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A War Crime or an Act of War?
January 31, 2003 7:43 AM   Subscribe

A War Crime or an Act of War?

But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story. ..

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas. (NYT)
posted by y2karl (34 comments total)

 
We are constantly reminded that Iraq has perhaps the world's largest reserves of oil. But in a regional and perhaps even geopolitical sense, it may be more important that Iraq has the most extensive river system in the Middle East. In addition to the Tigris and Euphrates, there are the Greater Zab and Lesser Zab rivers in the north of the country. Iraq was covered with irrigation works by the sixth century A.D., and was a granary for the region.

Before the Persian Gulf war, Iraq had built an impressive system of dams and river control projects, the largest being the Darbandikhan dam in the Kurdish area. And it was this dam the Iranians were aiming to take control of when they seized Halabja. In the 1990's there was much discussion over the construction of a so-called Peace Pipeline that would bring the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates south to the parched Gulf states and, by extension, Israel. No progress has been made on this, largely because of Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of course, all that could change.

Thus America could alter the destiny of the Middle East in a way that probably could not be challenged for decades — not solely by controlling Iraq's oil, but by controlling its water. Even if America didn't occupy the country, once Mr. Hussein's Baath Party is driven from power, many lucrative opportunities would open up for American companies.
posted by y2karl at 7:44 AM on January 31, 2003


1990 article by Pelletiere and Douglas V. Johnson from the New York Review of Books, with reply/rebuttal by Edward Mortimer.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:56 AM on January 31, 2003


Excellent insight from This American Life. It can be found here.
posted by the fire you left me at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2003


A letter about this issue on AFP, with reply (right column).
posted by talos at 8:04 AM on January 31, 2003


Pelletiere has been talking about Halabja for some time. But what about Birjinni? (You may also wishe to check out the links you find there.)
posted by 314/ at 8:16 AM on January 31, 2003


From original link:

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

Stephen C. Pelletiere
posted by y2karl at 8:21 AM on January 31, 2003


That was a interesting link, 314, and thank you--I certainly have no doubt Iraq has used poison gas against the Kurds on several occasions.

The hook for me on this op-ed about Halabja was the fact that the incident itself happened during the Iran-Iraq war.

Even moreso, the subtext about water caught my eye. I have no idea of the truth or importance of the latter, it's just fascinating.
posted by y2karl at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2003


Further background research: (1) The Stimson Center's report on Iraqi chemical weapons. (2) More on Stephen C. Pelletiere, from his resume (contained on page 5 of the pdf file) - "He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Vermont, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California - Berkeley" - that is, y2karl, while he was a spook, he was a desk spook, not a field spook.
posted by 314/ at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2003


SSSHH! Don't interrupt the conversation between y2karl and himself!!
posted by hama7 at 8:44 AM on January 31, 2003


Desk spook

In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

An analyst the Army thought of enough competence to prepare such an important report, if that's a term of disparagement, let it be noted.
posted by y2karl at 8:47 AM on January 31, 2003


For me, what's so entirely frustrating about the whole matter is the Bush administration's failure to just come clean. Would I be any more for war if Bush just came out and said the administration wants to own all the Iraqi oil or pipe water into Israel? Not likely but at least I (and as an extension WE) would know just what the hell we're doing over there to begin with. To site Saddam's gassing of the Kurds or atrocities committed against the Iraqi populace is to just cloud the matter even more for political gain.

Just tell us once and for all: why is war in Iraq necessary. Convince us damnit.
posted by photoslob at 8:48 AM on January 31, 2003


Thank you for your thoughful contribution, hama7.
posted by y2karl at 8:52 AM on January 31, 2003


"that is, y2karl, while he was a spook, he was a desk spook"

I got terribly confused there for a moment (nothing new, I realize) and thought that 314/ was talking about when y2karl used to be a CIA "desk spook".

y2karl, are you now or have you ever been a CIA agent?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2003


No, no, y2karl, not a term of disparagement at all: just providing context. "Some of my best friends are desk officers." Oh my, did I just type that?


And incidentally, why didn't the spellcheck catch "wishe" in my first post? And why didn't I?

posted by 314/ at 8:59 AM on January 31, 2003


http://projects.sipri.se/cbw/research/factsheet-1984.html
a useful history of Iraq and the Kurds (close to bottom of the page for Kurds&gas&war with Iran).

I came upon (while using Google) a site I was not allowed in because I was not a part of the military allowed to use the site. And yet we are given info by a CIA guy (former), who tells he knows and yet must sign a pledge before working for CIA as to what he can and can not utter in public.Odd.
I recall an aarticle in The NewYlrker that specifically noted Iraq's gassing the Kurds (Seymour Hereswch, author, I believe).
The point often made is that Saddam used gas on his own people (Kurds his own?). But the point for those in favor of war is that Saddam has the gasses, has tested them, and is not according to the UN agreement supposed to have them any longer. Has he given them all up?
posted by Postroad at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2003


I am not not now nor have I ever been an SUV.
posted by y2karl at 9:05 AM on January 31, 2003


Thanks for the link, talos; I think this says it all:

Since 1990, declassified information, captured documents, and Iraqi defectors have detailed in chilling detail the Iraqi chemical weapons "test" at Halabja. Much of the evidence lies in the hands of Human Rights Watch, an organization with impeccable credentials. Iraqi leaders have since claimed responsibility for Halabja with grotesque glee. In 1991, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Vice Chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council stated publicly to the Kurds, "if you have forgotten Halabja, I would like to remind you that we are ready to repeat the operation."

I suspect y2karl is trying to counter the war-fever drumbeat, which is admirable, but this dog won't hunt. The rulers of Iraq not only exterminate their own people without hesitation, they're proud of it. (And y2karl, surely you of all people don't believe whatever's claimed in classified army reports.)
posted by languagehat at 9:11 AM on January 31, 2003


The Pentagon Papers come to mind.

I saw that quote, languagehat, but was there a battle at Halabja between the Iraqis and Iranians at the time of this incident or were there two or more gas attacks which have been conflated?

If it was the battle between Iran and Iraq involving local Kurdish forces, and both sides used gas in the battle, and it has been officially cited by us, and we don't know who gassed who, that's notable enough. If it was a flat out attack on civilians in peacetime, that's a war crime. If so, what's the Times doing giving this guy a soapbox if he's a lyin' nut? --which on the surface, seems rather unlikely.

And where's the source for that remark by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri? I'm just asking, because I saw that same quote--was it from Human Rights Watch and if so, where'd they get it? Was it a press release? Did it come the Iraqi's themselves? What's the context?

It's just thrown in there after mentioning Human Rights Watch's impeccable credntials but not explicitly sourced to them--you know it's not like there's ever been any disinformation or propaganda involved in the Gulf War and events thereafter.

I don't have that big of an axe to grind here, I just want to know. I just linked anOp-Ed piece that I found interesting while I await the Adlai Stevenson Moment.
posted by y2karl at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2003


languagehat: Then who are we supposed to believe about this? What the president of the United States says? I found the article interesting from a purely informational aspect, and that the guy who wrote it was an analyst and not an agent is not the least bit bothersome. Good lord. That the incident's particulars are at all disputed was news to me, although using chemical weapons in any circumstances was abhorrent enough regardless. In any case, are you meaning to say that any information that even seems to go against the grain out there is anti-war propaganda? That the truth won't set you free, but will only get you too confused?
posted by raysmj at 9:45 AM on January 31, 2003


"That the truth won't set you free, but will only get you too confused?"

raysmj: The day my wife of 16 years told me to go and fuck myself was the day truth set me free. And even this is arguable.
posted by semmi at 10:31 AM on January 31, 2003


Thus America could alter the destiny of the Middle East in a way that probably could not be challenged for decades — not solely by controlling Iraq's oil, but by controlling its water. Even if America didn't occupy the country, once Mr. Hussein's Baath Party is driven from power, many lucrative opportunities would open up for American companies.

Everyone knows, to spill blood for oil is immoral, repugnant and antithetical to civilization. But blood for water? Now that's a burka of a different color. Sign me up!
posted by jellybuzz at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2003


The American Enterprise Institute study done by Cheney, Wolfiwitz, Rumsfeld et al is the most damning evidence I've seen thus far against the ever-changing trumped up charges we keep hearing from the Duhbya cabal. Doesn't matter who did this gas attack, we're fixing to do a real gas attack on flimsy "evidence."
posted by nofundy at 11:55 AM on January 31, 2003


Well that certainly convinces me. We should immediately stop preperations for war, lift all sanctions, and welcome Saddam with open arms into the world community of nations. Perhaps consider him for at least a seat on the UN Human Rights Commision, if not the Security Council itself.
posted by MidasMulligan at 1:39 PM on January 31, 2003


what's the Times doing giving this guy a soapbox if he's a lyin' nut?

The Times has given George W. Bush a soapbox as well. I rest my case.

That the incident's particulars are at all disputed was news to me

raysmj, the particulars of everything are disputed these days; haven't you been reading MetaFilter? For me, the gassed-by-Iranians theory goes in the same drawer as the Chinese-discovered-Kansas one: remotely possible but contradicting everything I've read for years, so not worth wasting brain cells on unless a lot more evidence comes along. I know there's a thrill to thinking "wow, conventional wisdom is wrong, this guy has the inside dope!" but I prefer Occam's razor. (And if the antiwar movement is desperate enough it needs this kind of thing to convince people, we're in a lot of trouble.)
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on January 31, 2003


Well that certainly convinces me. We should immediately stop preperations for war, lift all sanctions, and welcome Saddam with open arms into the world community of nations. Perhaps consider him for at least a seat on the UN Human Rights Commision, if not the Security Council itself.

No one, not even the author of the article itself, said that this in any way commends the character of Saddam Hussein. From the article: "I am not trying to rehabilitate the character of Saddam Hussein."

That is the definition of a straw man, MidasMulligan. I wish stuff like this wasn't done so often, because it makes it hard to remain civil.
posted by Hildago at 2:06 PM on January 31, 2003


languagehat: For heaven's sake. Why is this connected to some larger anti-war movement? Sheesh. It's just an op-ed piece, written by a guy with apparently more than sufficient credentials, on a topic he seems to know a great deal about. The Times editorial staff may be opposed to the war, but it has run more than a few interesting op-ed pieces by people who are in favor of war with Iraq. And who have you heard about this topic from in detail before, exactly? You don't think the press can ever repeat a falsehood over and over, or that they don't have pack tendencies? (Have you been living in America for the past two or three decades?) No, the government hasn't earned our complete trust either. Not even close. So why not just be open to getting as much information from as many angles out there as possible? Need I mention that war is very serious business anyway, and deserves such a full an airing of information as possible?
posted by raysmj at 2:35 PM on January 31, 2003


Well, languagehat, the more I find out how long the administration's invasion plans appear to have preceded 9/11, the more I find that the We Need To Invade Iraq Because of Saddam's WMDs or links to Al Queda to also be one of those Chinese Found Kansas theories.

I say the invasion was already on the table and that they're using the War on Terror for cover to forward an pre-existing agenda while not doing anything about al Queda's connection to Pakistan, which is far more documented, let alone Pakistan's giving A Bomb technology to Korea. The record is just stuck on Saddam for them.

So, for the second time, do you have any evidence that the Halabja incident took place after the Iran-Iraq War or if that quote you tossed out can be documented?

Put it up--all you've given is your opinion. OK, we know your opinion. Got anything to back it up on either Halabja or the source of that quote?

Why is it, so far, I see no use of the damning hoax by the administration--perhaps it's a coughhoaxcough?

Meanwhile,

Satellites Said to See Activity at North Korean Nuclear Site

American spy satellites over North Korea have detected what appear to be trucks moving the country's stockpile of 8,000 nuclear fuel rods out of storage, prompting fears within the Bush administration that North Korea is preparing to produce roughly a half dozen nuclear weapons, American officials said today...

Despite the uncertainty, there is a growing consensus in the administration that North Korea is working to produce bombs as quickly as it can, perhaps hoping this will give it more negotiating leverage once Iraq is out of the spotlight.

The satellite evidence may present the Bush administration with an excruciating military choice. Pentagon officials say the North Korean program could be set back for years with a precision strike on the reprocessing plant. The plant is above ground and away from population centers. Such a strike is part of the Pentagon's contingency plan for an outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. The Clinton administration developed plans for a strike against the complex in case diplomacy failed in the 1994 nuclear crisis.

But such a strike would be enormously risky. American officials and their allies fear that North Korea would retaliate against South Korea or Tokyo, an attack that could result in tremendous casualties.


Of course, if Al Queda hit the WTC under Clinton's watch, the guy who'd be calling for his impeachment anyway, who's so kneejerk about hating us for *weak beer* talking about Bush and the republicans the way he *180 proof vodka* talked about Clinton and the democrats for eight odd years that he made a spirited defense of the 1948 Strom Thurmond presidential campaign, is pissed off because we remain so cynically and unpatriotically unconvinced by the paucity of evidence provided us by the present administration.

I'm still awaiting Colin Powell's alai Stevenson Moment,
posted by y2karl at 3:00 PM on January 31, 2003


languagehat: For heaven's sake. Why is this connected to some larger anti-war movement? Sheesh. It's just an op-ed piece, written by a guy with apparently more than sufficient credentials, on a topic he seems to know a great deal about.

Exactamondo
posted by y2karl at 3:02 PM on January 31, 2003


on subject of lack of evidence - is blix a pawn in the "we wont take yes for an answer" game?
posted by specialk420 at 3:52 PM on January 31, 2003


Would I be any more for war if Bush just came out and said the administration wants to own all the Iraqi oil or pipe water into Israel? Just tell us once and for all: why is war in Iraq necessary. Convince us damnit.

If you believe all this, nothing would convince you.

What's funny to me is how many of the anti-war folks are adamant about proof. Proof, facts, evidence. They want it all (as they should since war should require all these things). But, they are happy throwing around theories about oil, water, Bush getting revenge for his Father, Bush doing this for his defense industry buddies, etc. Got some proof there? Got any real facts or evidence to shore up your beliefs? And I'm not talking about an op/ed or editorial piece. I'm talking about the same level and quality of evidence you demand the administration present to prove their claims.
posted by fried at 5:16 PM on January 31, 2003


fried: Well, then, why not just provide facts and evidence, answer questions and whatnot, be open to information from non-fly-by-night sources, etc. If the administration should be offering proof and answering questions, and proof should be required for war (which the administration, and not its critics, is thinking of waging), then what exactly is your beef?
posted by raysmj at 6:26 PM on January 31, 2003


I don't think the underlying objection to this war is "proof." I think many of the various objections to this war are a matter of:
- having a healthy respect for the potential of unintended consequences
- legitimate differences of opinion regarding the magnitude and type of risks that are appropriate
- legitimate differences of opinion regarding the timing and priorities that will be most effective for dealing with a sketchy world security situation
- legitimate questions of whether personal considerations could make it more difficult for the US leadership to be objective in its evaluation of the situation - our top people are human too, not machines!
- legitimate differences of opinion about how to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty
Not sure I understand what the problem is with pointing out that cross-border water issues could impact the Iraq situation. Facts are out there on the web, under water - resources - Iraq-- but evaluating these facts for yourself will require a bit of effort. It's time consuming to work through all these multiple considerations, but to my mind, it's worthwhile for people to discuss their views openly.
posted by sheauga at 7:35 PM on January 31, 2003


I say the invasion was already on the table and that they're using the War on Terror for cover to forward an pre-existing agenda while not doing anything about al Queda's connection to Pakistan, which is far more documented, let alone Pakistan's giving A Bomb technology to Korea.

On that last point:

"In November 2001, when the Bush administration was absorbed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, intelligence analysts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory completed a highly classified report and sent it to Washington. The report concluded that North Korea had begun construction of a plant to enrich uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons, according to administration and congressional sources.

"The North Korean drive to enrich uranium came as the Bush administration was trying to build support for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on grounds he was hiding a program of weapons of mass destruction and would be more dangerous if he obtained nuclear weapons. Some critics say the Bush administration kept secret the most worrisome intelligence about a North Korean nuclear plant out of concern that public disclosure would undermine the campaign against Iraq, or interfere with the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his network. Top administration officials have repeatedly denied that they suppressed the intelligence for political reasons."

posted by homunculus at 8:37 PM on January 31, 2003


Gee, sheauga, so logical, succinct, polite and elegant--that is rhetoric of a high order. My hat's off to you for that. You are an example to us all.
posted by y2karl at 10:50 PM on January 31, 2003


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