MIAMI—Twenty years after then private citizen Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein to see if he might become an American ally, the United States has closed the book on one of its most mercurial relationships.
During the three decades of Saddam's rule, U.S.-Iraq dealings ranged from full-fledged support, when Iraq was waging war against Iran, to hostility and war, and finally to mortal enmity, with Saddam allegedly plotting the assassination of former President George Bush and with Bush's son, George W., making it no secret that he wanted Saddam dead.
It wasn't so much a love-hate relationship as a bungled relationship of convenience that soured, with each side repeatedly misjudging the other's capabilities and intent.
U.S.-Iraq contacts, which were minimal in the 1960s and 1970s, improved after Saddam's 1979 ascension to the presidency, largely for one reason: Saddam's 1980 invasion of Iran, which was then holding 52 American hostages taken from the U.S. Embassy.
"On the animosity scale," former CIA Deputy Director Bobby Inman recalled earlier this year, "Iran trumped Iraq."
Seeking to counter Iranian religious extremism, blamed for the hostage taking in Iran and 1983 bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed hundreds of U.S. Marines, diplomats and intelligence officers, President Ronald Reagan sent Rumsfeld to Baghdad in December 1983 to talk with Saddam.
After Rumsfeld's trip, the United States dropped Iraq from its list of terrorist nations and resumed formal diplomatic relations in 1984.
"The United States made a very deliberate, cold-blooded choice," said Gary Sick, a former Middle East expert on the National Security Council during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
At the time, this "tilt toward Iraq" seemed necessary, said Richard W. Murphy, who was in charge of Middle East policy during much of the Reagan era.
"Iraq was never considered lovable or a close friend of Washington at any time," Murphy said in an interview earlier this year. "It remained a very thin relationship. We didn't supply arms."
But the United States did supply helicopters, satellite photos for war intelligence to use against Iran, sophisticated computers, components that could be used in missiles and poisonous chemicals that could be used for pesticides or as ingredients in chemical weapons.
And in 1988, when reports reached Washington that Saddam had put down uprisings by Kurds by killing thousands with poisoned gas, the United States chose not to distance itself from Saddam.
"This was pretty scandalous," said Charles Tripp, the British author of "A History of Iraq." In an interview earlier this year, he said American and British officials "looked very tolerantly on Iraq's use of chemical weapons on Iran, and by extension on the Kurds as well."
Even after a cease-fire ended hostilities with Iran later that year, some American diplomats hoped that Saddam could be a reliable ally. In 1989, President George Bush signed a directive to give aid to Iraq, with incentives if Saddam began to act more democratically at home and stop threatening his neighbors.
But within a year, Saddam was building new weapons and making new threats, this time focusing on territorial disputes with Kuwait.
Whether the United States unwittingly encouraged Saddam is still debated. Some Democratic critics think that April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, all but gave Saddam the go-ahead to invade Kuwait when she told him the United States had "no opinion" about Arab territorial disputes. The next week, Iraq entered Kuwait.
But Sick and other experts think Saddam already had planned the invasion and would have moved regardless of what Glaspie said. They note that the ambassador was simply reflecting U.S. policy at the time, because Washington assumed that Iraq would take only the border area and that action would lead to talks. Instead, Saddam took the entire country. In 1991, U.S. troops went to war and forced Saddam out of Kuwait.
For the next decade, the United States kept strict limits on Saddam through "no-fly zones" and an embargo on Iraqi oil, and tried unsuccessfully to enforce strict economic sanctions.
With the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, the new administration continued to regard Saddam as a dangerous dictator, but acted to loosen those limits, in part to elicit European cooperation in a more workable sanctions regime.
In February 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked that United Nations economic sanctions on Iraq be loosened on civilian goods, in part to placate other Arab countries, which had been increasingly resentful of American power in the Persian Gulf region.
Policy shifted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Officials in the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office expressed fear that Saddam might arm Osama bin Laden or other terrorists with chemical or biological weapons for another attack against the United States.
These hawks prevailed, despite skepticism in the intelligence community, the State Department and the uniformed military. Bush dubbed Iraq part of an "axis of evil" along with its archenemy Iran and North Korea in his State of the Union speech in 2002.
After that, the president escalated the tough talk, warning of an "outlaw regime" that was very likely to have chemical weapons, anthrax, botulinum toxin and perhaps nuclear devices. Even as United Nations weapons inspectors searched for banned weapons, U.S. officials made it clear that they would be satisfied with nothing less than "regime change."
Bush wanted Saddam "dead or alive."
Eradicating the Iraqi dictatorship, some of the president's advisers argued, not only would eliminate an imminent threat to Iraq's neighbors and to the United States, it also would trigger a wave of democratic reform in the Arab world similar to the one that remade Central Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed. That, in turn, they argued, would give a powerful boost to the war on terrorism and the administration's hopes for negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Eradicating Saddam wasn't easy. On March 20, the United States started the war by launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles and 2,000-pound bombs at Baghdad locations where Saddam and other Iraqi leaders were thought to be hiding.
Throughout the war, there were repeated reports that Saddam had been killed with "bunker buster" bombs, but his body was never found, and Iraqi rumors had him appearing in many different places until the deposed dictator assumed an Elvis-like mythology.
Then, the end came, and the most vaunted card in the U.S. military's 55-piece most-wanted deck—the ace of spades—could be removed.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.