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U.S. relations with Iraq have been checkered

Iraq hasn't always been part of an axis of evil in American eyes.

Washington has cozied up to Iraq over the years, in part because of the country's massive oil deposits, in part because the United States and Iraq have shared enemies.

Indeed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is denouncing Saddam Hussein in daily news briefings, played a crucial role in establishing U.S. relations with Iraq when, as a private citizen, he met with the Iraqi dictator in 1983 at the behest of President Ronald Reagan.

The United States' love-hate relationship with Iraq over the years is one reason that debate over American motives for war has been so pointed, with critics accusing the Bush administration of wanting to control the oil in a country whose dictatorial government they had at least in part helped to strengthen.

"The United States made a very deliberate, very cold-blooded choice," Gary Sick, a former Middle East expert on the National Security Council of President Jimmy Carter and now a Columbia University professor, says of the Reagan administration's decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1984. "A lot of people were really quite surprised the United States removed Iraq from the terrorist list. That was a little hard to justify."

There is no doubt that U.S. relations with Iraq have been checkered.

Oil was America's first interest in Iraq, which possesses the second largest known oil reserves on the planet.

Before World War I, long before the first gusher came in, the Turkish Petroleum Co., a joint British-German venture, controlled the rights in the region. After losing the war, the Germans were ousted from the partnership and France got a cut in return for giving up claims to northern Iraq.

Americans, too, wanted a slice, as a reward for fighting in Europe. Washington warned then that if denied, the United States would work to get the oil concession canceled as an illegal prewar deal. The British gave in, and U.S. firms ended up with 20 percent of the company, a sum that became huge after the first well gushed in 1927.

The United States paid little attention beyond oil, however, for the next four decades. Iraq was a British preserve, and America left it to the British to control, says Richard W. Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state specializing in the Arab world.

In 1967, Iraq broke off relations with the United States when it joined other Arab nations in the Six-Day War against Israel. In 1972, the oil industry was nationalized. During the next 15 years, the Iraqis grew close to the Soviet Union.

Relations remained cool. America believed Iraq was supporting Palestinian terrorist groups and was trying to develop nuclear weapons. The United States welcomed a 1981 Israeli air raid that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility.

But American thinking started to shift after Iraq went to war with Iran.

Iran not only had held dozens of U.S. embassy hostages for 444 days, but intelligence indicated that it had supported the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in its 1983 terrorist attacks in Lebanon, which killed hundreds of U.S. embassy staffers and Marines.

"On the animosity scale," says former CIA deputy director Bobby Inman, "Iran trumped Iraq."

So on Dec. 20, 1983, Rumsfeld met Saddam, and their conversation opened the door to full diplomatic relations in 1984.

Murphy, who was in charge of the State Department's Middle East group at the time, calls "the tilt toward Iraq" necessary. But he says "Iraq was never considered lovable or a close friend of Washington at any time. It remained a very thin relationship. We didn't supply arms."

The United States, however, did supply helicopters, "battlefield intelligence" in the form of satellite photos and "dual-purpose technologies," which have both commercial and military applications. These included sophisticated computers, components that could be used in missiles, and poisonous chemicals that could be either agricultural pesticides or the ingredients for chemical weapons.

American scientists also passed to their Iraqi counterparts samples of the plague, botulism and anthrax for medical research. At the time, the researchers had no suspicions that such samples could be used for sinister purposes.

There have been reports that the Reagan administration allowed, perhaps even facilitated, other countries selling arms to Iraq, including cluster bombs.

Washington maintained relations with Iraq even after Saddam quelled a Kurdish uprising by spreading poisonous gas over many Kurdish villages in 1988, killing thousands of people.

"This was pretty scandalous," says Charles Tripp, a British historian and author of "A History of Iraq." American and British officials "looked very tolerantly on Iraq's use of chemical weapons on Iran, and by extension on the Kurds as well. The United States was even trying to blame Iran" for the gassing.

"It was shameful," said Sick, the former National Security Council Mideast expert. "Here they were gassing their own civilians, and the United States looked the other way."

Murphy, the Reagan official who retired after the first President Bush arrived, says the new administration "stayed with the policy maybe six months too long. By the end of 1989, we were getting signs from other Arab states that Iraq was considered dangerous."

Still, Washington continued to hope that Saddam would become more moderate. In the summer of 1990, when the dictator met with U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie, Glaspie told him the United States had "no opinion" about Arab border disputes. A week later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States withdrew its diplomats from Baghdad in January 1991.

"April was in fact reflecting U.S. policy," says Sick. "Did that cause Saddam Hussein to go to war? Absolutely not. Saddam had already made up his mind and was ready to go."

Sick says Washington assumed that "if Saddam did move, he'd just take the border area and then there'd be a long, drawn-out discussion." Instead, Hussein overran the entire country and sparked the Persian Gulf War.

Later, when Congress launched an investigation, Glaspie's statement came under intense scrutiny. Jim Baker, then secretary of state, didn't come to her defense. "He just left her hung out to dry," says Sick. "She took the fall for the administration."

A major reason that the United States went to war was the oil, says Murphy. "Saddam was in Kuwait, with all its oil fields, and he was right next to Saudi Arabia," with the largest known oil reserves in the world. "He was threatening to upend the stability of the entire oil market."

American troops crushed Saddam's forces, but didn't go on to Baghdad to dump him. One major reason was that the surrounding Arab countries, as well as many American experts, feared that an Iraq without Saddam would disintegrate, with Kurds seizing the north and Shiite Muslims the south, creating a chaos that would spread throughout the oil-rich gulf.

"The big fear is that without Hussein, there's disintegration, and no one wanted that," says R.K. Ramazani, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia.

And it is clear that even though American leaders this time seem determined to oust Saddam, the same concerns of disintegration are there.

That's one reason that the U.S. military has set protecting the Iraqi oil fields among its first missions, not just to keep them safe from Saddam's forces, which set Kuwait's oil fields on fire as American troops attacked in 1991, but also from any effort by Iraq's many internal rivals to take them for themselves.

And oil is a topic uppermost in the minds of those planning postwar Iraq. A recent "postconflict look" at Iraq by the influential Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy devoted half its commentary to oil and how much would be needed to rebuild the petroleum industry's infrastructure.

The council's report suggests that U.S. oil companies could play an important role by rebuilding the infrastructure in return for part of Iraq's oil profits.

"Of course, the American oil companies will have priority," says Abbas Alnasrawi, an Iraqi-born professor emeritus of economics at the University of Vermont, "because they are the companies of the occupying power. Is that fair? No, it is not. But what choices do the Iraqis have?"


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.