the Iran-Iraq war growing more

brutal by the day, Rumsfeld was back in Baghdad for

meetings with then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

On the day of his visit, March 24th, UPI reported from

the United Nations: “Mustard gas laced with a nerve

agent has been used on Iranian soldiers in the

43-month Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, a

team of U.N. experts has concluded... Meanwhile, in

the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, U.S. presidential envoy

Donald Rumsfeld held talks with Foreign Minister Tarek

Aziz (sic) on the Gulf war before leaving for an

unspecified destination.”

The day before, the Iranian news agency alleged that

Iraq launched another chemical weapons assault on the

southern battlefront, injuring 600 Iranian soldiers.

“Chemical weapons in the form of aerial bombs have

been used in the areas inspected in Iran by the

specialists,” the U.N. report said. “The types of

chemical agents used were bis-(2-chlorethyl)-sulfide,

also known as mustard gas, and ethyl N,

N-dimethylphosphoroamidocyanidate, a nerve agent known

as Tabun.”

Prior to the release of the UN report, the US State

Department on March 5th had issued a statement saying

“available evidence indicates that Iraq has used

lethal chemical weapons.”

Commenting on the UN report, US Ambassador Jeane J.

Kirkpatrick was quoted by The New York Times as

saying, “We think that the use of chemical weapons is

a very serious matter. We've made that clear in

general and particular.”

Compared with the rhetoric emanating from the current

administration, based on speculations about what

Saddam might have, Kirkpatrick’s reaction was hardly a

call to action.

Most glaring is that Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq as

the 1984 UN report was issued and said nothing about

the allegations of chemical weapons use, despite State

Department “evidence.” On the contrary, The New York

Times reported from Baghdad on March 29, 1984,

“American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied

with relations between Iraq and the United States and

suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored

in all but name.”

A month and a half later, in May 1984, Donald Rumsfeld

resigned. In November of that year, full diplomatic

relations between Iraq and the US were fully restored.

Two years later, in an article about Rumsfeld’s

aspirations to run for the 1988 Republican

Presidential nomination, the Chicago Tribune Magazine

listed among Rumsfeld’s achievements helping to

“reopen U.S. relations with Iraq.” The Tribune failed

to mention that this help came at a time when,

according to the US State Department, Iraq was

actively using chemical weapons.

Throughout the period that Rumsfeld was Reagan’s

Middle East envoy, Iraq was frantically purchasing

hardware from American firms, empowered by the White

House to sell. The buying frenzy began immediately

after Iraq was removed from the list of alleged

sponsors of terrorism in 1982. According to a February

13, 1991 Los Angeles Times article:

“First on Hussein's shopping list was helicopters --

he bought 60 Hughes helicopters and trainers with

little notice. However, a second order of 10

twin-engine Bell "Huey" helicopters, like those used

to carry combat troops in Vietnam, prompted

congressional opposition in August, 1983...

Nonetheless, the sale was approved.”

In 1984, according to The LA Times, the State

Department—in the name of “increased American

penetration of the extremely competitive civilian

aircraft market”—pushed through the sale of 45 Bell

214ST helicopters to Iraq. The helicopters, worth some

0 million, were originally designed for military

purposes. The New York Times later reported that

Saddam “transferred many, if not all [of these

helicopters] to his military.”

In 1988, Saddam’s forces attacked Kurdish civilians

with poisonous gas from Iraqi helicopters and planes.

U.S. intelligence sources told The LA Times in 1991,

they “believe that the American-built helicopters were

among those dropping the deadly bombs.”

In response to the gassing, sweeping sanctions were

unanimously passed by the US Senate that would have

denied Iraq access to most US technology. The measure

was killed by the White House.

Senior officials later told reporters they did not

press for punishment of Iraq at the time because they

wanted to shore up Iraq's ability to pursue the war

with Iran. Extensive research uncovered no public

statements by Donald Rumsfeld publicly expressing even

remote concern about Iraq’s use or possession of

chemical weapons until the week Iraq invaded Kuwait in

August 1990, when he appeared on an ABC news special.

Eight years later, Donald Rumsfeld signed on to an

“open letter” to President Clinton, calling on him to

eliminate “the threat posed by Saddam.” It urged

Clinton to “provide the leadership necessary to save

ourselves and the world from the scourge of Saddam and

the weapons of mass destruction that he refuses to


In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld was in a position to draw the

world’s attention to Saddam’s chemical threat. He was

in Baghdad as the UN concluded that chemical weapons

had been used against Iran. He was armed with a fresh

communication from the State Department that it had

“available evidence” Iraq was using chemical weapons.

But Rumsfeld said nothing.

Washington now speaks of Saddam’s threat and the

consequences of a failure to act. Despite the fact

that the administration has failed to provide even a

shred of concrete proof that Iraq has links to Al

Qaeda or has resumed production of chemical or

biological agents, Rumsfeld insists that “the absence

of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

But there is evidence of the absence of Donald

Rumsfeld’s voice at the very moment when Iraq’s

alleged threat to international security first

emerged. And in this case, the evidence of absence is

indeed evidence.

Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist. He

reports frequently for Free Speech Radio News and

Democracy Now! In May and June 2002, he reported from



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