June 28, 2015

Misquoted again - Iran, Iraq, chemical weapons and me

Click on image to read the article in a separate window

Every time a journalist wants to do an in-depth piece about either Iran or Iraq and its long-term relationship with the United States, he or she gets around to American intelligence support for the regime of Saddam Husayn in the last year of the Iran-Iraq War.

Usually in that research, my name comes up. More often than not, the researcher does his homework and gets the story right. Other times, however, they rely on one source. If that source happens to be an incorrect account - and there are plenty out there - it merely perpetuates untruths. The latter apparently happened again today.

I refer you to an article written by British journalist Mehdi Hasan which appeared in the Opinion section of the Aljazeera website (which of course is picked up and distributed by a host of other media). I recommend the article - click on the image above to go to the Aljazeera (English) website - with the caveat that you substitute his version of what happened in 1988 with my account. That section in his article is "1988: Chemical weapons."

In his piece, Mr. Hasan cites his source as an article published in 2013 by Foreign Policy magazine. I have rebutted that article on several occasions, in both print and broadcast media. I posted my rebuttal on this forum immediately after its publication - see
Foreign Policy Article - Corrections and Clarifications.

Let's address Mr. Hasan's account of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1988. Here is his text:

1988: Chemical weapons

In April 1988, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army began an operation to retake the al-Faw peninsula from the Iranians, launching sarin attacks that killed thousands.

These Iraqi attacks on Iranian positions, using banned chemical weapons, were facilitated by the US. In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine revealed that: "US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent… The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on US satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence."

In fact, the Reagan administration had become aware five years earlier, in 1983, that the Saddam regime was using banned chemical weapons in its war against Iran, yet US officials continued to offer satellite imagery and other support to the Iraqi military. As retired US Air Force Colonel Rick Francona, a former military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 operation, told Foreign Policy: "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew."

My comments:

-- First paragraph: Fine. That operation in April 1988 was code named Ramadan Mubarak (Blessed Ramadan), and re-took the al-Faw peninsula in 36 hours.

-- Second paragraph: The United States did not "facilitate" the use of chemical weapons. While we did provide intelligence from a variety of sources to the Iraqi military intelligence service, we were not "fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin...". In fact, in April 1988, we were not aware that Iraq had developed effective nerve agents.

The use of the nerve agent sarin at al-Faw was not confirmed until I was able to gain access to the battlefields on the peninsula and gather physical evidence. Once we had evidence that the Iraqis had used sarin, our intelligence assistance came to an immediate halt pending a review of our options - a review held a much higher pay grade than mine.

The Reagan Administration was faced with two bad options: help Iraq despite its use of chemical weapons (specifically nerve agents), or end the program and allow the Iranians to win the war. The choice was to prevent an Iranian victory, so I returned to Baghdad and continued the program. The Iraqis used chemical weapons - mustard and sarin - in the three following offensives.

-- Third paragraph: The United States was aware that Iraq had attempted to develop the nerve agent Tabun, but had failed; they were using mustard in defensive operations. As for the quote attributed to me, I don't recall saying those exact words, but it is accurate as far as it goes - the Iraqis never told us they intended to use chemical weapons, but why would they? In fact, they denied having them even when presented with the evidence. After the al-Faw operation, they did not need to admit to it, we knew.

The bottom line

The United States was not aware of Iraqi nerve agent capability prior to the al-Faw operation in April 1988. In no way did the United States "facilitate" Iraq's development, acquisition or use of those weapons.