It’s unlikely we will ever know for sure what the U.S. government has been doing with Saddam Hussein over the past 40 or so years. According to documents unearthed from the Reagan era, we know that Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to egg on the dictator in his war with Iran. At the time, the U.S. provided Saddam with loans, military intelligence, and other assistance.
One story has it that Rumsfeld, then a drug company CEO, also was acting as a messenger boy for high officials in the Reagan administration who wanted to get rich building an oil pipeline from Iraq to Jordan. Secretary of State George Schultz, a former top official of Bechtel, was chief among them. He supposedly hoped to cash in on the deal if Bechtel got to build the pipeline.
Now comes a UPI story, based on interviews with various British and U.S. intelligence sources, claiming that from Jack Kennedy in the early 1960s on up to the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, Saddam was in the hands of the CIA. In his early twenties, Saddam was recruited to kill Iraqi prime minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, UPI reports. He had given the U.S. a fright by backing out of the pro-West Baghdad Pact, which brought together Turkey, Britain, Iran, and Pakistan in a defensive alliance against the Soviets. Having ditched the pact, Qasim started buying Soviet arms and installing Communists in top positions, all of which led then CIA chief Allen Dulles to say Iraq was “the most dangerous spot in the world.”
According to the UPI report, Saddam led a farcical attempt to kill Qasim. Saddam and his six-man hit squad took up residence in a Baghdad apartment, but when the moment arrived, they got nervous and started shooting too soon, missing Qasim and ending up grazing Saddam. One of the hit men got a grenade stuck in the lining of his coat, and another put the wrong kind of bullets in his gun. Eventually Qasim was killed in a coup, rumored to have been encouraged by the CIA. Whether true or not, once the minister was killed, the CIA men gave the Baathist hierarchy lists of names of suspected Communists, whom they rounded up and murdered. A former senior U.S. State Department official told UPI: “We were frankly glad to be rid of them.” Saddam became head of the Baathist intelligence apparatus.
Ever after, the CIA took care of Saddam, helping to spirit him out of Baghdad to Tikrit, and from there to Syria and Beirut, and on to Egypt. He seems never to have been popular among the spies because he was thuggish and too low-class.
During the 1980s the CIA drew close to Saddam’s Baathist party—currently reviled as a bunch of vicious killer thugs, but then warmly regarded as our allies against the wacko ayatollahs in Iran. The CIA was providing Iraq with battlefield intelligence gained from a Saudi AWACS plane. It was during this period that Rumsfeld visited the dictator to see if there was anything the U.S. could do to help out.
The U.S. manipulations in the Middle East then became more and more confusing as the CIA provided intelligence reports to both Iraq and its Iranian enemy. One former official told UPI that he personally had signed off on a document that shared U.S. satellite intelligence with both Iraq and Iran “in an attempt to produce a military stalemate.” On doing so, he said, “I thought I was losing my mind.”
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2003