Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 3, Number 3 February 16 -22, 2003 Quezon City, Philippines
War Crime or an Act of War?
STEPHEN C. PELLETIERE
MECHANICSBURG, Pa. - It was no surprise that President Bush, lacking smoking-gun evidence of Iraq's weapons programs, used his State of the Union address to re-emphasize the moral case for an invasion: "The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages, leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or disfigured."
The accusation that Iraq has used chemical weapons against its citizens is a familiar part of the debate. The piece of hard evidence most frequently brought up concerns the gassing of Iraqi Kurds at the town of Halabja in March 1988, near the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. President Bush himself has cited Iraq's "gassing its own people," specifically at Halabja, as a reason to topple Saddam Hussein.
the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison
gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical
weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.
am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior
political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the
Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified
material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In
addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a
war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into
great detail on the Halabja affair.
much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the
course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to
try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far
from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be
caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.
the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense
Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it
circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study
asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.
agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the Battle around
Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had
been killed with a blood agent - that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was
known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the
battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.
facts have long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily, as often as the
Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned. A much-discussed article in
The New Yorker last March did not make reference to the Defense Intelligence
Agency report or consider that Iranian gas might have killed the Kurds. On the
rare occasions the report is brought up, there is usually speculation, with no
proof, that it was skewed out of American political favoritism toward Iraq in
its war against Iran.
am not trying to rehabilitate the character of Saddam Hussein. He has much to
answer for in the area of human rights abuses. But accusing him of gassing his
own people at Halabja as an act of genocide is not correct, because as far as
the information we have goes, all of the cases where gas was used involved
battles. These were tragedies of war. There may be justifications for invading
Iraq, but Halabja is not one of them.
fact, those who really feel that the disaster at Halabja has bearing on today
might want to consider a different question: Why was Iran so keen on taking the
town? A closer look may shed light on America's impetus to invade Iraq.
are constantly reminded that Iraq has perhaps the world's largest reserves of
oil. But in a regional and perhaps even geopolitical sense, it may be more
important that Iraq has the most extensive river system in the Middle East. In
addition to the Tigris and Euphrates, there are the Greater Zab and Lesser Zab
rivers in the north of the country. Iraq was covered with irrigation works by
the sixth century A.D., and was a granary for the region.
the Persian Gulf war, Iraq had built an impressive system of dams and river
control projects, the largest being the Darbandikhan dam
in the Kurdish area. And it was this dam the Iranians were aiming to take
control of when they seized Halabja. In the 1990's there was much discussion
over the construction of a so-called Peace Pipeline that would bring the waters
of the Tigris and Euphrates south to the parched Gulf states and, by extension,
Israel. No progress has been made on this, largely because of Iraqi
intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of course, all that could change.
America could alter the destiny of the Middle East in a way that probably could
not be challenged for decades - not solely by controlling Iraq's oil, but by
controlling its water. Even if America didn't occupy the country, once Mr.
Hussein's Baath Party is driven from power, many lucrative opportunities would
open up for American companies.
that is needed to get us into war is one clear reason for acting, one that would
be generally persuasive. But efforts to link the Iraqis directly to Osama bin
Laden have proved inconclusive. Assertions that Iraq threatens its neighbors
have also failed to create much resolve; in its present debilitated condition -
thanks to United Nations sanctions - Iraq's conventionalforces threaten no one.
the strongest argument left for taking us to war quickly is that Saddam Hussein
has committed human rights atrocities against his people. And the most dramatic
case are the accusations about Halabja.
we go to war over Halabja, the administration owes the American people the full
facts. And if it has other examples of Saddam Hussein gassing Kurds, it must
show that they were not pro-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas who died fighting
alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Until
Washington gives us proof of Saddam Hussein's supposed atrocities, why are we
picking on Iraq on human rights grounds, particularly when there are so many
other repressive regimes Washington supports?
C. Pelletiere is author of "Iraq and the International Oil System: Why
America Went to War in the Persian Gulf."
January 31, 2003