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When the U.S. Turned Its Back on Chemical Attacks

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America's outrage over the use of chemical weapons by Arab dictators depends on which dictator did the gassing, and when they did it. The current situation in Syria is a perfect example.

Bolstered by horrific images of hundreds of white shrouded corpses, there is a growing belief that chemical weapons were used in rocket attacks by the Syrian government on a Damascus suburb earlier this week.

If that belief proves to be true, then U.S. President Barack Obama, who had warned Assad that the use of chemical weapons would "constitute a red line for the United States," faces a terrible choice.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have long been outraged by charges that the Assad government was using chemical weapons. Their feelings are understandable -- right? How could any U.S. administration stand by as an Arab dictator gassed his own people?

But the fact is they did: Republican President Ronald Reagan not only turned his back on such ruthless attacks, though they were substantiated by grisly video evidence, but continued to aid the tyrant who was ordering the savagery.

The dictator in question was Saddam Hussein. That of course was before the invasion of Iraq ten years ago when the George W. Bush acted to topple the tyrant he compared to Hitler.
It was in the 1980s when the U.S. secretly backed Saddam after he invaded Iran. (Along with Michel Despratx from Canal + I did a TV documentary on America's complicity with Saddam which also covered this subject.)

As I wrote previously in Salon:

When word first broke in 1983 that Iraq was using mustard gas against Iranian troops, the Reagan administration (after a verbal tap on the wrist delivered by then-Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld) studiously ignored the issue. Saddam, after all, was then the West's de facto partner in a war against the feared fundamentalist regime of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

Saddam's chemical weapons were provided largely by companies in Germany and France (these days, of course, France is also outraged that Assad may be using chemical weapons).
For its part, the United States provided Saddam with, among many other things, vital satellite intelligence on Iranian troop positions.

U.S. support for Saddam increased in 1988 when Rick Francona, then an Air Force captain, was dispatched to Baghdad by the Defense Intelligence Agency. His mission: to provide precise targeting plans to the Iraqis to cripple a feared a new Iranian offensive. Shortly after arriving, Francona discovered that the Iraqis were now using even more deadly chemical weapons -- nerve gas -- against the Iranians. He informed his superiors in Washington.

The response, he said, was immediate.

"We were told to cease all of our cooperation with the Iraqis until people in Washington were able to sort this out. There were a series of almost daily meetings on 'How are we going to handle this, what are we going to do?' Do we continue our relations with the Iraqis and make sure the Iranians do not win this war, or do we let the Iraqis fight this on their own without any U.S. assistance, and they'll probably lose? So there are your options -- neither one palatable."

Francona concluded, "The decision was made that we would restart our relationship with the Iraqis... We went back to Baghdad, and continued on as before. "

This policy continued even after it was discovered that Saddam was using chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds of Halabja.

Fourteen years later, in March 2003, attempting to justify the coming invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush repeatedly cited the Halabja atrocity. "Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky," he said. "The chemical attack on Halabja provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to commit."

But President Bush never explained the assistance that the United States had given Saddam at the time.

When news first broke about the atrocity in 1988, the Reagan administration did its utmost to prevent condemnation of Saddam, fighting Congress' attempt to impose restrictions on trade with Iraq.

President George W. Bush's father was then vice president. Another key administration figure involved in the fight was Reagan's national security advisor, Gen. Colin Powell.

A few years later, with their former ally in the Gulf now their targeted enemy, George W. Bush (assisted by Colin Powell) brushed this history of complicity with real weapons of mass destruction under the rug -- while using nonexistent WMD as a reason for war.

Could the issue of chemical weapons propel the U.S. into yet another bloody Middle Eastern conflict?