WASHINGTON - A covert U.S. program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.
These officers, most of whom agreed to speak on the condition that they not be named, spoke in response to a reporter's questions about the nature of gas warfare on both sides of the conflict between Iran and Iraq from 1981 to 1988. Iraq's use of gas in that conflict is repeatedly mentioned by President Bush and, last week, was noted by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, as justification for "regime change" in Iraq.
The covert program was carried out at a time when President Ronald Reagan's senior aides, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Gen. Colin L. Powell, then the national security adviser and now the secretary of state, all were publicly condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after Iraqi forces attacked Kurdish civilians in Halabja in March 1988.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It has long been known that the United States provided intelligence assistance to Iraq in the form of satellite photography to help the Iraqis understand how Iranian forces were deployed against them. But the full nature of the program, as described by former Defense Intelligence Agency officers, was not previously disclosed.
Powell, through a spokesman, said the officers' description of the program was "dead wrong" but declined to discuss it. His deputy, Richard L. Armitage, who was a senior defense official at the time, used an expletive relayed through a spokesman to indicate his denial that the United States acquiesced in the use of chemical weapons.
The DIA declined to comment, as did retired Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, who supervised the program as the head of the agency. Carlucci said, "My understanding is that what was provided" to Iraq "was general order of battle information, not operational intelligence."
"I certainly have no knowledge of U.S. participation in preparing battle and strike packages," he said, "and doubt strongly that that occurred."
Later, he added, "I did agree that Iraq should not lose the war, but I certainly had no foreknowledge of their use of chemical weapons."
Though senior officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents, the U.S. military officers said that Reagan, Vice President George Bush and senior national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly classified program in which more than 60 officers of the DIA were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments for the Iraqi general staff.
The Iraqis shared their battle plans with the Americans, without admitting the use of chemical weapons, the military officers said. But the Iraqi use of chemical weapons, already established at that point, became more evident in the final phase of the war.
Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in pressing the Reagan administration to offer assistance to Iraq out of concern that Iranian commanders were sending waves of young volunteers to overrun Iraqi forces. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, then and now, met with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and then told senior officials of the CIA and the DIA that the Iraqi military command was ready to accept U.S. assistance.
In early 1988, after the Iraqi army, with the aid of U.S. planning assistance, retook the Fao Peninsula in a lightning attack that reopened Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf, a defense intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, now retired, was sent to tour the battlefield with Iraqi officers, the U.S. military officers said.
He reported that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons to clinch their victory, one former DIA official said. Francona saw zones marked off for chemical contamination, and containers for the drug atropine scattered around, indicating that Iraqi soldiers had taken injections to protect them from the effects of nerve gas that might blow back over their positions. (Francona could not be reached for comment.)
CIA officials supported the program to assist Iraq, though they were not involved. Separately, the CIA provided Iraq with satellite photography of the war front.
Retired Col. Walter P. Lang, the senior defense intelligence officer at the time, said in an interview that he would not discuss classified information, but added that DIA and CIA officials "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose" to Iran.
"The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern," he said. What Reagan's top aides were concerned about, he said, was that the Iranians not break through to the Fao Peninsula and spread the Islamic revolution to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the south.
Lang asserted that the DIA "would have never accepted the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but the use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival." Senior Reagan administration officials did nothing to interfere with the continuation of the program, a former participant in the program said.
Iraq did turn its chemical weapons against the Kurdish population of northern Iraq, but the intelligence officers say they were not involved in planning any of the military operations in which these assaults occurred.
The Pentagon's battle damage assessments confirmed to the Americans that Iraqi military commanders had integrated chemical weapons throughout their arsenal and were adding them to strike plans that U.S. advisers either prepared or suggested. Iran claimed it suffered thousands of deaths from chemical weapons.
The U.S. intelligence officers never encouraged or condoned Iraq's use of chemical weapons, but neither did they oppose it because they considered Iraq to be struggling for its national survival, people involved at the time said in interviews this week.
Another former senior DIA official who was an expert on the Iraqi military said the Reagan administration's treatment of the issue - publicly condemning Iraq's use of gas while privately acquiescing in its employment on the battlefield - was an example of the "Realpolitik" of U.S. interests in the war.
"Having gone through the 440 days of the hostage crisis in Iran," he said, "the period when we were the Great Satan, if Iraq had gone down it would have had a catastrophic effect on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and the whole region might have gone down - that was the backdrop of the policy."