Jonathan C. Randal
Under the cover of realpolitik, studied international indifference to the horrors of the long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s contributed to the belligerents’ sense of impunity by wittingly tolerating massive violations of humanitarian law, war crimes, and even probable genocide. A decade after the fighting stopped, that rankling legacy still poisons relations between Iran and Iraq and has set dangerous precedents for future conflicts.
Such great power accommodation with evil still is hard to stomach, if easily understandable. Enmity between the two Gulf regional powers existed long before Tehran’s Islamic firebrands’ threats to export their revolution prompted Iraq’s preemptive invasion and eventual international fears of Iranian victory. Strained relations between the neighbors stretch back at least to early Islam’s split between mainstream Sunni Baghdad and Shia dissidents in what today is called Iran.
In the decades preceding the war Washington outfitted the Shah of Iran with state-of-the-art weapons, military bases, and technicians and anointed him de facto gendarme of the Gulf. The Soviets, with smaller British and French inputs, similarly overarmed Iraq. Cold War rivalries dovetailed neatly with arms sales generating easy hard currency earnings to pay for oil. The Gulf then accounted for two-thirds of “free world” imports of crude.
Yet even for this bloodstained century, the conflict that lasted from September 1980 to July 1988 staked out new ground in horror, including the first widespread use of chemical weapons by a government against its own citizens and a meticulously documented campaign of genocide against Iraqi Kurds.
In this, the most lethal war of the past fifty years, as many as 750,000 Iranian soldiers and perhaps a third that number of Iraqi troops died on the battlefield. The fighting also provided staggering evidence illustrating systematic disregard for what passes for the rules of warfare—and not just by the belligerents.
For much of its duration, the conflict was construed in many foreign eyes as a curious throwback to World War I’s murderous trench warfare, complicated by ideological zeal indecipherable to those unversed in the Middle East’s ancient, bloody, and unforgiving history. Initially the West found the belligerents so equally menacing and unattractive that cynics, personified by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, delighted in both regimes’ progressive debilitation.
The “best” outcome was deemed the mutual exhaustion of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iranian Islamic Republic, which was bent on spreading revolution across the Muslim world, and of Saddam Hussein’s secular, imitation-Prussian regime in Iraq notorious for bullying its own citizens and the smaller Gulf Arab oil sheikhdoms. This patronizing attitude provided the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with ethically questionable justification for inaction despite binding obligations in the face of repeated and manifest violations of international treaties to which Iran and Iraq and, of course, they were signatories.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), neutral guarantor of acceptable warfare’s rules known as international humanitarian law, was reduced repeatedly to breaking its customary silence to express explicit exasperation with the belligerents’ misbehavior and implicit criticism of the great powers’ indulgent complicity with such violations.
This moral abdication in the century’s last classic international war soon was taken on board by players in the series of internecine conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, Bosnia, and elsewhere that ushered in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. That planetary struggle was well into its death throes even as Khomeini “drank the poisoned chalice” and in the summer of 1988 finally accepted the Security Council’s cease-fire terms that he had spurned the previous year.
But achieving that outcome required the great powers to abandon the initial splendid isolation of their “plague-on-both-your-houses” approach. Forcing the change were unmistakable signs of Iraqi collapse, which prompted them to provide just enough military aid to keep Iran at bay—and Saddam in the fight. Iraq’s brief initial success after invading Iran had quickly crumbled in the face of increasingly resolute Iranian resistance paid for in casualties unacceptable by any but a revolutionary regime.
Eventually backed by all the permanent Security Council members except China, a major international exercise in realpolitik was set in motion after Iran drove the Iraqis back across the international border in 1982 and spurned a multibillion-dollar reparation package in exchange for ending hostilities. That international community’s pro-Iraq tilt successfully denied Khomeini’s dream of an Islamic Republic in Iraq and of spreading his revolution further afield. Involved was crucial military aid, sometimes overt, more often clandestine, ranging from openly “loaned” French Super Etendard fighter-bombers to covert American jamming of Tehran’s radar and furnishing of spy-satellite photographs that pinpointed Iranian targets. Even so, Iraq barely outlasted Iran. Far from “behaving,” just two years after the war an unchastened Saddam invaded Kuwait.
Creating the stalemate to save Saddam from his own folly was not without terrible human cost. The war’s free-wheeling cycle of human rights violations multiplied with ever more deadly innovative twists and turns. These violations were regularly denounced by human rights organizations, but to no avail.
Over the years, one side or the other, sometimes both, violated the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols of 1977 prohibiting the targeting of civilians and civilian objectives, forbidding the use of children in combat, and protecting prisoners of war, as well as the 1925 Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons.
Countless waves of untrained Iranian boy-soldiers armed only with plastic keys purportedly guaranteeing entry to heaven blew themselves up by the tens of thousands clearing mine fields or died charging into artillery barrages worthy of Verdun or Stalingrad. Iraqi missiles crashed through the night to spread terror among Iranian city dwellers hundreds of miles from the front. Relentless Iraqi and Iranian shelling destroyed each other’s cities and towns near the international border.
Particularly troublesome for the ICRC was both sides’ penchant for interfering in its usually cut-and-dried procedures. Both Iran and Iraq frustrated the ICRC’s tracing of prisoners of war and the identification of the missing and dead, thus enormously complicating postwar efforts to sort out who had survived and delaying repatriation.
Iraq repeatedly complained its prisoners of war were “liquidated,” kept incommunicado, or, in the case of Shia soldiers, brainwashed and compelled to join the “Badr Brigade’s” special turncoat military units organized at Iranian instigation to fight one day for an Islamic Republic in their motherland. The ICRC had trouble with Iran in registering prisoners and persuading Tehran to allow prisoner interviews without witnesses.
Tehran protested that its prisoners in Iraq were prevented from praying together, which Baghdad justified on security grounds. Iraq prevented the ICRC from visiting some twenty thousand Iranians captured starting in 1987.
Even after the fighting ended in 1988, no significant prisoner repatriation took place for two more years despite the cease-fire’s provisions for their immediate return and persistent ICRC prodding. (In 1990 Saddam relented to improve relations with Iran as Iraq braced for the U.S.-led coalition to wrest back Kuwait.) When finally some forty thousand men from each side were sent home, the exchanges violated ICRC regulations against such one-for-one prisoner releases.
A decade after the war’s last shot was fired, all prisoners were still not back home. But in April 1998 Iran, in a fresh bid to improve relations with the Arab world and break out of two decades of isolation, repatriated some six thousand Iraqi prisoners of war. ICRC officials who visited prisoners of war in Iran reported many of the remaining twelve thousand official detainees looked twenty years older than their actual age. Many had long since joined the Badr Brigade and feared that going home would entail reprisal.
Underpinning Iranian refusal to observe ICRC obligations was not ignorance, as was initially true with Iraq, but the Islamic revolution’s rejection of any undertakings by the Shah and his Pahlavi dynasty, which Khomeini had overthrown eighteen months before Iraq started its preemptive war. The ICRC, its rules, regulations, and persistent officials with their claims of objective behavior were all suspect as Western and Christian and disregarded as nonbinding on a revolution burning with its own militantly self-righteous vision of universality.
No such ideological explanation easily springs to mind in trying to understand Saddam’s rationale for breaking the taboo against using chemical weapons, first against Iranian troops, then against his Kurdish fellow citizens. But his decision was in keeping with his long established penchant for the jugular in punishing anyone who dared cross him. (Gassing Kurds—or the reprisal killing of eight thousand civilian members of Kurdish guerrilla leader Massoud Barzani’s tribe in 1983—was all the same to Saddam.) He shrewdly gambled the outside world would tolerate almost anything to stop Khomeini.
After all, during the war Western companies wittingly sold Iraq “dual use” chemicals and equipment for purported “fertilizer” plants, which they knew full well could produce a variety of treaty-banned gases and nerve agents. These weapons still cause problems for UN inspectors now tasked with removing them from Saddam’s arsenal. It strains credulity to believe Western governments were not aware of the dangers of such chemicals before Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
But it was only then—with pressure on to demonize Saddam and with their own troops exposed to his chemical weapons—that Western governments overcame their amnesia and started denouncing Iraq’s use of these proscribed arms. To this day the UN is shielding the Western firms involved. Rolf Ekeus, the former chief UN arms inspector in Iraq, has confirmed privately that the Security Council cut a deal in 1993 with UN inspectors, Baghdad, and the International Atomic Energy Agency not to reveal the companies’ identities.
The desire to avoid responsibility is understandable given the damage those weapons caused. The most publicized example concerned the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabjah near the Iranian border. Furious that Kurdish guerrillas allied with Iranian revolutionary guards had captured the town, on March 15, 1988, Saddam had it attacked by waves of war planes.
They dropped mustard gas, a World War I favorite, as well as tabun and sarin, both nerve agents developed by the Nazis but never before deployed, and VX, which Iraq was testing for the first time. At least three thousand Kurdish civilians died.
For once the obscene effects of chemical weapons were graphically recorded. Iranian helicopters ferried in foreign correspondents, television teams, and photographers. Their reports, and especially images of corpses frozen in Pompeii-like poses in Halabjah streets, shocked the world.
Halabjah should not have come as the surprise it did. In November 1983 Tehran lodged the first of several complaints with the UN charging Baghdad with using chemical weapons to stop Iranian human-wave infantry attacks. Iraq refused a UN proposal to send experts to both belligerents for on-site investigations.
The 1984 UN report dealing solely with findings on Iranian soil agreed that Iraq had used mustard gas and tabun. But without film and photographic illustration it had little impact. The Security Council issued a wishy-washy resolution that refrained from naming Iraq. The council’s rotating chairman condemned the use of chemical weapons in a separate, little-noticed declaration issued in his own name. The council scarcely could have done less.
But even the outcry over Halabjah did not stop Iraq from again using chemical weapons against its Kurds (technically not even a violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on chemical weapons, whose virtually toothless provisions had not foreseen wartime use by signatory governments against their own citizens). Indeed Halabjah was not an isolated case. Iraqi documents among millions captured by the Kurds in 1991 establish that in 1987 and 1988 Saddam, in a campaign code-named Al Anfal, used chemical weapons at least sixty times against Kurdish villages.
Iraqi and Kurdish officials agree at least sixty thousand Kurds died in Al Anfal. Saddam continued gassing Kurds even after the 1988 cease-fire. His atrocities against the Kurds were “so grave,” noted a UN report, and “of such massive nature that since the Second World War few parallels can be found.”
So damning are the Al Anfal documents that human rights lawyers are convinced they constitute a strong case against Saddam for genocide, defined by the UN as the “intent to destroy in whole or in part national, ethnic, racial or religious groups, as such.” Human Rights Watch went to enormous effort and expense sifting through 4 million documents and publishing a book marshaling seemingly irrefutable evidence. “It’s ridiculous how much there is,” remarked a knowledgeable lawyer.
But only governments can bring genocide charges. So far no State—or coalition of States—has volunteered to do so, apparently for fear of retaliation or of compromising chances for lucrative contracts with Baghdad. The United States has blown hot and cold, convincing some human rights lawyers that Washington only evinces interest when it exhausts other arguments against Saddam.
Nothing so illustrates the impunity displayed by Saddam as the assessment of his cousin Ali Hassan Majid, who commanded the Al Anfal operations. In 1989 the man Kurds call Ali Chemical justified his repeated use of poison gas by boasting: “Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!”
So far the only positive result to emerge from the Iran-Iraq War’s massive violations of human rights law is the revised Chemical Weapons Convention signed in Paris in January 1993. It outlawed use of such weapons, their storage, development, manufacture, transfer, sale, or gift and ordered destruction of existing stocks.
However laudable, the convention came too late for those gassed to death or Halabjah’s abandoned and forgotten survivors. British geneticist Christine Gosden visited Halabjah ten years after the attack. Forensic evidence she gathered showed survivors suffering from horrifying genetic defects, skin lesions, respiratory ailments, unusually high rates of aggressive cancers and miscarriages, birth deformities such as cleft palates and harelips, lung disorders, and heart disease.