U.S.-Iraq Relations, Part 1: Lesser Evil

Saddam Hussein's bid to avoid a war with the United States — his decision to allow the "unconditional" return of U.N. weapons inspectors — is only the latest wrinkle in a tortured relationship that has confounded five American presidents.

Indeed, even as President Bush castigates Saddam's regime as "a grave and gathering danger," it's important to remember that the United States helped arm Iraq with the very weapons that administration officials are now citing as justification for Saddam's forcible removal from power.

The tortured relationship between the United States and Iraq has its roots in the Iranian revolution 23 years ago. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism struck fear in the hearts of Washington policymakers, according to Kenneth Pollack, a former Iraq analyst for the CIA and the National Security Council.

"There was real concern in Washington that this Islamic revolution in Iran would catch fire, and would scorch the rest of the region," Pollack said, "that the Iranians would go on a march and roll through Baghdad and into Riyadh and into the Saudi oil fields and effectively be able to corner the world's oil market."

Then, as now, oil was a driving force behind American policy on Iraq, which contains the world's second largest reserves (after Saudi Arabia) and sits at a critical position at the head of the Persian Gulf, bordering many of the other most important oil-producing countries in the world.

Taking Sides with a 'Lesser Evil'

From the beginning, an American fear of disrupting that oil supply weighed heavily on a succession of U.S. presidents. In 1980, after Iraq attacked Iran, and began a war that would eventually cost one million lives, the Reagan administration made a critical calculation. In public, the United States would be officially "neutral" on the Iran-Iraq war. But secretly, the United States would tilt in favor of Iraq.

"Iraq was probably seen as the lesser of two evils," according to Iraq historian Phebe Marr. "Iraq was seen as something of a bulwark against Iran, not only in terms of Iran and Iraq, but the rest of the Gulf as well."

Even then, it was clear Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction. Yet in 1981, when Israel's U.S.-made warplanes bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak to prevent Saddam from building an atomic bomb, the United States condemned Israel for the attack.

Anthrax and Supercomputers

By 1984, the U.S. tilt toward Iraq was becoming more apparent. Formal diplomatic relations were restored that year and Iraq was removed from the State Department's list of nations that support terrorism. But even more remarkable was what the United States was doing, in secret, to help Iraq win its war against Iran. "We provided a great deal of intelligence to Iraq," according to Pollack, "intelligence which was critical to helping them win certain battles against the Iranians."

In addition, the United States eased up on its own technology export restrictions to Iraq, which allowed the Iraqis to import supercomputers, machine tools, and even strains of anthrax. Weapons control experts say Saddam's regime could have used the anthrax to make biological weapons. "It was part of our overall policy of supplying him with a lot of very alarming things which allowed him to build up his weapons of mass destruction capability," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

Soon after the United States began supplying Saddam's Iraq with critical intelligence, the American military launched an active — and secret — campaign against Iran. U.S. helicopters attacked Iranian gunboats from a secret platform in the Gulf. And on April 18, 1988, the U.S. military destroyed much of the Iranian navy just as Iraq launched a major offensive. Iraq was on its way to victory. America's tilt toward Saddam had kept him in power.

In 1988, the same year the Iran-Iraq war ended, a new U.S. president was elected. George Herbert Walker Bush came into office determined to pursue a policy of engagement with Saddam. In fact, his first year in office, President Bush signed a secret executive order, National Security Directive Number 26. It called for even closer ties between the United States and Iraq.

Part 2: War | Part 3: Containment