Global Policy Forum

Did Saddam Die For Our Sins?


By Barry Lando*

January 9, 2007

The disappearance of Saddam Hussein means that a lot of current and former top officials in the United States and other Western governments can breathe easier. The story of the West's complicity in many of the tyrant's most horrific crimes will remain untold, at least by the one man who could have spelled it out most clearly.

The purpose of the Special Iraqi Tribunal was supposedly, like the Nuremburg Tribunal, to educate Iraqis and the world about Saddam and his barbarous regime. That at least was the fiction. But the crime for which Saddam paid with his life—the torture and execution of 148 men and boys from the town of Dujail—was a trifle compared to the dictator's far more vicious acts. On the other hand, no foreigners were implicated in those killings, which is just what the Americans, who set up and rode herd on the tribunal had in mind. In fact, one of the regulations of the tribunal, constantly overlooked, is that only Iraqi citizens and residents can be charged with crimes before that court.

Foreign leaders and businessmen certainly had a hand—by omission and commission—in the second case which is now continuing without Saddam (the charges against him have been dropped ). It's based on the charge that he and his lieutenants carried out the genocidal slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980's, which includes the gassing of men, women and children. With the key actor missing, the trial will now lose all interest for the outside world, and even for most Iraqis. But the damning fact is, as Saddam's forces were carrying out their liquidation of the Kurds, American officials from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations blocked attempts of the U.S. Congress and the U.N. to condemn the Iraqi tyrant. They had similarly squelched earlier efforts to condemn Saddam for his chemical attacks against Iranian troops.

U.S. officials not only claimed to have no specific knowledge of Saddam's ruthless attacks, but refused to even meet with Kurdish leaders with first-hand evidence of Saddam's barbarities. Saddam had been America's de facto ally in what would become a bloody eight-year war against Khomeini's Iran. The United States fed the conflagration, providing billion dollar loans, weapons and satellite intelligence that enabled the Iraqis to precisely target Iranian troops with chemical weapons. Ironically, even after the war had ended, the Bush White House—with its eyes fixed on Iraq's huge petroleum deposits and potential markets—continued to defend and push trade with Saddam's regime.

In fact, according to a memo written by Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, it was the Carter White House in 1980 which encouraged Iraq—via the Saudis—to invade Iran in the first place. Since Jimmy Carter has always denied that charge, it would have been interesting to hear Saddam expound on the issue. Iran had originally requested that Saddam's invasion of Iran—which led to the deaths of more than a million people on both sides—also be considered one of the crimes by the tribunal. The request was turned down.

On the other hand, tribunal officials had indicated that one of the major atrocities that would be dealt with was Saddam's slaughter of tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Southern Iraq following their uprising in 1991. They were answering the repeated public calls for rebellion by President George H.W. Bush. They didn't realize Bush and his pragmatic Secretary of State James Baker didn't really mean it.

When it looked as it the insurgents might actually succeed, the American president turned his back. The White House and its allies wanted Saddam replaced not by a popular revolt which they couldn't control, but by a military leader, more amenable to U.S. interests. So, as the United States permitted Saddam's attack helicopters to decimate the rebels, American troops just a few kilometers away from the slaughter were ordered to destroy huge stocks of captured weapons rather than let them fall into rebel hands. How enlightening it would have been to hear Saddam recount his feeling of relief when he realized that President Bush pí¨re was actually going to help him stay in power.

Forget the trial. What if, instead of the Special Tribunal—or along with it—Iraq had established a Truth Commission such as South Africa did following the fall of apartheid? Saddam might have explained to what degree feckless U.S. diplomacy was responsible for his concluding there would be no reaction from Washington if he were to invade Kuwait in 1990.

It would have been equally intriguing to hear Saddam expound on his relations with the French, who sold the dictator a nuclear reactor in the 1970's, though it was clear he was after WMD. Or what about Saddam's views of the German governments—east and west—who closed their eyes as scores of German industries also helped Saddam build his chemical arsenal. Saddam might have had a few words to say about the British under Margaret Thatcher, who were equally eager to cash in on the Iraqi arms bonanza—Thatcher's son included.

Or, we could have gone back to the beginning—to the charge that the CIA was involved in organizing the first act that brought Saddam into the limelight: his participation in the botched 1958 assassination attempt against Iraqi President Qassem, who had proved too nationalistic and close to the Soviets for American and British Cold War tastes.

No, not to worry—there'll be nothing embarrassing out of Saddam—not since his neck snapped as he plunged through the trap door in Baghdad—unless, somehow, he managed to write or transcribe his memoirs. Now that thought might still make for a few sleepless nights.

About the Author: Barry Lando is a former CBS "60 Minutes" producer and journalist with Time-Life. He is the author of Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush (2006).

More Information on International Justice
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