Saddam Framed?


Stephen C. Pelletiere was the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000 with access to "much of the classified material" in Washington on the Persian Gulf, and head of a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States which went into great detail on the March, 1988 chemical attack on Halabja (Exhibit A in the case that Saddam gassed his own people). Given the shifting nature of our relationship with Iraq throughout the 1980s, this r?sum? could, of course, reveal his biases as much as it establishes his expertise. Anyway, he had this to say in The New York Times:

This 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.

And 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.

The 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.

I'm in no position to say he's right or wrong, but I'm amazed at how little attention the story has gotten—even in the form of a rebuttal. Pelletiere claims this information has all been in the "public domain," but notes that it almost never gets mentioned. As if to prove his point, Pelletiere's own article has generated pretty much no heat since its publication Friday. The Times appears to have received only one letter about it.

[Update: Thanks to Marc Webster for this link to Human Rights Watch's rebuttal of Pelletiere's claims, circa 1993.]

NEXT: Shuttle Huddle

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  1. Jude what’s-his-name at has been saying this over and over and over for quite some time. I pointed this out to a rabidly pro-war liberal friend, whose only response was to say that he’s not the only one to say Saddam did it (well, duh) and to send me a link to some article by a human rights activist that repeated that Saddam did it without providing any substantiation. Was that the best he could do? Ron Paul has also mentioned that our own government blamed the gassing on Iran, not Iraq, but this marks the third time period that I’ve heard it breathed, and I thank you. Could this be the biggest urban myth of all time?? Well, I figure with so much smoke there’s very likely fire, but I do wonder. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that we’ve all just been repeating what we’ve heard without there being any basis to it all. BTW, another thing Jude W-something points out is that if the gassing *was* Saddam’s doing, it was most likely wartime collateral damage rather than an intentional mass murder. Even the official storyline acknowledges that the Kurds were likely in open rebellion against Saddam and may have been collaborating with Iranian forces. Which I wouldn’t blame them for in the least, and it’s not my point that this would justify their mass slaughter, but I think it’s still worth considering. Our own government has likely backed mass murderers in Central America as an expedient solution on more than one occasion, but that doesn’t make us an imminent threat to the rest of the world…or does it?

  2. Human Rights Watch doesn’t find Pelletiere’s story credible. See footnotes 7 and 10 here:
    Their conclusion, based on traces still present in 1993, is that the nerve agent Sarin was used. It wasn’t a cyanide poison, and it doesn’t seem likely it was the Iranians.
    Why hasn’t the story gotten more attention? That’s actually a good question. I’d expect the anti-war left, and ANSWER in particular, to use this as evidence that Saddam isn’t a particularly mean guy and that Bush just wants oil. Still, it doesn’t appear that Pelletiere’s story checks out, unless there’s a lot more evidence than blue lips on the victims.

  3. I should mention that James Taranto had the link to the Human Rights Watch report on the 31st. I know he isn’t held in high regard here, but there you have it – another mention in the mainstream media. Kind of.

  4. I saw this at Opinion Journal, too. I think the reason it’s not getting much attention might be a) not many people base their poor opinion of Saddam on this incident alone, and b) there are always so many contrarians in the media (see Scott Ritter) that people just tune them out.

    It would be nice to see this gone into further, though. But isn’t it a bit of a fine point? Either way, Hussein ain’t real nice.

  5. Thanks, Marc. Taranto reiterates his HRW claim today. I don’t know if that report represents a thorough refutation of Pelletiere, but for anybody interested, it’s worth checking out. There is, in any event, some distance between claiming “Saddam isn’t a particularly mean guy” (or, in Taranto’s characteristically measured comparison, acting as a “Holocaust denier”) and wanting to know if a specific charge against him is supportable or just close enough for government work.

  6. In the for what it’s worth dept, my pro-war liberal friend leaned very heavily on the Saddam gassed his own people factoid because his argument was based on the premise that Saddam was guilty of genocide and the theory that regimes that commit genocide follow predictable patterns that include expansionism and war, and this was why we know that left alone Saddam will undoubtedly reduce the US to a couple of craters. I accused him of profiling, heh. But in any event, while no one doubts that Saddam isn’t very nice, to put it mildly, the *degree* of his vileness is generally considered to be quite relevant to the preemptive war argument.

  7. Fyodor,
    If the degree of his vileness is generally considered quite relevant, and even Pelletiere admits both sides were lobbing chemical weapons around Halabja, then isn’t it something of a technicality to determine which side killed which civilians? Even if you accept Pelletiere’s claims at face value, you’ve got a dictator who’s quite willing to use mustard gas in populous cities in his territory. If he killed surprisingly few, then would his degree of vileness drop? Perhaps, but I think those who make the case for Saddam’s vileness (as one reason to use force now) would concede that point and still win the argument.

  8. Where there’s smoke, there is either fire, or mirrors. Where there’s gas, there is either an Iraqi or an Iranian. Either way, the Kurds couldn’t win. Neither side cared, or rather, either cared enough that using gas granted a two’fer.

    Saddam’s ‘credentials’ as a barbarian are well established without proof of culpability in the Kurdish atrocities. Perhaps that’s why media skip it?

    It’s the Kurds who matter to me at this point: Can we protect them this go ’round? And will our media help in this regard, or make matters worse?

  9. Pelltiere’s main evidence that it couldn’t have been Iraqi gas is his claim that the blue lips of the victims indicates cyanosis, leading in turn to his claim that it was a cyanide-based blood agent that was used. He says that since we knew the Iranians had such weapons, and didn’t know that the Iraqis did, it had to have been the Iranians.

    This is ridiculously shoddy reasoning. The fact that we didn’t know the Iraqis had such blood agents at the time doesn’t mean that they actually didn’t. The fact that we know the Iranians did doesn’t mean they did it.

    And more importantly, since nerve agents kill by respiratory failure, blue lips would also be evidence of the use of such an agent, and we know the Iraqis had nerve agents.

    Pelletiere’s argument is:

    “Well, it could have been the Iranians. Or it could have been the Iraqis. Therefore, it was the Iraqis.”

  10. Ranald:

    What I’m afraid of is that the Kurds are the Moros of this “war of liberation.” Liberating the poor oppressed Kurds will be used to sell the war to the public, as the incubator babies were used to sell the first Gulf War and the brave Cuban freedom-fighters were used to sell the Spanish-American War.

    But if the Kurds (or the Shiites, for that matter) are stupid enough to take the rhetoric about freedom and national liberation seriously, and act on the notion that they are a free people after their liberation, the U.S. will turn a blind eye toward Turkish attempts at repressing them. The U.S. may even help its puppet regime in Baghdad suppress them. The Moros made the mistake a century ago of taking U.S. war aims at face value, and look what it got them.

  11. This is just another case of filtering of information for support of government action. How few people know of any notion that Saddam may not be guilty of at least one atrocity, of which he stands accused. Who cares to know? Maybe the men and women in harms way. Ignorance is Bliss. Sad to say, the US has more than its fair share.

    What are we to do now? Has the truths, or half-truths gone too far to turn things around, probably so. We can only hope for the best outcome for an inherently dangerous, on a large scale, situation.

  12. This is just another case of filtering of information for support of government action.

    Human Rights Watch, which is firmly anti-Gulf-War-II, says Pelletiere’s full of shit. Add another layer of tinfoil to your hat and try again.

    Read Pelletiere’s report. Summary: “It’s possible that it was the Iranians, ergo it can’t have been the Iraqis.” The Leuchter report had better reasoning behind it.

  13. “The theme that struck the deepest emotional chord, they discovered, was “the fact that Saddam Hussein was a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.”2”

    Here is a link to an article published in 1996 on how the Gulf War was sold and the role public relations firms, chiefly Hill and Knowlton, played in it. Sound familiar? The above quote came from a Wirthlin Group (a polling firm hired by H&K) executive, Dee Alsop, TV interview where he bragged about their ability to identify the messages that really resonate with the American people. Thus, the picture of Sadam Hussein we still see today. Whether he did or did not gas his own people is not the point. It is to create an emotional response that furthers the PR firm’s employer’s aims.

    Other parts of the article speak to the well funded firms using the media for their employer’s own purposes, planting video clips, quotes and the like. “when a research team from the communications department of the University of Massachusetts surveyed public opinion and correlated it with knowledge of basic facts about U.S. policy in the region, they drew some sobering conclusions. The more television people watched, the fewer facts they knew; and the less people knew in terms of basic facts, the more likely they were to back the Bush administration.1” The fact that 80% of today’s news is owned by about six companies makes the PR firms jobs even easier.

    H&K, the Rendon and Wirthlin Groups and many others are still at work today hammering home the same message they used to sell the last war. Anytime you see a story attributed to “an unnamed official” (there are a lot of them these days) raise your bullshit antennae WAY up. No journalism student gets away without quoting sources but our sorry newspeople at the AP do it all the time.

    The current Bush administration is now desperately looking for “the hook” to put this campaign over the top. 12 years ago it was the fabrications of Iraqi soldiers killing 312 babies in incubators, a bogus story told by the daughter of Kuwait’s Ambassador to the U.S., a fact conveniently overlooked in its reporting.

    What’s it going to be this time?

  14. Fyodor,
    I’m honestly not trying to be a single-minded ass about this, and your last post clarified your sentiments a bit. STILL, either ‘degrees of vileness’ matter or they don’t. The point I was trying to make is that for most people, the degree of Saddam’s vileness is not the crux of their opposition to/support of the war. Try this: find a strongly pro-war partisan and tell them Saddam didn’t gas his own people with that as his sole intent; rather, they were collateral damage in a battle vs. Iran. Do you think they’ll oppose the war? We agree he’s vile either way; you think the degree is crucial in building popular support for the war, I don’t. Why? Because much of the rhetoric about the war centers on Saddam’s threat to the US through WMD proliferation.
    All of this is rather besides the point if you believe that Pelletiere’s full of shit. Maybe that’s the sticking point here. Your point about not brushing off evidence is very true – it’s so easy to cut one’s self off from dissenting opinions. But it’s just as easy to attach great import to minor or untrustworthy scraps of information. I’m not saying I’ve done a better job of that, but since you understand the theory, you understand why I’m not convinced that Pelletiere’s story is evidence of a nefarious cover-up.

    Perhaps Halabja was actually gassed by a heavyweight PR firm…

  15. “Filtering the information”? For years, the left has used Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds as a cudgel to beat Washington over the head for supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. (And rightly so.) Suddenly, a CIA guy comes along and claims that Iran gassed the Kurds (funny, I missed seeing all prior accounts of Iran using poison gas during the war), and suddenly, some of the very same elements of the left that had treated the Kurds as indirect victims of US realpolitik are out there claiming Saddam was innocent all along.

    I’m with HRW on this one. Pelletiere’s story smells.

  16. Matthew, please don’t lump anyone who analyzes the situation differently than you with “the left.” And bear in mind that one can easily turn your argument on its head, ie it was “the left” that spread the possibility of Saddam’s guilt as fact which has since been seized upon by the government to back its change of policy. I don’t implicitly trust “the left”–do you?

    Marc Webster, I think you’re determined to see your point through no matter what I say, but I think it’s rather self-evident that if the degree of Saddam’s vileness matters, then it makes a huge difference whether he killed the Kurds as an intentional genocide or whether it was collatoral damage. Sure, it wasn’t so great either in the latter case, but it’s still a huge difference. If it’s collatoral damage, then it’s not all that different from what the US has done, and what we’ll be doing again soon (apparently with your blessing). Sure, we’ll certainly make more effort not to kill civilians, but we’ll still kill them. And it wasn’t so long ago that A) we targeted civilians ourselves as a necessary tactic to fighting a war in WWII, and B) we possessed chemical weapons ourselves, until the sixties. We didn’t always care who got in our way in Viet Nam either….

    Oh, but I know, Saddam is a monster is a monster is a monster and that’s all there is to it. Well, he sure is a ruthless tyrant, and getting rid of him will be a good thing whether fighting this war will ultimately be worth its costs or be a boon or bane to world peace. But I still think it’s worth examining the myths that help drive us to this and not brushing off evidence that challenges our assumptions because they give us cognitive dissonance.

  17. surely in international law one can only invade on the basis of overwhelming ongoing human rights abuses. even if there is proof of past offences that cannot justify an invasion directly killing approx 40,000 people unless there is also ongoing offences.

    Indeed it may be argued that even the above principle is not an accepted international rule. Didnt Hitler justified his attack on Poland on the basis of (probably true) human rights abuses. The fundamental purpose of the UN charter was war prevention not the much more utopic and too easily distorted principle of the prevention of human rights abuses.

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