U.S. ignored Iraq's use of gas, officers say

CIA, military provided help in war against Iran

Story `dead wrong,' Powell says

Policy now cites arsenal as reason to oust Hussein

August 18, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A covert U.S. program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.

These officers, most of whom agreed to speak on the condition that they not be named, spoke in response to a reporter's questions about the nature of gas warfare on both sides of the conflict between Iran and Iraq from 1981 to 1988. Iraq's use of gas in that conflict is repeatedly mentioned by President Bush and, last week, was noted by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as justification for "regime change" in Iraq.

The covert program was carried out at a time when President Ronald Reagan's senior aides, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Gen. Colin L. Powell, then the national security adviser and now the secretary of state, all were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraqi forces attacked Kurdish civilians in Halabja in March 1988.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It has long been known that the United States provided intelligence assistance to Iraq in the form of satellite photography to help the Iraqis understand how Iranian forces were deployed against them. But the full nature of the program, as described by former Defense Intelligence Agency officers, was not previously disclosed.

Powell, through a spokesman, said the officers' description of the program was "dead wrong" but declined to discuss it. His deputy, Richard L. Armitage, who was a senior defense official at the time, used an expletive relayed through a spokesman to indicate his denial that the United States acquiesced in the use of chemical weapons.

The DIA declined to comment, as did retired Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, who supervised the program as the head of the agency. Carlucci said, "My understanding is that what was provided" to Iraq "was general order of battle information, not operational intelligence."

"I certainly have no knowledge of U.S. participation in preparing battle and strike packages," he said, "and doubt strongly that that occurred."

Later, he added, "I did agree that Iraq should not lose the war, but I certainly had no foreknowledge of their use of chemical weapons."

Though senior officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents, the U.S. military officers said that Reagan, Vice President George Bush and senior national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly classified program in which more than 60 officers of the DIA were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments for the Iraqi general staff.

The Iraqis shared their battle plans with the Americans, without admitting the use of chemical weapons, the military officers said. But the Iraqi use of chemical weapons, already established at that point, became more evident in the final phase of the war.

Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in pressing the Reagan administration to offer assistance to Iraq out of concern that Iranian commanders were sending waves of young volunteers to overrun Iraqi forces. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, then and now, met with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and then told senior officials of the CIA and the DIA that the Iraqi military command was ready to accept U.S. assistance.

In early 1988, after the Iraqi army, with the aid of U.S. planning assistance, retook the Fao Peninsula in a lightning attack that reopened Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf, a defense intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, now retired, was sent to tour the battlefield with Iraqi officers, the U.S. military officers said.

He reported that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons to clinch their victory, one former DIA official said. Francona saw zones marked off for chemical contamination, and containers for the drug atropine scattered around, indicating that Iraqi soldiers had taken injections to protect them from the effects of nerve gas that might blow back over their positions. (Francona could not be reached for comment.)

CIA officials supported the program to assist Iraq, though they were not involved. Separately, the CIA provided Iraq with satellite photography of the war front.

Retired Col. Walter P. Lang, the senior defense intelligence officer at the time, said in an interview that he would not discuss classified information, but added that DIA and CIA officials "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose" to Iran.

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