Selective Justice and the Execution of Saddam Hussein
The transformation of Saddam Hussein from ally to enemy
Hailed by President Bush as an act of "justice," former Iraqi president
Saddam Hussein was executed on the morning of December 30. Hussein's trial,
Bush averred, had been a "fair" one. Yet there was little that could be
regarded as fair and legal about the proceedings. The court itself was
established at the Bush Administration's behest. U.S. dollars financed the
proceedings, and U.S. officials provided aid, training and direct
involvement. The trial was fraught with problems. Three of Hussein's lawyers
were murdered and many defense witnesses were intimidated into silence. The
trial was a U.S.-directed effort, intended to paint the occupation of Iraq
in the best light. The U.S. and British invasion had, we are reminded by
Western officials, overthrown this particular tyrant. But tyrants, like war
criminals, are in the eye of the beholder, and actions that might win praise
and support for one man might be condemned for another. Saddam Hussein found
himself on both sides of that equation at one time or another.
How does it happen that a man can be regarded as a friend and ally one day,
and an enemy the next? How is it that as praise fades away, that same man
comes to deserve capture and death? Is it because his behavior has changed,
or because there has been a transformation in perception?
At one time, Saddam Hussein was backed and promoted by the U.S. His brutal
methods were regarded as effective measures in furthering U.S. objectives.
But as his actions began to threaten U.S. interests, he earned opprobrium.
In his early years, Saddam Hussein was on the CIA payroll. Contacts began in
1959, when the agency sponsored him as a member of a small team assigned to
assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim. The Prime Minister had
made himself a target by committing the unpardonable sin of taking his
nation out of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. Hussein was set up in an
apartment across the street from Qasim's office and told to observe his
movements. But CIA plans received a setback when the attempted assassination
on October 7, 1959 was conducted in so inept a manner that it failed to
achieve its objective. An over-anxious Hussein fired too soon, killing Qasim
's driver and only wounding the Prime Minster. Following the botched attempt
on the Prime Minister's life, CIA and Egyptian intelligence agents helped
Hussein to escape to Tikrit. From there he crossed into Syria and then to
Beirut, where the CIA provided him with an apartment and put him through a
short training course. Even at that young age, a former U.S. intelligence
official recalls, Hussein "was known as having no class. He was a thug - a
cutthroat." But he did have excellent anticommunist credentials. From Beirut
he was eventually sent to Cairo, where he remained under the watchful eye of
his CIA handlers and made frequent visits to the U.S. embassy to meet with
U.S. hostility towards Qasim had not abated, and he was eventually killed in
a Ba'ath Party coup in 1963, after which the CIA gave the Iraqi National
Guard lists of communists they wanted to see imprisoned and executed.
According to former U.S. intelligence officials, many suspected communists
were killed under the personal supervision of Hussein. As one former U.S.
State Department official put it, "We were frankly glad to be rid of them.
You ask that they get a fair trial? You have got to be kidding. This was
serious business." With his image burnished through such accomplishments,
Hussein first went on to become head of Iraqi security and then in 1979,
president of the nation. He remained allied with the U.S. during his first
decade in power as he ordered the arrest of communists and other political
opponents by the thousands. Nearly all would be tortured or killed. (1)
In 1980, Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops to invade Iran in an attempt to
seize territory by force of arms. The resulting war dragged on for eight
years, causing immense destruction and costing the lives of 1.7 million
people in one of the twentieth century's worst wars.
Relatively early in that war, in December 1983, President Reagan sent envoy
Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and offer
American assistance. Rumsfeld told Hussein that the U.S. wanted full
relations and "would regard any major reversal of Iraq's fortunes as a
strategic defeat for the West." Just one month before, State Department
official Jonathan Howe had informed Secretary of State George Schultz that
Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian forces on an "almost daily
basis." It was also well known by then that the Hussein government was
engaging in widespread repression. Many thousands of individuals were being
imprisoned, tortured, executed or sent into exile.
Howard Teicher worked for the National Security Agency when he accompanied
Rumsfeld on that mission. Teicher recalls, "President Reagan decided that
the United States would do whatever was necessary and legal to prevent Iraq
from losing the war with Iran," and formalized a policy of assisting Iraq in
a National Security Decision Directive [NSDD] which Teicher helped draft.
CIA Director William Casey "personally spearheaded the effort to ensure that
Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid
losing the Iran-Iraq war. Pursuant to the secret NSDD, the United States
actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with
billions of dollars of credits, by providing U.S. military intelligence and
advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to
Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required."
CIA personnel visited Iraq on a regular basis to provide surveillance
intelligence gathered by U.S.-supplied Saudi AWACS planes in support of the
Iraqi war effort. Both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency directly
assisted an Iraqi offensive in February 1988 by electronically "blinding"
Iranian radar for three days. "The United States also provided strategic
operational advice to the Iraqis to better use their assets in combat,"
Teicher said. "For example, in 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message"
through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, acting as an intermediary, "to
Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing
of Iran," and "similar strategic operational military advice was passed" to
Hussein through meetings with various heads of state.
Teicher "personally attended meetings in which CIA Director Casey and Deputy
Director Robert Gates "noted the need for Iraq to have certain weapons such
as cluster bombs and anti-armor penetrators in order to stave off Iranian
attacks." The CIA supplied cluster bombs to Iraq through Cardoen, a Chilean
More than sixty officials of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency were
involved in the program that not only provided Iraq with intelligence on
Iranian positions, but actually helped Iraq to develop tactical battle plans
as well as plans for air strikes. Although it was well known by the later
stages of the war that Iraqi forces were routinely using chemical weapons
against the Iranians, American support for Iraqi offensives continued. "The
use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep
strategic concern," recalled a former high-ranking Defense Intelligence
Agency official. U.S. leaders were more interested in ensuring the defeat of
Iran. The Pentagon "wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas," remembered a
former official involved in the program. "It was just another way of killing
people - whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't make any difference."
Saddam Hussein received unstinting support throughout his war with Iran. His
crimes were never an issue. Not, that is, until he miscalculated and invaded
Kuwait in 1990 in another attempted land-grab. This war, however, was not on
the U.S. agenda, and Hussein's reckless action triggered an attack by the
U.S. and Great Britain, along with the imposition of UN sanctions. (2)
That Saddam Hussein was once regarded as a friend of the West is rarely
mentioned these days. As long as he directed internal repression and
external wars at those U.S. policy makers loathed, he could count on
support. It was only when his actions went against U.S. interests that he
was suddenly transformed into a tyrant and criminal. His methods had not
changed. Only the Western perception of him had shifted, because he no
longer served the purposes of global capital.
The U.S. did much to create Saddam Hussein and others like him. It is
impossible to avoid concluding that the trial of Saddam Hussein was little
more than a case of selective justice, meant to provide post-justification
for an invasion that was itself a grave violation of international law.
Saddam Hussein's crimes were real enough, but those acts would never have
brought him to trial had he continued to operate within the parameters
sketched for him by the West. The trail of Saddam Hussein is hailed as a
triumph of justice, despite the fact that it was initiated and guided by an
occupying power. Yet one wonders. Who will judge the Western powers that
stand in judgment?
Gregory Elich is the author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and
the Pursuit of Profit
link to www.amazon.com
He is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on
the Advisory Board of the Korea Truth Commission. His articles have appeared
in newspapers and periodicals across the world, including the U.S., Canada,
South Korea, Great Britain, France, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia, Russia, Denmark
(1) Richard Sale, "Exclusive: Saddam Key in Early CIA Plot," UPI, April 10,
(2) "US and Iraq Go Way Back," CBS News, December 31, 2002.
Patrick E. Tyler, "Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas,"
New York Times, August 18, 2002.
Robert Windrem, "Rumsfeld Key Player in Iraq Policy Shift," MSNBC, August
Christopher Marquis, "Rumsfeld Made Iraq Overture in '84 Despite Chemical
Raids," New York Times, December 23, 2003.
Michael Dobbs, "US-Iraq Ties in 1980s Illustrate Downside of American
Foreign Policy," Dawn (Karachi), December 31, 2002.
Jeremy Scahill, "The Saddam in Rummy's Closet," Counterpunch, August 2,
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