Pa. — It was no surprise that President Bush, lacking smoking-gun
evidence of Iraq's weapons programs, used his State of the Union address
to re-emphasize the moral case for an invasion: "The dictator who is
assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on
whole villages, leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or
The accusation that Iraq has used chemical weapons against its citizens
is a familiar part of the debate. The piece of hard evidence most
frequently brought up concerns the gassing of Iraqi Kurds at the town of
Halabja in March 1988, near the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
President Bush himself has cited Iraq's "gassing its own
people," specifically at Halabja, as a reason to topple Saddam
But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded
with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that
Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion
in the Halabja story.
I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence
Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as
a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much
of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do
with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation
into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the
classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja
This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came
about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used
chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is
in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians
who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they
were not Iraq's main target.
And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United
States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified
report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a
need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that
killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.
The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the
battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however,
indicated they had been killed with a blood agent — that is, a
cyanide-based gas — which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are
thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have
possessed blood agents at the time.
These facts have long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily,
as often as the Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned. A
much-discussed article in The New Yorker last March did not make reference
to the Defense Intelligence Agency report or consider that Iranian gas
might have killed the Kurds. On the rare occasions the report is brought
up, there is usually speculation, with no proof, that it was skewed out of
American political favoritism toward Iraq in its war against Iran.
I am not trying to rehabilitate the character of Saddam Hussein. He has
much to answer for in the area of human rights abuses. But accusing him of
gassing his own people at Halabja as an act of genocide is not correct,
because as far as the information we have goes, all of the cases where gas
was used involved battles. These were tragedies of war. There may be
justifications for invading Iraq, but Halabja is not one of them.
In fact, those who really feel that the disaster at Halabja has bearing on
today might want to consider a different question: Why was Iran so keen on
taking the town? A closer look may shed light on America's impetus to
We are constantly reminded that Iraq has perhaps the world's largest
reserves of oil. But in a regional and perhaps even geopolitical sense, it
may be more important that Iraq has the most extensive river system in the
Middle East. In addition to the Tigris and Euphrates, there are the
Greater Zab and Lesser Zab rivers in the north of the country. Iraq was
covered with irrigation works by the sixth century A.D., and was a granary
for the region.
Before the Persian Gulf war, Iraq had built an impressive system of
dams and river control projects, the largest being the Darbandikhan dam in
the Kurdish area. And it was this dam the Iranians were aiming to take
control of when they seized Halabja. In the 1990's there was much
discussion over the construction of a so-called Peace Pipeline that would
bring the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates south to the parched Gulf
states and, by extension, Israel. No progress has been made on this,
largely because of Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of
course, all that could change.
Thus America could alter the destiny of the Middle East in a way that
probably could not be challenged for decades — not solely by controlling
Iraq's oil, but by controlling its water. Even if America didn't occupy
the country, once Mr. Hussein's Baath Party is driven from power, many
lucrative opportunities would open up for American companies.
All that is needed to get us into war is one clear reason for acting,
one that would be generally persuasive. But efforts to link the Iraqis
directly to Osama bin Laden have proved inconclusive. Assertions that Iraq
threatens its neighbors have also failed to create much resolve; in its
present debilitated condition — thanks to United Nations sanctions —
Iraq's conventional forces threaten no one.
Perhaps the strongest argument left for taking us to war quickly is
that Saddam Hussein has committed human rights atrocities against his
people. And the most dramatic case are the accusations about Halabja.
Before we go to war over Halabja, the administration owes the American
people the full facts. And if it has other examples of Saddam Hussein
gassing Kurds, it must show that they were not pro-Iranian Kurdish
guerrillas who died fighting alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Until
Washington gives us proof of Saddam Hussein's supposed atrocities, why are
we picking on Iraq on human rights grounds, particularly when there are so
many other repressive regimes Washington supports?
Stephen C. Pelletiere is author of "Iraq and the International
Oil System: Why America Went to War in the Persian Gulf."
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