ASHINGTON, Aug. 17 � A covert American program during
the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle
planning assistance at a time when American 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
Those officers, most of whom agreed to speak on the
condition that they not be identified, 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 cited by
President Bush and, this week, 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
Reagan's top aides, including Secretary of State George P.
Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Gen. Colin L.
Powell, then the national security adviser, were publicly
condemning Iraq for its use of poison gas, especially after
Iraq attacked Kurds 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
Secretary of State Powell, through a spokesman, said the
officers' description of the program was "dead wrong," but
declined to discuss it. His deputy, Richard L. Armitage, 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 Defense Intelligence Agency declined to comment, as did
Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, retired, who supervised the program
as the head of the agency. Mr. Carlucci said, "My
understanding is that what was provided" to Iraq "was general
order of battle information, not operational
"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
Though senior officials of the Reagan administration
publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX
and other poisonous agents, the American military officers
said President 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 Defense Intelligence Agency were secretly providing
detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning
for battles, plans for airstrikes and bomb-damage assessments
Iraq shared its battle plans with the Americans, without
admitting the use of chemical weapons, the military officers
said. But Iraq's use of chemical weapons, already established
at that point, became more evident in the war's final phase.
Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in pressing the Reagan
administration to offer aid 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 officials of
the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence
Agency that Iraq's military command was ready to accept
In early 1988, after the Iraqi Army, with American planning
assistance, retook the Fao Peninsula in an 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 American
military officers said.
He reported that Iraq had used chemical weapons to cinch
its victory, one former D.I.A. official said. Colonel 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 themselves
from the effects of gas that might blow back over their
positions. (Colonel Francona could not be reached for
C.I.A. officials supported the program to assist Iraq,
though they were not involved. Separately, the C.I.A. provided
Iraq with satellite photography of the war front.
Col. Walter P. Lang, retired, the senior defense
intelligence officer at the time, said he would not discuss
classified information, but added that both D.I.A. and C.I.A.
officials "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose"
"The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a
matter of deep strategic concern," he said. What Mr. Reagan's
aides were concerned about, he said, was that Iran not break
through to the Fao Peninsula and spread the Islamic revolution
to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Colonel Lang asserted that the Defense Intelligence Agency
"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
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 those assaults occurred. They said the
reason was that there were no major Iranian troop
concentrations in the north and the major battles where Iraq's
military command wanted assistance were on the southern war
The Pentagon's battle damage assessments confirmed that
Iraqi military commanders had integrated chemical weapons
throughout their arsenal and were adding them to strike plans
that American advisers either prepared or suggested. Iran
claimed that it suffered thousands of deaths from chemical
The American 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 survival, people involved at the time said in
Another former senior D.I.A. 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 American interests in
The effort on behalf of Iraq "was heavily compartmented," a
former D.I.A. official said, using the military jargon for
restricting secrets to those who need to know them.
"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."
One officer said, "They had gotten better and better" and
after a while chemical weapons "were integrated into their
fire plan for any large operation, and it became more and more
A number of D.I.A. officers who took part in aiding Iraq
more than a decade ago when its military was actively using
chemical weapons, now say they believe that the United States
should overthrow Mr. Hussein at some point. But at the time,
they say, they all believed that their covert assistance to
Mr. Hussein's military in the mid-1980's was a crucial factor
in Iraq's victory in the war and the containment of a far more
dangerous threat from Iran.
The Pentagon "wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas,"
said one veteran of the program. "It was just another way of
killing people � whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't
make any difference," he said.
Former Secretary of State Shultz and Vice President Bush
tried to stanch the flow of chemical precursors to Iraq and
spoke out against Iraq's use of chemical arms, but Mr. Shultz,
in his memoir, also alluded to the struggle in the
"I was stunned to read an intelligence analysis being
circulated within the administration that `we have demolished
a budding relationship (with Iraq) by taking a tough position
in opposition to chemical weapons,' " he wrote.
Mr. Shultz also wrote that he quarreled with William J.
Casey, then the director of central intelligence, over whether
the United States should press for a new chemical weapons ban
at the Geneva Disarmament Conference. Mr. Shultz declined