Rumsfeld backed Saddam even after chemical attacks

Fresh controversy about Donald Rumsfeld's personal dealings with Saddam Hussein was provoked yesterday by new documents that reveal he went to Iraq to show America's support for the regime despite its use of chemical weapons.

The formerly secret documents reveal the Defence Secretary travelled to Baghdad 20 years ago to assure Iraq that America's condemnation of its use of chemical weapons was made "strictly" in principle.

The criticism in no way changed Washington's wish to support Iraq in its war against Iran and "to improve bi-lateral relations ... at a pace of Iraq's choosing".

Earlier this year, Mr Rumsfeld and other members of the Bush administration regularly cited Saddam's willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people as evidence of the threat presented to the rest of the world.

Senior officials presented the attacks against the Kurds - particularly the notorious attack in Halabja in 1988 - as a justification for the invasion and the ousting of Saddam.

But the newly declassified documents reveal that 20 years ago America's position was different and that the administration of President Ronald Reagan was concerned about maintaining good relations with Iraq despite evidence of Saddam's "almost daily" use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels.

In March 1984, under international pressure, America condemned Iraq's use of such chemical weapons. But realising that Baghdad had been upset, Secretary of State George Schultz asked Mr Rumsfeld to travel to Iraq as a special envoy to meet Saddam's Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, and smooth matters over.

In a briefing memo to Mr Rumsfeld, Mr Shultz wrote that he had met Iraqi officials in Washington to stress that America's interests remained "in (1) preventing an Iranian victory and (2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq".

The memo adds: "This message bears reinforcing during your discussions."

Exactly what Mr Rumsfeld, who at the time did not hold government office, told Mr Aziz on 26 March 1984, remains unclear and minutes from the meeting remain classified. No one from Mr Rumsfeld's office was available to comment yesterday.

It was not Mr Rumsfeld's first visit to Iraq. Four months earlier, in December 1983, he had visited Saddam and was photographed shaking hands with the dictator. When news of this visit was revealed last year, Mr Rumsfeld claimed he had "cautioned" Saddam to stop using chemical weapons.

When documents about the meeting disclosed he had said no such thing, a spokesman for Mr Rumsfeld said he had raised the issue with Mr Aziz.

America's relationship with Iraq at a time when Saddam was using chemical weapons is well-documented but rarely reported.

During the war with Iran, America provided combat assistance to Iraq that included intelligence on Iranian deployments and bomb-damage assessments. In 1987-88 American warships destroyed Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf and broke the blockade of Iraqi shipping lanes.

Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, a non-profit group that obtained the documents, told The New York Times: "Saddam had chemical weapons in the 1980s and it didn't make any difference to US policy. The embrace of Saddam and what it emboldened him to do should caution us as Americans that we have to look closely at all our murky alliances."

Last night, Danny Muller, a spokesman for the anti-war group Voices in the Wilderness, said the documents revealed America's "blatant hypocrisy". He added: "This is not an isolated event. Continuing administrations have said 'we will do business'. I am surprised that Donald Rumsfeld does not resign right now."

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