Jon Wiener: America's Complicity in Saddam's Crimes

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Wiener, a columnist for the Nation, teaches history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (The New Press, 2005).]

Saddam Hussein's execution on Dec. 30 prevents him from being put on trial for his most serious crimes – genocide against the Kurds and the use of poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war. As many as 100,000 Kurds were killed in 1988. Why then was Saddam executed for killing 148 men and boys in the Shiite town of Dujail in 1982?

Human rights activists say the answer is clear: the Bush White House wanted to prevent Saddam from offering evidence of US complicity in his crimes as a defense. It's the same reason the Saddam trial was held under Iraqi auspices rather than in the International Criminal Court: ''It's to protect their own dirty laundry,'' Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times in 2004. ''The U.S. wants to keep the trial focused on Saddam's crimes and not their acquiescence.''

Human Rights Watch has done more to document Saddam's genocide of the Kurds than any other organization. Their 1993 report remains the most detailed and meticulous account, based on extensive interviews with eyewitnesses and analysis of Iraqi government internal communications. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam had lost control of Kurdish regions because all his troops had been sent to the battlefields. But as that war came to an end in 1988, he launched his"Anfal" campaign against the Kurds, leveling thousands of their villages and killing 50,000-100,000, mostly by bombing and mass executions.

Saddam's most notorious atrocity was his use of poison gas against Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988, killing at least 5,000. George Bush cited that attack –"gassing his own people" -- as part of his argument for a US war against Iraq. However back in 1988 the US worked to prevent the international community from condemning Iraq's chemical attack against Halabja, instead attempting to place part of the blame on Iran. [See Dilip Hiro,"Iraq and Poison Gas," TheNation.com, Aug. 28, 2002.]

The US had supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, on the grounds that Iran was a greater threat to the US after the rise to power of the Ayatolla Khomeini.

When the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, Saddam's genocide against the Kurds was no secret. The US Senate passed a bill to penalize Baghdad for violating the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons – they did it virtually without opposition, in a single day.

But the Reagan Administration killed the bill. Political scientist Bruce Jentleson of Duke University told the BBC that they did it"for two reasons. One, economic interests. In addition to oil, Iraq at that point had become the second-largest recipient of government agricultural credits to buy American agriculture . . . . And secondly was this continual blinders of the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam used chemical weapons, most obviously in his 1988 campaign to retake the Fao Peninsula. The had been banned since the 1925 Geneva Convention. His trial for that crime has also been prevented by the execution.

Again his defense was likely to have been that the US did not object at the time. Walter Lang, senior defense intelligence officer for the United States Defense Intelligence Agency at the time, told the New York Times in 2002 that"the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern" to Reagan and his aides, because they"were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose."

Trials in Baghdad for other Iraqi leaders accused of genocide against the Kurds and violation of the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons may be held. But as Antoine Garapon, director of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in Paris, told the New York Times, even if others stand trial,"the person deemed most responsible would never face judgment."

Thus Saturday's execution of Saddam Hussein seems less an act of justice for his victims and more an effort to cover up US complicity in his regime.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.

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Carl Becker - 1/10/2007

What's sometimes obvious is ignored for other continuous BS. How "studpid" do I think this government should be? Stupid enough to continue their grandiose plans in Somalia supporting the same corrupt warlords who once fought in Mogadishu to overthrow a grass-roots Islamist movement. Stupid enough to attempt their geopolitical agendas that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or terrorism and stupid enough to give kudos to corporations who leech the American taxpayer’s money. They haven’t done anything in Iraq except destroy and make plans to suck Iraqi oil. Besides you admitting that a government should be stupid, the question almost answers itself. "conspracy" theories? You seem intelligent enough to know that governments actually lie and do shut people up in their fashion.

Peter Kovachev - 1/9/2007

Mr. Becker,

You have a thing for the obvious; either in missing it or needlessly getting excited over spotting it.

Conspracy theories about Saddam getting the noose in order to shut him up fall on their face when we are reminded that the dictator had the opportunity for about 30 days of stream-of-consciousness blabber, with no strings attached. He used up his time for boring ramblings and to try to intimidate witnesses instead. His lawyers were hardly shy about inventing any sort of nonsense to throw wrenches into the works, but even the wingnuts among them couldn't come up with complicities and conspiracies you are comming up with.

Western exploitation of Iraq? What shocking news. How studpid do you think your governmnet should be? To depose a murderous dictator, de-fang a major regional military threat, police and protect the population and "reconstruct" a previously rickety country, then to depart, leaving the place to the mullahs, terrorist freaks, the Russians and the Chinese? Kudos to the corporations whose people are risking their lives in that hell-hole, and may they make their investors and your country rich. The only "collateral damage" from that will be to make every Iraqi a millionaire.

Carl Becker - 1/8/2007

The US, meaning this bubblehead administration, is hardly worried about the minor detail of being complicit in Saddam’s execution. Using moral grounds (for the good of all) to kill a witness before he can talk is standard procedure for a criminal afraid of exposure. But the majority of the American people are beginning to see the criminality, corruption, stupidity, and false premises made by this administration.

The wider point of this article is more to show what this and other administrations have always glossed over; their stamp of complicity to be found in most of the wars around the world in the last century. Another in Africa is in process now and maybe we’ll have another big hole in New York City to put a memorial over because of this national pathology of being afraid of losing our manhood unless total victory is achieved.

It seems what’s behind this execution is more than killing a tyrant and wiping out self-incriminatory evidence forever, or even the unlikely possibility of the stability of Iraq in the near future. It’s also about Iraq's massive oil reserves which are going to be thrown open for large-scale exploitation by Western oil companies very soon. A law which is expected to come before the Iraqi parliament and passed in the US’s favor. Hardly about Iraq as the central front for the war on terrorism but more like about a profit center for corporations like BearingPoint and Exxon-Mobil and Halliburton.

Elliott Aron Green - 1/7/2007

N, by the way, France too was a major weapons supplier to Saddam's Iraq. I remember hearing a French-language broadcast on Radio Monte Carlo [owned, I believe, jointly by the Quai d'Orsay and the PLO, strange as it may seem] in January 1990 [19 Jan 90??] in which the announcer positively boasted that France was the second largest weapons supplier to Iraq after the USSR, as I recall.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 1/6/2007

Mr. Piston:

Thanks for your reply, but you are missing my point and the point made by professor Wiener. Why did the current Iraqi government prosecute Saddam only for one atrocity and not many others? Did the selective prosecution have anything to do with the sectarian vengenance violence that has swept Iraqi since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003? Did the selective prosecution have anything to do with who was supporting the Saddam regime when he committed those crimes?

N. Friedman - 1/4/2007

No doubt.

Michael Edward Piston - 1/3/2007

Saddam was tried by the Iraqi government for the crimes which it sought fit to prosecute him for. The United States did not try him and had no right to choose for the Iraqis where he would be tried and for which crimes. Its sad to see how many critics of U.S. intervention in Iraq let their hostility to U.S. policy translate into a contemptuous disregard for the right of Iraqis to make decisions for themselves, and an unstated (and certainly undocumented) assumption that the Iraqi government is simply an appendage of the U.S.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 1/2/2007


You cannot think of any dictators that the Bush administration now supports? And you cannot think of any governments that were elected that the Bush administration opposes?

Jason Blake Keuter - 1/2/2007

When people speak of "U.S." complicity, they speak as if elections never take place in America. There is a power elite that runs foreign policy, and thus there's no need to distinguish between different Congresses and different Presidential administrations.

Past U.S. support for dictators is the policy the neo-cons were against and continue to be against today. The likes of the Nation say there for Human Rights but they do not support military action against dictatorships (while they romanticize all sorts of military actions by cynical tyrants as an imperfect expression of liberationist tendencies in a neo-colonial context.blah blah blah). Nor do they really support non-military options either, as few clamored for sanctions or meaningful enforcement of those sanctions, until the use of military power was on the table.

Further, before beating the drum of how Bush's father was better than Bush jr., realize that Bush's father SUPPORTED Saddam against the Shi'ites in the South. His foreign policy was to accept Sadddam's tyranny of Iraqis (shi'ite and Sunnni alike and all the Kurds who are both) as long as Saddam respected the border with Kuwait.

Bush Junior's foreign policy is clearly different. As was Clinton's from bush sr. and Bush sr. from Reagan and Reagan from Carter, etc, etc......

Get this straight : the United States is a democracy, with regular elections and foreign policy changes becasue of those elections and all of the politics that takes place in between. It is not a "regime" and it doesn't follow some pre-determined path, and present governments cannnot be hamstrung as somehow complicit in the actions of past governments.

Lorraine Paul - 1/1/2007

Saddam had a 'context' as well!

N. Friedman - 1/1/2007

The premise of the article is that the US is worried about exposing what is well known, namely, that the US supported Iraq. But, the article itself shows that such was well known. In fact, it was reported, among other places, on Nightline, back in 1992. So, the premise is not likely correct. Presumably, the reason that Saddam was executed was the finding of the court and the hope that his passing would help stabilize Iraq.

One might also recall that the US also supported Iran. That, it will be recalled, created a real scandal called the Iran Contra affair. One might also recall that the US was not alone in supporting Iraq. The USSR was probably the main source of supply to its ally Iraq.

Now, there is nothing wrong with exposing the role of the US. However, the goal here appears to see US support out of context. And this is not to say that I think that such support was a good idea but only that it did have a context and the context is worth considering.

A fairly good discussion of the context of that period appeared some time back in Dissent Magazine. See "A Thought Experiment for the Left," by Mitchell Cohen, Summer 2003, at http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=344