West's support built Hussein U.S., allies must see to it that greed doesn't allow Iraq's dictator to start anew on mass destruction weapons

March 08, 1998|By Steve Yetiv

The most recent crisis in the Persian Gulf appears to be over, but few people would place big bets on the notion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will actually relinquish his weapons of mass destruction. While we may hope that this agreement sticks, we need to be wary of Hussein and cognizant of why he has become such a threat in the first place. For that purpose, we need not look too far.

While Hussein is an over-ambitious, brutal dictator, Western countries are partly to blame for creating him. This is something we should all remember, because if sanctions are ever lifted on Iraq, the financial temptation to arm him again will be strong among some Western arms manufacturers and even nations.

Indeed, between 1981 and 1988, Iraq bought at least $46.7 billion in arms and military equipment from foreign countries. While Russia was Iraq's No. 1 arms supplier, the United States, France and Germany also played a role in strengthening Hussein. In the 1980s, the United States and Iraq developed a relationship of necessity. The two states realized that despite their dislike of each other, they wanted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran checked during the Iran-Iraq war. During the course of the war, the United States sold Iraq arms through third parties and provided it with satellite intelligence information about Iranian movements.

Furthermore, between 1985 and the start of Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, U.S. firms delivered $500 million worth of high-technology equipment to Iraq, with the approval of the Department of Defense.

U.S. technology included such things as $2.8 million in computers for the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission in 1987; materials that could be used in weapons research, including computers useful in the development of missiles and warheads; and manufacturing equipment for jet engine repair. In some cases, the Department of Defense objected to the sales but was vetoed by the Department of Commerce, which even allowed the Consarc Corp. of New Jersey to sell high-temperature furnaces that had a clear potential to be used in Iraq's nuclear program.

U.S. support also included loan guarantees from 1983 to 1990. During the same period, the Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corp. provided more than $4.5 billion in loan guarantees to Iraq, including a precedent-setting $1 billion one-time loan in 1987. The Department of Defense suspected that Iraq had used the loans, not for agricultural development, but for building weapons.

While U.S. support of Iraq made sense when it looked as if Iran might dominate the region, it made little sense after 1988, when the Iran-Iraq war ended. This is because Iraq emerged from the war a military powerhouse with an aggressive rather than war-weary bent.

If the United States went too far in supporting Hussein, France made a pro-Iraqi policy the centerpiece of its Middle East diplomacy. While the United States supported Iraq in the 1980s to check Iran, the French had different motivations. Historically, France was interested in the Persian Gulf largely for purposes of protecting its colonial possessions in Indochina and for economic reasons. In more recent times, the French, who LTC became Iraq's No. 2 arms supplier, after the Soviets, consistently defended Iraq and took a strong pro-Arab line against Israel. The Iraqi connection would prove a great embarrassment to Paris after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The pro-Arab French approach was driven largely by economic reasons, although Paris also argued that it sought to lure Iraq out of the Soviet orbit. For its support of the Arab cause, France was rewarded with preferential treatment in joint oil exploration in Iraq after Iraq nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Co. in June 1972. During the 1973 Arab oil embargo, France escaped being targeted and was even entitled to prewar levels of oil supply.

By the 1970s, the French were heavily involved in developing Iraq's military. In 1984 alone, nearly half of France's total arms exports went to Iraq. French companies also sold Iraq a variety of weapons such as air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles, aircraft, advanced radar systems, navigation systems and laser-guided bombs.

The French even helped Iraq develop its nuclear program, a program that came close to producing a nuclear weapon prior to Desert Storm. Through a deal that Hussein himself had helped strike in a rare trip abroad to Paris in 1976, France helped build Iraq's $275 million Osirak nuclear reactor Tuwaitha, against the objection of the United States. During Desert Storm, Iraq possessed about 12.4 kilograms of uranium, supplied by the French to run the Osirak reactor.

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