Popular myth these days would have you believe Saddam Hussein is a creature of the CIA, a stooge of the West, armed to the teeth by America and set loose. The truth, as IAN WISHART reveals, is not quite so simple…
So now that the bullets are being fired, who can be fingered as Saddam Hussein’s suppliers of weapons of mass destruction? In a bitter irony, the answer is emerging: France and Germany, including some of the same European politicians who spoke so strongly against the US-led war. It is a story of massive campaign donations from Iraq to French and German politicians, along with multi-billion dollar arms and infrastructure deals. It is also the story of a forgotten era in modern world history – the Cold War.

While many civilians in the West have been able to level numerous allegations at America’s door over shady links to regimes like Iraq in the past, few of those allegations are set in their proper historical context.
Up until 1990, and throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, world security was defined in a delicate superpower balancing act between the USA and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR. The communist-based Soviet Union was determined to export its political system to as many countries in the world as it could, by force if necessary, and both superpowers were ultimately behind a range of secret and not-so-secret wars in a battle for control of territory and strategic resources like oil. The Middle East – unstable and home to a large chunk of that oil, as well as the key Suez canal transport pathway – had long been a pawn in the superpower game, with groups on both sides willing to sell their allegiance to the highest bidder.
An aspect often forgotten in current times is that Soviet control of Middle East oilfields could have brought the West to its knees. By turning off the oil tap to the West, the USSR would have simultaneously reduced the West’s ability to go to war on the issue – without the oil to power the tanks, planes and ships, a US led battle force would have ground to a halt. Alternatively, all fuel in the West would have been diverted to the war effort leaving citizens without fuel for heating, transport or industry.
In other words, the stakes were extremely high.
What also makes a direct comparison between our current world and the Cold War period difficult is the bloodshed that could have resulted from a superpower clash: with the ability to nuke the entire planet dozens of times over, and mindful that it only took the assassination of a Grand Duke to begin World War I, strategists in both the US and USSR were loathe to directly intervene in “enemy” territory merely on human rights grounds.
It is only since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 that America and the West have been free to take humanitarian military action in previously unthinkable areas like Yugoslavia, a former communist satellite state.
So if that’s the historical matrix, where does the battle against Iraq have its roots?
The WMD (weapons of mass destruction) trail begins in 1975 when Saddam Hussein – at that stage still the Vice President of Iraq – joined forces with French Prime Minister (now President) Jacques Chirac in a deal to purchase French military equipment and armaments.
Hussein had, only weeks earlier, signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to purchase a nuclear reactor facility from the Russians, but the Soviet deal contained a catch: Russia was insisting on safeguards to ensure that fuel from the reactor could not be reprocessed to make nuclear weapons. Saddam was hoping he could get a better deal out of France.
Jacques Chirac sent an arms negotiation team to Iraq on March 12, 1975, who offered up to 72 of the then state-of-the-art Mirage jet fighters, as well as 40 German Dornier jets (West Germany, in 1975, was still under a United Nations ban on exporting weapons, imposed after WW II, and channelled their defence sales through France to undermine the UN sanction).
The French, for their part, were desperate to source cheap oil from Iraq in order to maintain their overall share of the world oil market. Saddam needed weapons and the ability to manufacture them under license in Iraq; France needed Iraqi oil. It was, noted commentators at the time, a marriage made in heaven.
In their desperation, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac also promised Saddam that France could build Iraq a nuclear reactor capable of breeding enough weapons-grade uranium to make three or four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs a year. For public consumption however, France treated the reactor project as a civilian-use nuclear power station – a facade that first began to crumble only a few days after the deal was signed when Saddam Hussein told the Lebanese newspaper, Al Usbu al-Arabi, “The agreement with France is the first concrete step toward the production of the Arab atomic weapon.”
As word leaked in the French media of Iraq’s intentions, some newspapers began satirising the name of the reactor, Osirak, as “O’Chirac”. To save Chirac’s political sensibilities, Iraq changed the name of the reactor project to Tammuz.
Saddam’s personal relationship with Chirac was close. During numerous official and private visits, Chirac developed a taste for masgouf carp, a type of fish native to Iraqi rivers. Saddam arranged for 1.5 tonnes of masgouf to be flown to Paris as a gift to Chirac. In the French press, Jacques Chirac’s nickname was “Mr Iraq”.
“Beyond Iraqi oil and the Mirage deal,” writes US journalist Kenneth Timmerman in The Death Lobby: How The West Armed Iraq, France signed up to build “petrochemical plants, desalination plants, gas liquefaction complexes, housing projects, telecommunications systems, broadcasting networks, fertiliser plants, defence electronics factories, car assembly plants, a subway system, and a navy yard, not to mention Exocet, Milan, HOT, Magic, Martel, and Armat missiles; Alouette III, Gazelle, and Super-Puma helicopters; AMX 30-GCT howitzers; Tiger-G radar, and a nuclear reactor capable of making the bomb. It was a multibillion dollar relationship.”
Under the nuclear contract, France not only agreed to build two reactors, Tammuz I and II, but also to train 600 Iraqi nuclear scientists at French universities. France had refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, saying it regarded its right to export nuclear material as an “issue of national sovereignty” and that it did not regard itself as bound by the Treaty.
But it wasn’t just nuclear technology that Iraq was sourcing from France. The Paris-based Institut Merieux was contracted to build Iraq’s first biological weapons research facility, although officially it was listed as “an agricultural bacteriological laboratory”. The purchase went through an Iraqi agency, the General Directorate of Veterinary Services.
A year later, in 1976, Saddam Hussein was pushing for chemical weapons manufacture as well. The French Prime Minister again helped out, opening doors for Iraq in the United States. Because of its reputation for supporting terrorism, Iraq was on the US banned list, but by going through France it was hoping to bypass US restrictions. The “personal friend” of M’sieur Chirac was introduced to a French engineering company with a subsidiary branch in the US. That branch called on a New York chemical equipment company, Pfaudler & Co, and told them Iraq needed to build a pesticide factory because “Iraqi farmers are unable to protect their crops from the ravages of desert locusts and other pests”.
This seemed like a reasonable request, and Pfaudler sent staff to Iraq to begin work on the project. The US company pulled out of the deal several months later when it became apparent that Iraq wanted to manufacture 1,200 tonnes of Amiton, Demeton, Paraoxon and Parathion – highly toxic organic compounds that can be converted into nerve gas.
Why would France support a regime like Iraq? Apart from the “oil for guns” advantages, Chirac saw Saddam Hussein as a similar victim of superpower politics – caught between two military giants when Iraq really wanted to steer an independent course. France, also, saw itself as “independent”, and had refused full membership of NATO out of a desire to maintain full control of its nuclear arsenal.
Ninety-three percent of Iraq’s weapons had been sourced from the Soviet Union up to this point, but the USSR was keeping Iraq on a tight leash. France, and other smaller arms manufacturers, offered no such fine print in their supply contracts – “you buy it, it’s yours” was the official line.
French media reports indicate there was some opposition within Chirac’s cabinet to the idea of giving Iraq nuclear weapons technology, but “when Andre Giraud, the head of the French nuclear energy committee, protested strongly, Chirac threatened to sack him if the deal was not completed according to the signed agreement. Indeed, the matter was considered to be of such importance that President Giscard d’Estaing took personal control of the affair in order to ensure it’s smooth passage.”
When the Soviets got wind of Iraq’s planned switch, they firstly threatened to call in Iraq’s debts and, when that didn’t work, threatened to withhold spares or maintenance for Iraq’s existing Soviet-made military equipment. French officials, confronted at diplomatic cocktail parties by still-fuming Russians, just grinned widely and said nothing.
Annoyed by the American company’s decision to pull out of the “pesticides factory” deal, Iraq approached two British firms in late 1976, ICI Chemicals and Babcock and Wilcox. According to the Washington Post newspaper, ICI refused to become involved because it too was “suspicious of the sensitive nature of the materials and the potential for misuse”. ICI tipped off British authorities, and it is widely accepted that the CIA was made aware of the Iraqi plans by early 1977. The CIA, however, was going through some painful Congressional investigations over its unauthorised international activities and reportedly wasn’t keen to conduct another Boy’s Own adventure in Baghdad.
Instead, Saddam Hussein tried his luck in East Germany. He dispatched scientist Dr Amer Hamoudi al-Saadi to Leipzig for discussions with Karl Heinz Lohs, the director of the Leipzig Institute for Poisonous Chemicals. According to Lohs in an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel years later, al-Saadi pulled no punches.
“You Germans have great expertise in the killing of Jews with gas. This interests us in the same way…How [can] this knowledge…be used to destroy Israel?”
Germany was the first country in the world to use chemical weapons – nerve gas – in World War I and despite a 1925 Geneva Protocol banning their manufacture Germany kept working on and perfecting chemical weapons, using organophosphates.
Belgian and Swiss companies had already been contracted to begin construction of a “phosphate” processing plant at Al Qaim in Iraq. According to foreign workers interviewed later, Iraqi officials made sure that staff on the ground were not given a birdseye view of the project. Thus, an ostensibly civilian agricultural plant was constructed with Western involvement, without a realisation that the factory was part of a larger chemical weapons project.
Saddam Hussein continued to play cat and mouse with the Soviet Union, at one stage assuaging their superpower neighbour by purchasing NZ$6 billion worth of fighter aircraft, but at the same time warning the USSR not to meddle in internal Iraqi politics. Saddam even went so far as to cut off water and electricity to the Soviet embassy during one spat.
Across the border in Iran, though, Soviet KGB agents had been working to destabilise the ruthless pro-American regime of the Shah. Although the Western world saw Islamic fundamentalist students and the Ayatollah Khomeini behind the coup in Iran in 1979, it was the USSR who’d laid the groundwork in an effort both to rid the region of American influence but also to gain access to Iranian oil.
Not only was Iran lurching into Soviet orbit, Saddam also feared the flow-on effects of Islamic fundamentalism if it spilled across the border into Iraq’s majority Shiite community.
Having constructed its “pesticides” factory, Iraq began purchasing raw ma-terials for it in July 1983. The first shipment, 500 tonnes of thiodiglycol – an ingredient of mustard gas – was sourced through a Dutch company, which went on to supply many hundreds of tonnes more. The Dutch company acted as a ‘front’, ordering the chemicals in from the US. That particular deception wasn’t discovered by US authorities until 1986, three years after the first chemical weapons had been used by Iraqi forces against Iran. But US intelligence agencies had acted swiftly after the first gas attacks in December 1983, and a report to the US Government in early 1984 recommended the immediate imposition of export controls on chemicals that could be used in weapons. Iraq and Iran were the first on the banned list, but the warring nations went through so many middlemen that eventually the banned list included the entire world, save for 18 Western nations.
“During the [Iran/Iraq] war,” writes Egyptian investigative journalist Adel Darwish in Unholy Babylon, “the United States, Britain and France tempered their strictures against Iraq and its production and use of chemical weapons because they were already preoccupied with confronting a more immediate threat – Ayatollah Khomeini and his fiery brand of Shia fundamentalism which was threatening to spread throughout the Islamic world.”
Former Reagan-era National Security adviser Geoffrey Kemp explained to Darwish:
“The Ayatollah was calling us the Great Satan and trying to undermine governments throughout the Gulf States”.
Iran, says Kemp, was seen at the time as a much greater threat to world peace than Iraq.
“It wasn’t that we wanted Iraq to win the war. We didn’t want Iraq to lose. We weren’t really that naive. We knew [Saddam] was an SOB, but he was our SOB.”
Contrary to popular conspiracy theory, however, most of Iraq’s military assistance was not coming from the United States at all. Instead, throughout the war with Iran and right up to the 1991 Gulf War, the bulk of ordinary weapons, and WMD material, was coming from Europe – specifically France and Germany.
In October 1990 West German company Josef Kuhn was outed for supplying Iraq with biological weapons, two mykotoxins whose effects included skin irritation, blisters, dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea and eventually death.
West German companies were also involved in building three chemical weapons plants codenamed Ieas, Meda and Ghasi, whose task was to produce a chemical agent that could penetrate gas masks and NBC (nuclear/bio/chem) protection suits. They were successful, by all reports. A quantity the size of a sugar cube is sufficient to kill 2,500 people.
Saddam Hussein’s quest to develop the first Arab nuclear bomb has come unstuck several times. While French nuclear en-gineers worked around the clock to bring the two nuclear reactors online, both Israel’s Mossad spy agency, and Russia’s KGB, had infiltrated the project. Both countries harboured extreme concerns about a nuclear-tipped Iraq. At the same time, the Iraqi facilities were being guarded by agents from the French security agency DST. Nonetheless, Mossad managed to slip past the French and obtain the data they needed.
There was another irony: despite the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, the Iranian secret service SAVAM continued to liase closely with Mossad over their common enemy, Iraq. SAVAM supplied Israel with aerial photos of the nuclear reactors, and Israel hatched a plan to bomb them.
On June 7, 1981, 16 Israeli F-15s and F16s launched a lightning raid, skimming just 10 metres above the ground virtually all the way from Israel to Iraq to avoid radar detection. Sixteen massive concrete-piercing bombs were dropped, and all hit their mark. The French nuclear reactors built for Iraq were rubble.
Undeterred, Iraq’s nuclear programme was resurrected with the aid of German advisers in 1987, and efforts were made to secretly procure the necessary components from companies around the world. Both the CIA and Britain’s MI6 were authorised to crack down on Iraq’s efforts, and more export bans were introduced.
The American bans were more successful than the British ones. Ministers in Britain’s Tory Government had shareholdings in companies who were trying to win Iraqi defence contracts under the table. The Opposition Labour party, now in Government under Tony Blair, attempted to expose as many of the secret deals as they got wind of.
Key nuclear components ended up coming from Germany, China, France and Pakistan. China, in particular, supplied seven tonnes of lithium hydride, a chemical essential to the nuclear weapons programme.
Western intelligence estimates in 1990, prior to the Gulf War, estimated that Iraq would have a functional nuclear weapon by 1997. One agency to disagree was America’s Defence Intelligence Agency, which warned Iraq was much further ahead than previously believed. In November 1990 the DIA warned that an atomic bomb in Baghdad may only be “two months” away. As events transpired, there is evidence the DIA was right.
In their book Brighter Than The Baghdad Sun: Saddam Hussein’s Nuclear Threat To The United States, Times of London jour-nalists Daniel McGrory and Shyam Bahtia interviewed defecting Iraqi nuclear scientists after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. They discovered Saddam Hussein almost had his nuclear bomb ready to drop on US troops, but the nuclear weapons plant and the weapon were destroyed – quite by accident – during the aerial blitz that began the war.
“Total fluke. Absolute fluke — so terrifying,” McGrory told “We came so close to seeing the doomsday bomb being created and that is what Saddam wanted. When Desert Shield began with Saddam already in Kuwait, we poured tens of thousand of troops and manpower into the Arabian desert, thinking, “Why is Saddam sitting there watching and waiting? Why doesn’t he do something?” Our fear was that, the day before the U.N. deadline, Saddam would — wily old fox that he is — pull back, and the allies would go wobbly and say, well, we don’t want to invade; there is no point now.
“The truth is, what he had done was to gather his scientists and say, “You work day and night and you deliver me the doomsday bomb. I will detonate it before the ground war, and that will show them.” He was betting that if he proved he had a nuclear device the allies would not have taken him on in war.
“Ironically, the Pentagon played a war game before the invasion began and the one question fed into the computer was: “What would we do if Saddam possessed a nuclear weapon?” The computer chewed on it for a while and spit back, “Nothing!”
McGrory also details the way some of the 18,000 nuclear scientists and workers were kept in line by Saddam Hussein. One key scientist, Hussein Shahristani, resisted Saddam.
“He went to prison; he was tortured; he was made to watch a 7-year-old boy hanged from his wrists and then executed for the sin of writing on the blackboard “Saddam is a buffalo.”
“Shahristani still refused to break. He spent eight and a half years in solitary. He was allowed one visit with his wife in the very early days and their newborn child. And he watched a Republican Guard snatch the child from his wife’s arms and hold a gun to the child’s head while he had a five-minute meeting with his wife. His captors asked, “Do you wish to persist with your refusal?” Begging his wife for forgiveness, he said, “Look, I can’t take part in this.”
Shahristani, who now works to help Iraqi refugees, told a British news conference in December last year:
“My most vivid memory is hearing the screams of very young children being tortured in the neighboring torturing rooms.
“However, I was more fortunate than many of my fellow political prisoners in the country. I did not have holes drilled into my bones, as happened in the next torture room. I did not have my limbs cut off by an electric saw. I did not have my eyes gauged out.
“Women of my family were not brought in and raped in front of me, as happened to many of my colleagues. Torturers did not dissolve my hands in acid. I was not among the hundreds of political prisoners who were taken from prison as guinea-pigs to be used for chemical and biological tests.
“They only tortured me for 22 days and nights continuously by hanging me from my hands tied at the back and using a high voltage probe on the sensitive parts of my body and beating me mercilessly. They were very careful not to leave any permanent bodily marks on me because they hope they can break my will and I will agree to go back and work on their military nuclear program.
“In a way I was lucky to spend 11 years in solitary confinement because I did not have to see what was going on in the larger prison – the country of Iraq – in which 20 million people were kept captives. I did not have to witness the ceremonies in which mothers were ordered to watch public executions of their sons and then asked to pay the price of the bullets that were used in the executions.
“I did not have to watch people’s tongues being pulled out and cut off because they dared to criticize Saddam or one of his family members. I did not see young men’s foreheads branded and their ears cut off because they were late for a few days to report to their military duties. I did not see the beautiful southern Iraqi Marshes drained and the reeds burnt and the Marsh Arabs massacred and their old ways of life destroyed. I did not see the beheading of more than 130 women, who were beheaded in public squares in Iraq, and their heads put out for public display.
“In many ways I was fortunate to have survived it all to tell the stories of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are not here to tell their stories. These atrocities have been going on for over two decades while the international community have either silently watched it, or at times even tried to cover it up.
“Saddam is not a run-of-the-mill dictator; he is exceptional. Weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s hands are dangerous to the Iraqi people and to mankind.”
As McGrory’s book notes, rape was also a tool of the regime.
“The man would arrest senior figures in the administration for no reason other than to get to their wives. In one case, a woman (she told us herself — she is now living in Scotland in absolute peril) was forced into a room where Saddam was staring at a file on his knee. He didn’t look up, just beckoned her over and she had to sit on his knee like some kind of recalcitrant child; she reports Saddam said, “Your husband has been a very naughty boy.” And, with that, he raped her in the room, watched over by several guards.
“When another woman came in, she was so appalled with what he was about to do to her that she scratched her own face with her fingernails and blood began to pour down her face. Saddam is a fanatically fastidious man who hates any kind of dirt and when the blood dripped onto his suit, he pushed her away. Disgusted with what she had done, he said to the guards, “Take her outside and you deal with her.” And four or five Republican Guards took her outside and raped her.”
McGrory, like Darwish and Timmer-man, confirms the strong links between Europe – particularly Germany – and Iraq’s WMD programme.
“They have some appalling people. There are a couple of German scientists who were taken over to Iraq who actually worked for Hitler. They were still alive, these old boys, and they felt their worth was not really recognized in Germany. They were tempted by the fast buck and went over to Iraq. One man used to play Hitler’s speeches in his room and said quite openly, “The only other leader I would work for other than Adolf is Saddam Hussein; they are two of a kind.” Well, they are.
“In fact, early on, Saddam used to carry around a copy of “Mein Kampf” like it was a Bible. His father had run off and left him, before he was born, and he was brought up by an uncle — a dreadful man — and this man taught Saddam from the time he could walk and talk that the Nazis were a great power. His uncle’s philosophy was that the Jews are lower than flies. And, when Saddam came to power, he allowed his uncle to publish his appalling rantings and insisted that everyone in Iraq should receive a copy of his thoughts.”
McGrory also told WorldNetDaily of the vast personal fortune compiled by Hussein while his citizens starved under UN sanctions.
“It is thought to be in the region of US$100 billion. This could be one of the richest countries in the world. It oozes oil; it has fantastic agriculture; it has everything going for it and he has just wastefully, wastefully frittered it away along with his sons and relatives. The indulgences are shocking. The truth is, they whine about sanctions, saying they are hurting people, but you go to Baghdad and you see the fastest and finest cars. Uday at one stage had 34 cars.”
But perhaps the last word on the threat that Saddam Hussein posed prior to US intervention should be left to Kenneth Joseph, one of a number of antiwar demonstrators who travelled to Iraq as would-be human shields.
Joseph’s group found the experience a real eye-opener, and his group managed to film 14 hours of uncensored video footage before they wereasked to leave Iraq with the rest of the human shields.
UPI news agency reported Joseph, a young American pastor with the Assyrian Church of the East, as saying the trip “had shocked me back to reality.”
Some of the Iraqis he interviewed on camera “told me they would commit suicide if American bombing didn’t start. They were willing to see their homes demolished to gain their freedom from Saddam’s bloody tyranny. They convinced me that Saddam was a monster the likes of which the world had not seen since Stalin and Hitler. He and his sons are sick sadists. Their tales of slow torture and killing made me ill, such as people put in a huge shredder for plastic products, feet first so they could hear their screams as bodies got chewed up from foot to head.”
Copyright 2003 onwards