WASHINGTON: The US government may be considering military action in response to chemical strikes near Damascus. 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.

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defences. US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Saddam Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on US satellite imagery, maps and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favour 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.

US officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Saddam’s government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told Foreign Policy.

According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials like Francona, the US had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. 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

In contrast to today’s wrenching debate over whether the United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Saddam Hussein’s widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people.

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.

It has been previously reported that the United States provided tactical intelligence to Iraq at the same time that officials suspected Saddam would use chemical weapons. But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the knowledge United States possessed of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior US officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks.

Francona, an experienced Middle East hand and Arabic linguist who served in the National Security Agency and the Defence Intelligence Agency, said he first became aware of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1984, while serving as air attaché in Amman, Jordan. The information he saw clearly showed that the Iraqis had used Tabun nerve agent (also known as “GA”) against Iranian forces in southern Iraq.

But it was the express policy of Reagan to ensure an Iraqi victory in the war, whatever the cost.

In March 1984, the CIA reported that Iraq had “begun using nerve agents on the Al Basrah front and likely will be able to employ it in militarily significant quantities by late this fall”.

The initial wave of Iraqi attacks, in 1983, used mustard agent.

Hard evidence of the Iraqi chemical attacks came to light in 1984. But that did little to deter Saddam from using the lethal agents, including in strikes against his own people.

The Defence Department had proposed an intelligence-sharing programme with the Iraqis in 1986. But according to Francona, it was nixed because the CIA and the State Department viewed Saddam Hussein as “anathema” and his officials as “thugs”.

IRAQIS UNDER PRESSURE: The situation changed in 1987. 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 Defence 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 a corps deployed east of the city and another deployed to the southeast, in and around the hotly contested Fao Peninsula.

The satellites detected Iranian engineering and bridging units being secretly moved to deployment areas opposite the gap in the Iraqi lines, indicating that this was going to be where the main force of the annual Iranian spring offensive was going to fall, Francona said.

In late 1987, the DIA analysts in Francona’s shop in Washington wrote a Top Secret Codeword report partially entitled “At The Gates of Basrah”, warning that the Iranian 1988 spring offensive was going to be bigger than all previous spring offensives, and this offensive stood a very good chance of breaking through the Iraqi lines and capturing Basrah.

The report warned that if Basrah fell, the Iraqi military would collapse and Iran would win the war.

President Reagan read the report and, according to Francona, wrote a note in the margin addressed to Secretary of Defence Frank Carlucci: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.”

The sarin attacks then followed. 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 “hundreds” and “thousands” in each of the four cases where chemical weapons were used prior to a military offensive.

By 1988, US intelligence was flowing freely to Saddam’s military. That March, Iraq launched a nerve gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq.

A month later, the Iraqis used aerial bombs and artillery shells filled with sarin against Iranian troop concentrations on the Fao Peninsula southeast of Basrah, helping the Iraqi forces win a major victory and recapture the entire peninsula. 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.

In the ensuing months, Francona reported, the Iraqis used sarin in massive quantities three more times in conjunction with massed artillery fire and smoke to disguise the use of nerve agents. 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 Ramazan Offensive, was launched by the Iraqis in April 1988 and involved the largest use of sarin nerve agent employed by the 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.-

By arrangement with Foreign Policy magazine

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