1958-1991, Iraq: A Classic Case of Divide and Conquer

By Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General.


Iraq has been a target of U.S. covert actions since at least 1958, when a popular revolution led by Abdel Kassem overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, which was installed by Britain in 1921.  In 1960, the new government helped found the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, to resist Western oil monopolies.1

      The CIA plotted Kassem's assassination and U.S. generals in Turkey devised a military plan, called "Canonbone," to invade northern Iraq and seize its oil fields.2  In 1963, Kassem and thousands of supporters were massacred in a CIA-backed coup.

      In 1968, the Baathist Party came to power.  In 1972, it nationalized the U.S./U.K.-owned Iraqi Petroleum Company under the slogan "Arab oil for the Arabs."  After a meeting with President Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and the shah of Iran, the CIA urged Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq to rebel against the Iraqi government.  The U.S. promised to back them all the way.  The House Select Committee on Intelligence Pike Report described it as a "cynical enterprise, even in the context of clandestine operations."3  The Shah funnelled U.S.-supplied arms to the Kurds.4  The Pike Report stated that neither the Shah "nor the President and Kissinger desired victory for [the Kurds].  They hoped the insurgents would [maintain] a level of hostilities to sap the resources of  [Iraq]."5

      In 1975, Iraq agreed to share the Shatt-al-Arab waterway with Iran.  Support for the Kurds was terminated.  The fate of Kurds left behind did not concern the U.S.  As Kissinger said "Covert operations should not be confused with missionary work."6

      In 1979, the Iranian people to overthrew the shah's despotic regime. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski then publicly encouraged Iraq to attack Iran and take back the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.7

      In 1980, the U.S. provided Iraq with intelligence reports that Iran would quickly collapse in the face of an Iraqi advance.  At the urging of U.S.-backed Arab rulers in Kuwait, Egypt and elsewhere, Saddam Hussein unleashed a war with Iran in which hundreds of thousands died.8

      The attack served U.S. interests by weakening Iran, where U.S. embassy personnel were still kept hostage.  The U.S. did not want either side to win.  "We wanted to avoid victory by both sides," a Reagan official told the New York Times.9  Kissinger was more blunt: "I hope they kill each other" and "too bad they both can't lose."10

      Iraq could not have sustained the eight year war without massive assistance, direct and indirect, from the U.S.S.R., Eastern bloc countries, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, the U.S., U.K., France, and West Germany.  The Pentagon and CIA provided Iraq with satellite and AWACS intelligence on Iranian forces.11  The U.S. sent CIA and Special Forces to train Iraqi commandos and the U.S. helped funnel billions of dollars worth of arms to Iraq.12

      Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. military aid, sent troops, tanks and heavy artillery to Iraq.13  In 1980, the military dictatorship in Turkey - a major recipient of U.S. military aid - sent troops to fight rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan, freeing Iraq's army to concentrate on fighting Iran. 

      The U.S.-supported regimes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia also supported Iraq's war effort.  Kuwait's contributed over $30 billion.  The U.S. sold over $20 billion worth of arms to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states during this period and allowed Saudi Arabia to transfer large quantities of U.S. arms to Iraq during the war. 

      In 1984, the U.S. became Iraq's principal trading partner by increasing its purchases of Iraqi oil while encouraging Europe and Japan to do likewise.14  The Reagan administration increased intelligence-sharing with Iraq.  Vice President Bush, the State Department and the CIA lobbied for large-scale financing of U.S. exports to Iraq.15  In 1986, the U.S. sent a CIA team to advise the Iraqi military.16

      But the U.S. was supporting both sides.  In 1983, U.S. and Turkish generals were preparing to re-implement the 1958 "Cannonbone" plan.17  Until 1986, the U.S. funnelled arms to Iran through Oliver North, Israel and Pakistan.18  In 1985, Oliver North told Iranian officials that the U.S. would try to engineer the overthrow of Hussein.19 

      In 1987, the U.S. became directly involved in the war on Iraq's side by protecting the passage of Kuwaiti tankers with a major military presence in the Persian Gulf.  Some U.S.-escorted, Kuwait tankers carried Iraqi oil while Iraqi planes attacked Iranian tankers.  The U.S. sank Iranian patrol ships and destroyed their oil platforms. 

      In 1987,  Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. became commander of the U.S. Central Command. He had a unique background for the assignment.20 In the 1953, his father assisted in the CIA's coup in Iran.

      When the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, U.S. war contingency plans made Iraq the enemy.21 In January 1990, CIA Director William Webster testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on growing Western dependency on Middle East oil.22  In February, Schwarzkopf told the committee that the U.S. should increase its military presence in the region and described new intervention plans.23  In 1990, the U.S. conducted at least four war games directed at Iraq, some premised on an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

      The U.S. wanted a new war in the Middle East: the Pentagon, to maintain its tremendous budget; arms industries, to feed their Middle East and U.S. military contracts; oil companies, for increased profits; and the Bush administration, which saw the USSR's disintegration as a chance to establish a permanent military presence in the Middle East to control of its oil resources.

      The challenge was to force Iraq, a country more interested in rebuilding than expansion, to take action that would justify U.S. military intervention. To create this crisis, the U.S. invoked its special relationship with the Kuwait. In his book Hidden Agenda Behind the Gulf War, Pierre Salinger observed that Kuwait drastically increase oil production one day after the Iran-Iraq ceasefire.

      During the Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait seized 900 square miles of Iraq's Rumaila oil field. Using U.S. drilling technology, Kuwait was also stealing oil that was indisputably inside Iraq.  When Iraqi troops amassed on the border, Hussein summoned U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie to his office to clarify the U.S. position.  Glaspie assured him: "We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. [Secretary of State] James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction."24



  1. Middle East Economic Survey, May 12, 1961. 

  2. New Statesman, July 15, 1983. 

  3.  Gerard Chaliand and Ismet Seriff Vanly, People Without A Country, 1980, 184.

  4.  Will Safire, New York Times, Feb.12, 1976. 

  5.  See Chaliand and Vanly. 

  6.  See Chaliand and Vanly

  7.  Christopher Hitchens, Harper's Magazine, Jan.1991, 70. 

  8.  Dilip Hiro, The Longest War, 1991. 

  9.  S. Hersh, New York Times, Jan.26, 1992, 1. 

  10.  Shahram Chubinl and Charles Trip, Iran and Iraq at War, 1988, 207. 

  11.  The Christic Institute, "Covert Operations, the Persian Gulf War and the New World Order."

  12.  The Economist, May 6, 1982. 

  13.  Francis Boyle, "International Crisis and Neutrality: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward the Iraq-Iran War," in Neutrality: Changing Concepts and Practices, 1986. 

  14.  Leslie Gelb, "Bush's Iraqi Blunder," New York Times, May 4, 1992 

  15.  "'Nightline' on the Bush-Iraq Connection," in Israel and Palestine Political Report, June 1991, 5. 

  16.  Toward 2000, Mar.16, 1991. 

  17.  Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec.19, 1991. 

  18.  Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, Appendix A: vol. 1, Tape 12, 1500.

  19.  Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans: A Political Survey of Instability in the Arab World, 1975.

  20.  Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran, 1979. 

  21.  William Webster, Senate Cttee. on Armed Services, Jan.23, 1990, 60.

  22.  Norman Schwarzkopf, Senate Cttee. on Armed Services, Feb.8, 1990, 577-579.

  23.  U.S. Army, "A Strategic Force for the 1990s and Beyond," Jan.1990, 1-17.

  24.  Stewart M. Powell, San Fransisco Examiner, Sept. 24, 1990, A12.

 Source: "The Fire This Time"  www.pcug.co.uk/~whip/usa/usd.htm