U.S. President "Betrays" Arab Uprising-Again (Part 2)

Did the U.S. in 1991 help cover-up Saddam’s CW?

Continued from part 1

In 1991, after first exhorting Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein, President George H.W. Bush, became fearful that the Shiites, whose rebellion had spread like wildfire, were too closely tied to Iran. He ordered American troops then in Iraq to refuse any aid. He also continued to allow Saddam’s military to fly their deadly helicopter strikes.

Bush’s decision turned the tide. Saddam, who had been on the brink of defeat, unleashed fearsome attacks against the rebels. What has not been reported is that those attacks may also have included the use of chemical weapons-- according to Rocky Gonzalez an American soldier I interviewed for a documentary on the subject, who was stationed just a few miles away.

"You could see there were helicopters crisscrossing the skies, going back and forth," he told me. "Within a few hours people started showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns. “' We were guessing mustard gas. They had blisters and burns on their face and on their hands, on places where the skin was exposed," he said. "As the hours passed, more and more people were coming.”

Indeed, one of the greatest concerns of coalition forces during Desert Storm had been that Saddam would unleash his WMD. U.S. officials repeatedly warned Iraq that America's response would be immediate and devastating. Facing such threats, Saddam kept his weapons holstered -- or so the Bush administration led the world to believe.

Rocky's suspicion that Saddam did resort to them in 1991 was later confirmed by the report of the U.S. Government's Iraq Survey Group, which investigated Saddam's WMD after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and concluded that Saddam no longer had any WMD. Almost universally ignored by the media, however, was the finding that Saddam had resorted to his WMD during the 1991 uprising. The "regime was shaking and wanted something 'very quick and effective' to put down the revolt."

They considered then rejected using mustard gas, as it would be too perceptible with U.S. troops close by. Instead, on March 7th, 1991 the Iraqi military filled R-400 aerial bombs with sarin, a binary nerve agent. "Dozens of sorties were flown against Shiite rebels in Kerbala and the surrounding areas," the ISG report said. But apparently the R-400 bombs were not very effective, having been designed for high-speed delivery from planes, not slow-moving helicopters. So the Iraqi military switched to dropping CS, a very potent tear gas, in large aerial bombs.

Because of previous U.S. warnings against resorting to chemical weapons, Saddam and his generals knew they were taking a serious risk, but the Coalition never reacted.

The lingering question is why? It's impossible to believe they didn't know about it at the time. There were repeated charges from Shiite survivors that the Iraqi dictator had used chemical weapons. Rocky Gonzalez said he heard from refugees that nerve gas was being used. He had also observed French-made Iraqi helicopters -- one of which was outfitted as a crop sprayer -- making repeated bomb runs over Najaf. Gonzalez maintained that, contrary to what the ISG report said, many of the refugees who fled to U.S. lines were indeed victims of mustard gas. "Their tongues were swollen," he said, "and they had severe burns on the mucous tissue on the inside of their mouths and nasal passages. Our chemical officer also said it looked like mustard gas."

Gonzalez suggested that local Iraqi officials, desperate to put down the uprising, may have used mustard gas without permission from on high. "A lot of that was kept quiet," he said, "because we didn't want to panic the troops. We stepped up our training with gas masks, because we were naturally concerned."

Gonzalez's unit also passed their information on to their superiors. There were other American witnesses to what happened. U.S. helicopters and planes flew overhead, patrolling as Saddam's helicopters decimated the rebels. Some of those aircraft provided real-time video of the occurrences below.

On March 7th, Secretary of State James Baker warned Saddam not to resort to chemical weapons to repress the uprising. But why, when the U.S. was notified that the Iraqi dictator actually had resorted to chemical weapons, was there no forceful reaction from the administration of the elder Bush? One plausible explanation--denouncing Saddam for using chemical weapons would have greatly increased pressure on the U.S. President to come to the aid of the Shiites.

As James Baker put it—in Kissingerian terms--“We don’t want to see a power vacuum in Iraq.”

Instead, the American decision to turn their backs on the Intifada gave a green light to Saddam Hussein's ruthless counterattack. The repression when it came was as horrendous as everyone knew it would be. Tens of thousands of men, women and children were massacred. In the North, however, because of media coverage, the U.S. was finally obliged to decree a no-fly zone, thus protecting the Kurds. In the South, however, where there were no TV cameras, the slaughter of the Shiites continued

Meanwhile, anonymous government figures, wise in the ways of Realpolitik, were making statements such as, "It is far easier to deal with a tame Saddam Hussein than with an unknown quantity." [One can imagine the same sentiments today from American editorialists and statesmen]

Imagine if, instead of blocking the Intifada, George H.W. Bush had given a green light -- without even sending American troops to Baghdad -- just sent the needed signals: met with rebel leaders, ordered Saddam to stop flying his helicopter gunships.
Indeed, some in the Bush administration, like Paul Wolfowitz, were recommending that he do just that: support the revolt he had called for.

They were overruled.

Granted, if the revolution had been successful, there would have been a period of tumult. The Kurds might have achieved an autonomous or semi autonomous state, which is what they will wind up with. The Iranians would have certainly increased their influence through their Shiite allies, but no more than they have today.

There would also have been no American invasion and disastrous occupation of Iraq in 2003.

And, without that sorry backdrop, it’s also likely that the Obama administration would have been much more open to aiding the rebels in Syria-- early on in 2011, before more radical elements became involved.

And that could have made all the difference. 

Barry Lando is author of the mystery novel, “The Watchman’s File” about Israel’s most-closely guarded secret (it’s not the bomb.) Available at Amazon.