CIA Files Show U.S. Played Role in Iraq’s Chemical Attacks on Iran

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Saddam Hussein in 1987.Photo: MONA SHARAF/2010 AFP

The United States appears to be moving closer to taking military action in Syria over President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, but a new report in Foreign Policy shows that the U.S. government wasn't always so vehemently opposed to the use of such tactics. According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials, the U.S. government had evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons in 1983, but concealed those facts as Iran tried to prove that to the United Nations. Even worse, toward the end of the war, the U.S. shared information with Iraq about Iran's military position that it knew was likely to lead to a chemical attack. As Foreign Policy puts it, the new revelations are "tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched."

Long before the U.S. decided that both nations were were part of an "Axis of Evil," it was determined to see Iraq defeat Iran, even if it meant looking the other way as Saddam Hussein gassed his enemies and his own people. When Iraq began using mustard gas in 1983, the U.S. government wasn't sharing intelligence with Hussein, but CIA reports show that top Reagan administration officials were regularly updated on the attacks. Nothing was done to prevent them either, though U.S. officials knew about Iraq's efforts to produce the weapons and the locations of its chemical plants. One CIA document stated, "If the Iraqis produce or acquire large new supplies of mustard agent, they almost certainly would use it against Iranian troops and towns near the border."

The U.S. changed its policy on sharing intelligence with Hussein in 1987, when CIA satellite images revealed that the Iranians had uncovered a hole in Iraq's defenses near Basrah, and were building up troops and equipment nearby. A Defense Intelligence Agency report warned that if Iran captured the city, Iraq would lose the war. President Reagan reportedly read the document and scribbled in the margin, "An Iranian victory is unacceptable."

Top officials decided to share information on Iran's strategy with Iraq, providing satellite imagery and reports on the Iranian military's abilities. Soon after, Iraq launched sarin attacks that killed thousands.

For years, U.S. officials have defended themselves by saying that throughout the war, Iraq never announced it would use chemical weapons. Retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was  military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 attacks, told Foreign Policy, "The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew."