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The Saddam in Rumsfeld’s Closet

by Jeremy Scahill Tuesday, Aug. 06, 2002 at 5:08 AM

“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
$200 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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