Investigate U.S. knowledge of Iraqi chemical weapons

In an article published in Sunday’s New York Times, several former senior defense officials said the United States continued to offer Iraq logistical support during the Iran-Iraq war, despite knowing Iraq was using chemical and biological weapons. Although the evidence from senior officials is not entirely consistent, as some former officials are disputing any such statements, it is convincing enough to suggest that the Ronald Reagan administration assisted Iraq during the war knowing the country was using chemical weapons against Iran. Such a revelation will significantly affect the George W. Bush administration’s intention of removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and jeopardize any such campaign.

Statements gathered from several officials involved in the Defense Intelligence Agency’s program in Iraq provide convincing evidence of the United State’s knowledge of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. Retired Col. Walter P. Lang, a senior defense department officer during the 1981-88 war, said the use of gas “was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival.” One official who participated in the program said senior officials in the Reagan administration did not attempt to discontinue it, while another said “it was just another way of killing people – whether with a bullet or phosgene.” Another official said Iraq’s use of such weapons “became more and more obvious” as the war progressed.

Some of the most incriminating evidence comes from former defense intelligence official Lt. Col. Rick Francona. Toward the end of the war in early 1988, Francona toured several battlefields with Iraqi military officials. In a report describing his visit, he said he observed proof the Iraqis had used chemical weapons in a battle on southern Iraq’s Fao peninsula. Francona saw areas on the battlefield that were restricted because chemical weapons had been used in those areas. He also knew the Iraqis were taking the drug atropine as an immunizing agent against toxic gases such as sarin, VX and mustard gas, according to the Times article.

Both the DIA and the department’s former head, Lt. Gen. Leonard Peroots, have declined to comment. Former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci was
circumspect and subtly evasive, saying he had no knowledge of “U.S. participation in preparing battle and strike packages.” This comment, however, is irrelevant, as there is no concern about such participation in battle and strike packages, but whether the United States knew Iraq was using chemical weapons and continued to provide assistance. He continued to say he “did agree that Iraq should not lose the war, but I certainly had no foreknowledge of their use of chemical weapons.” This statement is, again, not exactly explicit; it is not clear if he is intentionally using imprecise words such as “foreknowledge” to confuse.

Of course, there are some former senior defense officials who are steadfastly denying that the United States had any knowledge that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was national security adviser during the war, said the officers’ characterizations of the program are “dead wrong.” His deputy, Richard Armitage, who was also a senior defense official at the time, was equally adamant that the United States did not condone Iraq’s chemical weapons use.

Because the Bush administration seems determined to pursue a “regime change” in Iraq, it is important to know if these accusations are true or not. Ironically, the United States opposed an Iranian victory because of concern the Iranian revolution would reach Persian Gulf oil-producing countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, thereby destabilizing the Middle East, including both the important oil resources and, of course, Israel. Still, two years later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and initiated the Gulf War. If the evidence is convincing enough to implicate the Reagan administration and other former officials involved in the DIA’s program in Iraq – including then-Vice President George H.W. Bush – it would fundamentally undermine the effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Publicly, the argument for regime change is often based on Hussein’s chemical weapons use, especially against the Kurds during a battle in Halabja, in March 1988. If the Bush administration wishes to continue this campaign, it must resolve these accusations to preserve its