Army gave chem-bio warfare training to Iraqis

The U.S. Army trained 19 Iraqi military officers in the United States in offensive and defensive chemical, biological and radiological warfare from 1957 to 1967, according to an official Army letter published in the late 1960s.

While the training was described as mostly defensive, it also included offensive instruction in such subjects as principles of using chemical, biological and radiological weapons, and calculating chemical munitions requirements, according to a Dec. 12, 1969, letter from then-Army Chief of Legislative Liaison Col. Raymond Reid to then-U.S. Representative Robert Kastenmeier, D-Wis. The letter was published later that month in the Congressional Record.

Iraqi and other foreign officers received the free instruction through the Pentagon's Military Assistance Program, according to the letter, at a time when the United States was seeking to counter Soviet power and influence around the world. Iran, then a close U.S. ally, and up to three dozen other countries, mostly Western countries, also received such instruction from the early 1950s through 1969, the letter said. The training was provided at the U.S. Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Ala., it said.

The instruction for Iraq was provided before U.S.-Iraqi diplomatic relations were severed at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and prior to Saddam Hussein taking power in Baghdad, first as vice president in 1968.

"It was obviously very thorough instruction we provided them," said Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, after seeing the letter recently.

The letter prompted criticism from Kastenmeier, a prominent critic of U.S. chemical warfare policy at the time.

"I am disturbed over some of the more specific implications of the facts provided me by the Army, and I question the overall utility of continuing to disseminate offensive expertise in these forms of warfare so widely," he said on the House floor later that month.

Offensive Training

A small percentage of the training provided Iraq was devoted to offensive instruction, according to Reid's letter. Iraqi officers took two types of courses.

One was called Chemical Officer Orientation, which provided general military education training such as map reading, weapons familiarization and also "unconventional warfare" including "principles of CBR [chemical, biological and radiological weapons] employment," "conducting CBR training," "calculation of chemical munitions requirements," intelligence organization and operations, and various CBR protective instruction. Other course elements included "defense against biological attack," "fundamentals of nuclear weapons effects," and "CBR protective devices and equipment." Seven percent of the instruction was offensive in nature, according to the letter.

The other course, called Chemical Officer Career Associate, included "all categories of training," with 4 percent of the course offering offensive instruction, the letter said.

Despite the small percentages, Reid's letter noted a difficulty in differentiating offensive and defensive instruction.

"As you will note from the course descriptions, the emphasis is on defensive aspects. However, it is not possible to separate offensive tactics from defense since some knowledge of the offense is necessary to prepare an adequate defense," he wrote.

"In addition, there can be no absolute guarantee that defensive tactics will not have some utility in framing offensive tactics," he wrote.

The instruction did not appear to teach participants how to manufacture such weapons, but rather, how to use them, manage them and defend against them.

"If they were trained by the U.S. military, it would be unlikely they got any training in development [or] production," said Terence Taylor, president of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. arms inspector in Iraq.

The Training in Context

The principal objective for such programs at the time, said Jeffrey Bale, an analyst at the Monterey Institute, was to counter Soviet and allied influence and capabilities.

"During the Cold War, the United States government provided all sorts of training to military personnel … and I think the primary motivation at the time was to train these people to make them more effective to potentially resisting any kinds of Soviet military operations or subversive activity," he said.

U.S. military officials at the time believed that the Soviet Union had an advanced chemical weapons program and had been supplying Middle Eastern countries with defensive equipment.

The U.S. assistance, Bale said, followed "a typical alliance pattern dating back to antiquity," of working with real or potentially unsavory regimes because it might offer help against a more serious threat.

Chemical and biological weapons at the time did not have the stigma for the military they have today, according to Harvard professor Matthew Meselson, co-director of the Harvard-Sussex Program on CBW Armament and Arms Limitation.

"We [the United States] were very open, we advertised it because we wanted public approval. We needed funding. It was advertised as being humane, less expensive. The argument was you would lose fewer American lives if you fought a war because you would knock the enemy out right away," he said.

A prominent 1968 book by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said the Army had sponsored a publicity campaign arguing biological and chemical weapons were a humane and effective deterrent.

"The Hiroshima argument I understand. Why would one ever train anyone else in offensive CW, BW use? That is bizarre," said Tim Trevan, a former spokesman for the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq.

"It is not a humane way of killing people … I can't imagine a humane way of dying with chemical weapons" or from "using biological weapons under any circumstance," he said.

All training was first approved, Reid's letter said, by the U.S. ambassador and the chief military representative in the requesting country, as well as by the senior military commander responsible for the geographic region in which the country was located, the Army, and the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in coordination with the State Department.

Approval from the latter, Reid wrote, was intended to ensure that "training is conducted within the overall foreign policy objectives of the United States."

More Iraqi officers were among those receiving the training than any other Middle Eastern nationality during that period. Of 36 Middle Eastern officers who attended the training, 19 were from Iraq. One Israeli received instruction during the period, according to the letter.

The 36 participating countries requested the training and were not solicited by the United States, according to Reid's letter.

Lessons Not Learned Well

Iraq's use of chemical weapons suggests it probably applied its U.S. instruction poorly if at all, experts said.

"The tactics they developed during the Iran-Iraq war [were] something that didn't exist during the first few years of the war," Zilinskas said.

In the early years, they used chemical weapons "indiscriminately," he said.

"After about four years, they started to use them more reliably. It seemed to me they developed that pretty much as they went along," he said.

"They seemed to be on a pretty steep learning curve on the tactical use of chemical weapons," said Jonathan Tucker, a visiting senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

"They used some on their troops by mistake. It doesn't appear that they learned very much from the training they'd received," he said.

Tucker noted, for instance, an Iraqi mistake in which forces fired mustard gas onto an Iranian position on a hill, "and as the gas was heavier than air, it floated down into the trenches where the Iraqi forces were based."

Iraqi forces eventually used multiple chemical agents, including mustard, tabun and sarin, to cause more than 20,000 Iranian casualties during the war and used mustard and other agents in 1988 to kill an estimated 5,000 Iraqi Kurds at Halabja, according to a British government report published last year.

Chemical and Biological Warfare Cancelled

Kastenmeier, in his comments in 1969, expressed concern that the Army's acknowledgement of the offensive components of the programs would "seem to weaken existing deterrents against the use of CBW [chemical and biological weapons]" and undermine new policies enunciated by then-President Richard Nixon restricting chemical and biological weapons use by U.S. forces.

There was underway at that time a major U.S. policy shift against using chemical and biological weapons in combat that would eventually lead to the United States signing the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972.

Only a few weeks before Reid sent his letter, Nixon issued a statement on Nov. 25 saying the United States opposed first use of lethal chemical weapons and incapacitating chemicals and announcing that he would ask the Senate's approval to ratify the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting the first use of chemical and biological weapons. Nixon also then signed the Biological Weapons Convention and vowed to renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare, and confine biological research to defensive measures.

"Mankind already carries in its own hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction. By the examples we set today, we hope to contribute to an atmosphere of peace and understanding between nations and among men," Nixon said in a much-quoted passage from the statement.

It is not clear when Army training of foreign nationals in offensive chemical, biological and radiological warfare was discontinued. A spokesman for the Pentagon's military assistance agency said the agency had no records on hand dating back to the time of the program.

The Army Chemical School, where the training was provided in the 1960s, continues today, providing U.S. soldiers and a detachment of foreign nationals defensive training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec