Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran The U. S. But a generation ago, America’s military and intelligence communities knew about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks far more devastating than anything Syria has seen, Foreign Policy has learned. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1. U. S. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long- standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.
But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attach. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its forces, and was building a case to present to the United Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U. S. The CIA declined to comment for this story. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.
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Also, the agency noted that the Soviet Union had previously used chemical agents in Afghanistan and suffered few repercussions. But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the United States’ knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U. S. They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched. Casey, a close friend of President Ronald Reagan, were told about the location of Iraqi chemical weapons assembly plants; that Iraq was desperately trying to make enough mustard agent to keep up with frontline demand from its forces; that Iraq was about to buy equipment from Italy to help speed up production of chemical- packed artillery rounds and bombs; and that Iraq could also use nerve agents on Iranian troops and possibly civilians.
According to a former CIA official, the images showed Iraqi movements of chemical materials to artillery batteries opposite Iranian positions prior to each offensive. The information he saw clearly showed that the Iraqis had used Tabun nerve agent (also known as . In March 1. 98. 4, the CIA reported that Iraq had . Iraq never ratified the protocol; the United States did in 1. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production and use of such arms, wasn’t passed until 1. While generally not fatal, mustard causes severe blistering of the skin and mucus membranes, which can lead to potentially fatal infections, and can cause blindness and upper respiratory disease, while increasing the risk of cancer.
The United States wasn’t yet providing battlefield intelligence to Iraq when mustard was used. But it also did nothing to assist Iran in its attempts to bring proof of illegal Iraqi chemical attacks to light.
Nor did the administration inform the United Nations. The CIA determined that Iran had the capability to bomb the weapons assembly facilities, if only it could find them.
The CIA believed it knew the locations. But that did little to deter Hussein from using the lethal agents, including in strikes against his own people. For as much as the CIA knew about Hussein’s use of chemical weapons, officials resisted providing Iraq with intelligence throughout much of the war. The Defense Department had proposed an intelligence- sharing program with the Iraqis in 1. But according to Francona, it was nixed because the CIA and the State Department viewed Saddam Hussein as . CIA reconnaissance satellites picked up clear indications that the Iranians were concentrating large numbers of troops and equipment east of the city of Basrah, according to Francona, who was then serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
What concerned DIA analysts the most was that the satellite imagery showed that the Iranians had discovered a gaping hole in the Iraqi lines southeast of Basrah. The seam had opened up at the junction between the Iraqi III Corps, deployed east of the city, and the Iraqi VII Corps, which was deployed to the southeast of the city in and around the hotly contested Fao Peninsula. The report warned that if Basrah fell, the Iraqi military would collapse and Iran would win the war. The DIA was authorized to give the Iraqi intelligence services as much detailed information as was available about the deployments and movements of all Iranian combat units. That included satellite imagery and perhaps some sanitized electronic intelligence. There was a particular focus on the area east of the city of Basrah where the DIA was convinced the next big Iranian offensive would come.
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The agency also provided data on the locations of key Iranian logistics facilities, and the strength and capabilities of the Iranian air force and air defense system. Francona described much of the information as .
CIA analysts could not precisely determine the Iranian casualty figures because they lacked access to Iranian officials and documents. But the agency gauged the number of dead as somewhere between . According to the CIA, two- thirds of all chemical weapons ever used by Iraq during its war with Iran were fired or dropped in the last 1. That March, Iraq launched a nerve gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq. The success of the Fao Peninsula offensive also prevented the Iranians from launching their much- anticipated offensive to capture Basrah. According to Francona, Washington was very pleased with the result because the Iranians never got a chance to launch their offensive.
Back then, American intelligence had better access to the region and could send officials out to assess the damage. He found the battlefield littered with hundreds of used injectors once filled with atropine, the drug commonly used to treat sarin’s lethal effects. Francona scooped up a few of the injectors and brought them back to Baghdad — proof that the Iraqis had used sarin on the Fao Peninsula. Each offensive was hugely successful, in large part because of the increasingly sophisticated use of mass quantities of nerve agents. The last of these attacks, called the Blessed Ramadan Offensive, was launched by the Iraqis in April 1. Iraqis to date. For a quarter- century, no chemical attack came close to the scale of Saddam’s unconventional assaults. Until, perhaps, the strikes last week outside of Damascus.
Click to the next page to read the secret CIA files. Situation report on the Iran- Iraq war, noting that each side is preparing for chemical weapons attacks (July 2.