How Washington and London helped to create the monster they went to war to destroy

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The Independent US

When they hanged him, he was America's vanquished foe, likened to Hitler and Stalin for the murderous evil of his ways. What is forgotten is that once, for more than a decade, Saddam Hussein was staunchly supported by the US.

Indeed, it was Washington that supplied him with many of the weapons of mass destruction the dictator used against his foes - weapons that one day would serve as a pretext for the US-led invasion that toppled him.

The dealings between the US and Saddam's Iraq over the quarter of a century before 2003 are a story of deceit, miscalculation and strategic blunders by both sides. And they began, as they would end, in the shadow of a common enemy: Iran.

Saddam seized complete power in 1978. Two years later he attacked Iran, in what he called an "Arab war against the Persians", to overthrow the Islamic revolutionary regime.

Washington was under no illusions about the brutality of Saddam's regime. But as Tehran gained the upper hand in the fighting, he came to be seen as the lesser of two evils - a vital bulwark against domination by a radical, anti-Western Iran of the strategically vital Gulf region, with its colossal oil reserves.

Quietly, the US delivered the technology, weapons and logistical support to prevent Iraq's defeat. Its policy was symbolised by the cordial meeting in Baghdad in December 1983 between Saddam and a certain Donald Rumsfeld, then President Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East. Two decades later, as Secretary of Defence, he would plan the invasion that toppled Saddam.

American assistance often took the form of dual-use technology that had legitimate civilian uses, but which Washington was well aware could (and would) be used on the battlefield. US intelligence also provided Iraqi commanders with crucial information on Iranian troop movements.

American backing grew ever more explicit. In 1982, the administration ignored objections in Congress and removed Iraq from its list of countries supporting terrorism. By November 1983, the National Security Council had issued a directive that the US should do "whatever was necessary and legal" to prevent an Iranian victory. Washington did nothing to deter Saddam's use of chemical weapons.

As the 1980s progressed, a clandestine network of companies developed in the US and other countries to help the Iraqi war effort. The conflict between Iraq and Iran ended in 1988, but Saddam continued his Western-supported military build-up until the very moment he invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

It would be the turning point. Until then, the US had dealt with Saddam in the context of keeping Iran at bay. Thereafter, however, the Iraqi dictator was the enemy in his own right. The irony, of course, was that America's previous support encouraged him to think he could get away with annexing Kuwait.

Indeed, just a week earlier, on 25 July 1990, the American ambassador, April Glaspie, had met Saddam. According to a transcript of the meeting, she informed him that Washington had no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, "like your border disagreement with Kuwait".

The US-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in a 100-hour ground war, but the first President Bush decided not to press on to Baghdad, creating the stalemate that in one form or another continued until 2003. In the meantime, however, the truth gradually emerged about how the US (and Britain) helped to create the monster they had now half-slain.

Events thereafter make familiar reading: Saddam's moves against the Kurds and the Shias, as the first President Bush encouraged them to rise up but did nothing to support them; a dozen years of sanctions that brought misery on ordinary Iraqis but not to the regime; and Operation Desert Fox in 1998, as the US and Britain launched their heaviest air attacks until the 2003 war itself.

All the while, Saddam remained in power. Almost from the moment he came to office, the second President Bush had his eye on finishing his father's business.After a three-week ground war he was duly overthrown. But in doing so, the US has achieved exactly what it sought to prevent when it backed him in the 1980s.

It is a matter of debate whether Iraqis are now worse off than under Saddam's dictatorship. The chaos in their country, however, has produced one undisputed winner: an unchecked Iran, more menacing today than in Ayatollah Khomeini's time.