Fighting Words


It is now clear that the Bush administration is determined to force a “regime change” in Baghdad no matter how severe the crisis in the Mideast. Or how much the Arabs protest: At the Arab summit in March, both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia formally reconciled with Iraq, an emphatic signal that they regarded Saddam as less of “a threat to the region” than an attack by the U.S. would be.

The ostensible reason the administration regards Saddam as a threat is his possession of weapons of mass destruction—that’s what the switch from “war on terror” to “axis of evil” signified. But dismantling Saddam’s arsenal is a job for UN arms inspectors. And there are many in Washington who worry that they may not be up to it.

“Are you still committed to trying to get UN weapons inspection teams back into Iraq?” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Vice President Cheney. “Because, as you know, some critics . . . have said that would be a waste, that they’re just going to give a runaround.”

“The issue’s not inspectors,” Cheney replied. “The issue is that he has chemical weapons—and he’s used them.”

Last month, the administration’s effort to garner public support for its go-it-alone posture got a boost from an unlikely source. In its March 25 issue, The New Yorker ran an 18,000-word piece by Jeffrey Goldberg about Halabja, a Kurdish town where, on March 16, 1988, Saddam is accused of massacring his own citizens with poison gas.

The scenes of devastation were severe, and historically nuanced in the retelling. “The Iraqis, knowing that gas is heavier than air, and that it would penetrate cellars effectively, drove everybody into their basements by launching a conventional artillery attack,” Goldberg said on NPR’s Fresh Air. “They were stuck in their basements.” He concluded: “The way it was described to me [was] really as gas chambers.”

There were other dire details—a woman succumbing as she suckled a baby she hoped would survive the fumes; people rendered blind, mad, or infertile; even a plague of poisonous snakes. “Saddam Hussein’s attacks on his own citizens,” Goldberg wrote, “marks the only time since the Holocaust that poison gas has been used to exterminate women and children.”

Though he says it wasn’t meant that way, Goldberg’s piece—entitled “The Great Terror”—provided an eloquent set of images for the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. “It’s a devastating article,” Cheney said on Meet the Press. “Specifically, its description of what happened in 1988 when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq, against some of his own people. It demonstrates conclusively what a lot of us have said: that this is a man who is a great danger to that region of the world—especially if he’s able to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The president agreed. A few days earlier, he had invoked the story during his trip to Mexico. “It details about his [Saddam’s] barbaric behavior toward his own people,” Bush said. “And this is a man who refuses to allow us to determine whether or not he still has weapons of mass destruction—which leads me to believe he does.”

Ever since September 11, the administration has been trying to hook Iraq into the “war on terror.” Initially, a claim was advanced that suicide pilot Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi operatives in Prague. Then Iraq was floated as a source of the anthrax attacks. Finally, the “axis of evil” speech accused Saddam of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Although few doubt that Saddam has such armaments, none of these charges was ever substantiated. But by repeatedly citing the New Yorker article, Bush and Cheney were saying that they didn’t need to prove a thing. What Saddam did in Halabja is reason enough to oust him.

It’s quite a stretch to predicate a threat of war on an incident that took place 14 years ago—especially if there’s a possibility that it didn’t happen the way Goldberg described it.

Halabja was attacked in the closing weeks of the Iran-Iraq War, when two Kurdish guerrilla groups sided against Saddam. It lies just inside Iraq’s border with Iran, and the Iranians had mounted an offensive in the region. Halabja was thus contested territory. That many people died that day is beyond dispute. The question is, Who killed them?

When pictures and stories flooded the world press—reporters had been helicoptered in by the Iranians, who saw Halabja as a PR opportunity—the reaction was automatic. Most reporters, well aware of Saddam’s long history of poison gas use against the Iranian army, accepted their hosts’ explanation: Saddam had gassed his own people.

The Reagan-Bush White House, which had tilted decisively toward Saddam in the war, denounced Iraq immediately. But the State Department wasn’t so sure. “There are indications that Iran may also have used chemical artillery shells in this fighting,” spokesman Charles Redman told the press a week after the attack. “We call on Iran and Iraq to desist immediately from the use of any chemical weapons.”

Redman may have been relying on a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report filed the day of his announcement. It stated that “most of the casualties in Halabja were reportedly caused by cyan[o]gen chloride. This agent has never been used by Iraq, but Iran has shown interest in it. Mustard gas casualties in the town were probably caused by Iraqi weapons, because Iran has never been noted using that agent.”

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

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.”