Fighting Words

The Administration Builds Up Its Pretext for Attacking Iraq

In time, studies were commissioned from and produced by the military and intelligence communities, which found that both armies had used gas. One report, "Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War," was prepared by Dr. Stephen Pelletiere and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Johnson of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. Its findings came out of a two-day conference attended by U.S. defense attachés who had served in the Middle East, as well as by military and political analysts from both the CIA and the DIA who had monitored the war. Because neither Iran nor Iraq had allowed reporters or foreign military observers at the front, the report drew on field reports, open source materials, and "signal intelligence"—phone and radio messages sent by the warring armies, and picked up by the National Security Agency.

Most of the report's chapter on chemical weapons is devoted to Iraqi military tactics, but one sentence stands out: "Blood agents [i.e., cyanogen chloride] were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents—and the Iranians do—we conclude that the Iranians perpetrated this attack." (The report is available at www.fas.org/man/dod-101/ops/war/docs/3203/.)

All of this was reported at the time. On May 3, 1990, referring to yet another study, The Washington Post stated: "A Defense Department reconstruction of the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war has assembled what analysts say is conclusive intelligence that one of the worst civilian massacres of the war, in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja, was caused by repeated chemical bombardments from both belligerent armies."

In response to the orthodoxy already established around the event, the Post's Patrick Tyler went on to note that the reconstruction "calls into question the widely reported assertion of human rights organizations and Kurdish groups that Iraq bore the greatest responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi Kurds—women, infants and elderly—who died at Halabja."

Articles asserting Iranian complicity also ran in The New York Times ("Years Later, No Clear Culprit in Gassing of Kurds"), Newsday, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.

But that's all forgotten now. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the demonization of Saddam has become a linchpin of U.S. foreign policy, and his solo turn as Killer of Kurds has passed beyond question. Likewise, Halabja has become an Alamo for human rights and Kurdish rights groups, who have used it ever since for their own often admirable purposes.

In a telephone interview with the Voice, Goldberg explained why he had chosen to elide the position of the military and intelligence communities from his piece. "I didn't give it much thought, because it was dismissed by so many people I consider to be experts," he told me. "Very quickly into this story, I decided that I support the mainstream view—of Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, the State Department, the UN, and various Kurdish groups—that the Iraqis were responsible for Halabja. In the same way, I didn't give any merit to the Iraqi denials."

Implying that the Pentagon, the DIA, and the CIA are no more reliable than the Iraqis seems a bit extreme, but Goldberg's point is essentially correct. Never more than since September 11, Saddam's sole responsibility for the massacre at Halabja has become conventional wisdom.

To Stephen Pelletiere, who was the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq throughout the Iran-Iraq War, this is highly alarming. "There is to this day the belief—and I'm not the only one who holds it—that things didn't happen in Halabja the way Goldberg wrote it," he told the Voice. "And it's an especially crucial issue right now. We say Saddam is a monster, a maniac who gassed his own people, and the world shouldn't tolerate him. But why? Because that's the last argument the U.S. has for going to war with Iraq."

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