January 9, 2007
It was Jan. 31, 2003. Congress had declared war on the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein 3 1/2 months earlier, but the actual shooting would not begin for another month and a half. The New York Times was urging America to back away from the conflict, and the paper's op-ed page published a piece by one Stephen C. Pelletiere, an erstwhile CIA analyst, who asked: "Until Washington gives us proof of Saddam Hussein's supposed atrocities, why are we picking on Iraq on human rights grounds, particularly when there are so many other repressive regimes Washington supports?"
As we noted at the time, Pelletiere sought to blame Iran, not Iraq, for the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the infamous Halabja massacre of 1988. He wrote:
I am not trying to rehabilitate the character of Saddam Hussein. He has much to answer for in the area of human rights abuses. But accusing him of gassing his own people at Halabja as an act of genocide is not correct, because as far as the information we have goes, all of the cases where gas was used involved battles. These were tragedies of war. There may be justifications for invading Iraq, but Halabja is not one of them.
Saddam is dead, but his henchmen remain on trial for the Halabja massacre, and Pelletiere's claims were circulating as recently as last week, when the Toronto Star published an article by Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Conference, who argues that the execution of Saddam, more than three years after his capture, was premature:
The Halabja trial would also have shed light on the claim by Stephen C. Pelletiere, the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, that both Iran and Iraq "used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja." Pelletiere made the astonishing claim in The New York Times in January 2003 that 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."
With the death of Saddam, the secrets that could have emerged at the Halabja trial will probably never come to light.
In fact, according to a news story in today's New York Times, Saddam himself was using the trial to promote Pelletiere's theory:
Before he was hanged Dec. 30 for offenses in another case, Mr. Hussein had used the so-called Anfal trial, involving the massacre of as many as 180,000 Iraqi Kurds, as a platform for arguing that the chemical weapons attacks of the kind that devastated the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, were carried out by Iranian forces then fighting Iraq in an eight-year war.
Yesterday, however, these claims were refuted in court, by Saddam's own voice. As the Times reports:
On one recording, Mr. Hussein presses the merits of chemical weapons on Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his vice-president, and now, the Americans believe, the fugitive leader of the Sunni insurgency that has tied down thousands of American troops. Mr. Douri, a notorious hard-liner, asks whether chemical attacks will be effective against civilian populations, and suggests that they might stir an international outcry.
"Yes, they're very effective if people don't wear masks," Mr. Hussein replies.
"You mean they will kill thousands?" Mr. Douri asks.
"Yes, they will kill thousands," Mr. Hussein says. . . .
Mr. Hussein sounds matter of fact as he describes what chemical weapons will do. "They will prevent people eating and drinking the local water, and they won't be able to sleep in their beds," he says. "They will force people to leave their homes and make them uninhabitable until they have been decontaminated."
As for the concern about international reaction, he assures Mr. Douri that only he will order the attacks. "I don't know if you know this, Comrade Izzat, but chemical weapons are not used unless I personally give the orders," he says.
Two days after Pelletiere's piece appeared, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. gave an interview to Tony Snow, then host of "Fox News Sunday":
This is a part of the American and the British propaganda against my country. . . . Your president, President Bush, mentioned that several times that Iraq, the president of Iraq, poisoned its own people. Pelletiere in the article in New York Times last Friday, and I'm thankful for the New York Times for that, saying that it is not true, Iraq is not poisoning its own people.
As we wrote at the time, "it's almost as if a humble Holocaust denier had won public praise from Adolf Eichmann himself." One wonders if the editors of the Times feel ashamed today of having published Pelletiere's apologia.