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Selective Justice and the Execution of Saddam Hussein

by Gregory Elich Monday, Jan. 01, 2007 at 6:43 AM

The transformation of Saddam Hussein from ally to enemy

Hailed by President Bush as an act of “justice,” former Iraqi president

Saddam Hussein was executed on the morning of December 30. Hussein’s trial,

Bush averred, had been a “fair” one. Yet there was little that could be

regarded as fair and legal about the proceedings. The court itself was

established at the Bush Administration’s behest. U.S. dollars financed the

proceedings, and U.S. officials provided aid, training and direct

involvement. The trial was fraught with problems. Three of Hussein’s lawyers

were murdered and many defense witnesses were intimidated into silence. The

trial was a U.S.-directed effort, intended to paint the occupation of Iraq

in the best light. The U.S. and British invasion had, we are reminded by

Western officials, overthrown this particular tyrant. But tyrants, like war

criminals, are in the eye of the beholder, and actions that might win praise

and support for one man might be condemned for another. Saddam Hussein found

himself on both sides of that equation at one time or another.

How does it happen that a man can be regarded as a friend and ally one day,

and an enemy the next? How is it that as praise fades away, that same man

comes to deserve capture and death? Is it because his behavior has changed,

or because there has been a transformation in perception?

At one time, Saddam Hussein was backed and promoted by the U.S. His brutal

methods were regarded as effective measures in furthering U.S. objectives.

But as his actions began to threaten U.S. interests, he earned opprobrium.

In his early years, Saddam Hussein was on the CIA payroll. Contacts began in

1959, when the agency sponsored him as a member of a small team assigned to

assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. The Prime Minister had

made himself a target by committing the unpardonable sin of taking his

nation out of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. Hussein was set up in an

apartment across the street from Qasim’s office and told to observe his

movements. But CIA plans received a setback when the attempted assassination

on October 7, 1959 was conducted in so inept a manner that it failed to

achieve its objective. An over-anxious Hussein fired too soon, killing Qasim

’s driver and only wounding the Prime Minster. Following the botched attempt

on the Prime Minister’s life, CIA and Egyptian intelligence agents helped

Hussein to escape to Tikrit. From there he crossed into Syria and then to

Beirut, where the CIA provided him with an apartment and put him through a

short training course. Even at that young age, a former U.S. intelligence

official recalls, Hussein “was known as having no class. He was a thug – a

cutthroat.” But he did have excellent anticommunist credentials. From Beirut

he was eventually sent to Cairo, where he remained under the watchful eye of

his CIA handlers and made frequent visits to the U.S. embassy to meet with

agency officials.

U.S. hostility towards Qasim had not abated, and he was eventually killed in

a Ba’ath Party coup in 1963, after which the CIA gave the Iraqi National

Guard lists of communists they wanted to see imprisoned and executed.

According to former U.S. intelligence officials, many suspected communists

were killed under the personal supervision of Hussein. As one former U.S.

State Department official put it, “We were frankly glad to be rid of them.

You ask that they get a fair trial? You have got to be kidding. This was

serious business.” With his image burnished through such accomplishments,

Hussein first went on to become head of Iraqi security and then in 1979,

president of the nation. He remained allied with the U.S. during his first

decade in power as he ordered the arrest of communists and other political

opponents by the thousands. Nearly all would be tortured or killed. (1)

In 1980, Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops to invade Iran in an attempt to

seize territory by force of arms. The resulting war dragged on for eight

years, causing immense destruction and costing the lives of 1.7 million

people in one of the twentieth century’s worst wars.

Relatively early in that war, in December 1983, President Reagan sent envoy

Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and offer

American assistance. Rumsfeld told Hussein that the U.S. wanted full

relations and “would regard any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a

strategic defeat for the West.” Just one month before, State Department

official Jonathan Howe had informed Secretary of State George Schultz that

Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian forces on an “almost daily

basis.” It was also well known by then that the Hussein government was

engaging in widespread repression. Many thousands of individuals were being

imprisoned, tortured, executed or sent into exile.

Howard Teicher worked for the National Security Agency when he accompanied

Rumsfeld on that mission. Teicher recalls, “President Reagan decided that

the United States would do whatever was necessary and legal to prevent Iraq

from losing the war with Iran,” and formalized a policy of assisting Iraq in

a National Security Decision Directive [NSDD] which Teicher helped draft.

CIA Director William Casey “personally spearheaded the effort to ensure that

Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid

losing the Iran-Iraq war. Pursuant to the secret NSDD, the United States

actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with

billions of dollars of credits, by providing U.S. military intelligence and

advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to

Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required.”

CIA personnel visited Iraq on a regular basis to provide surveillance

intelligence gathered by U.S.-supplied Saudi AWACS planes in support of the

Iraqi war effort. Both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency directly

assisted an Iraqi offensive in February 1988 by electronically “blinding”

Iranian radar for three days. “The United States also provided strategic

operational advice to the Iraqis to better use their assets in combat,”

Teicher said. “For example, in 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message”

through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, acting as an intermediary, “to

Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing

of Iran,” and “similar strategic operational military advice was passed” to

Hussein through meetings with various heads of state.

Teicher “personally attended meetings in which CIA Director Casey and Deputy

Director Robert Gates “noted the need for Iraq to have certain weapons such

as cluster bombs and anti-armor penetrators in order to stave off Iranian

attacks.” The CIA supplied cluster bombs to Iraq through Cardoen, a Chilean


More than sixty officials of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency were

involved in the program that not only provided Iraq with intelligence on

Iranian positions, but actually helped Iraq to develop tactical battle plans

as well as plans for air strikes. Although it was well known by the later

stages of the war that Iraqi forces were routinely using chemical weapons

against the Iranians, American support for Iraqi offensives continued. “The

use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep

strategic concern,” recalled a former high-ranking Defense Intelligence

Agency official. U.S. leaders were more interested in ensuring the defeat of

Iran. The Pentagon “wasn’t so horrified by Iraq’s use of gas,” remembered a

former official involved in the program. “It was just another way of killing

people – whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make any difference.”

Saddam Hussein received unstinting support throughout his war with Iran. His

crimes were never an issue. Not, that is, until he miscalculated and invaded

Kuwait in 1990 in another attempted land-grab. This war, however, was not on

the U.S. agenda, and Hussein’s reckless action triggered an attack by the

U.S. and Great Britain, along with the imposition of UN sanctions. (2)

That Saddam Hussein was once regarded as a friend of the West is rarely

mentioned these days. As long as he directed internal repression and

external wars at those U.S. policy makers loathed, he could count on

support. It was only when his actions went against U.S. interests that he

was suddenly transformed into a tyrant and criminal. His methods had not

changed. Only the Western perception of him had shifted, because he no

longer served the purposes of global capital.

The U.S. did much to create Saddam Hussein and others like him. It is

impossible to avoid concluding that the trial of Saddam Hussein was little

more than a case of selective justice, meant to provide post-justification

for an invasion that was itself a grave violation of international law.

Saddam Hussein’s crimes were real enough, but those acts would never have

brought him to trial had he continued to operate within the parameters

sketched for him by the West. The trail of Saddam Hussein is hailed as a

triumph of justice, despite the fact that it was initiated and guided by an

occupying power. Yet one wonders. Who will judge the Western powers that

stand in judgment?

Gregory Elich is the author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and

the Pursuit of Profit

He is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on

the Advisory Board of the Korea Truth Commission. His articles have appeared

in newspapers and periodicals across the world, including the U.S., Canada,

South Korea, Great Britain, France, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia, Russia, Denmark

and Australia.


(1) Richard Sale, “Exclusive: Saddam Key in Early CIA Plot,” UPI, April 10,


(2) “US and Iraq Go Way Back,” CBS News, December 31, 2002.

Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas,”

New York Times, August 18, 2002.

Robert Windrem, “Rumsfeld Key Player in Iraq Policy Shift,” MSNBC, August

18, 2000.

Christopher Marquis, “Rumsfeld Made Iraq Overture in ’84 Despite Chemical

Raids,” New York Times, December 23, 2003.

Michael Dobbs, “US-Iraq Ties in 1980s Illustrate Downside of American

Foreign Policy,” Dawn (Karachi), December 31, 2002.

Jeremy Scahill, “The Saddam in Rummy’s Closet,” Counterpunch, August 2,


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