Exactly a year ago, as I saw the Bush administration pick up the pace for war on Iraq, I sensed President Bush was being pulled along by the Pentagon civilians with their insistence that he was a truly evil man because he had committed genocide. At the end of the Iran/Iraq war in 1988, it was said the Iraqi air force dropped poison gas on its own citizens in the Kurdish town of Halabja and killed at least 5,000 in the course of recapturing the town from the Iranians. That was in March of ‘88. In the days after Iran sued for peace in August, it was reported the Iraqi army had systematically rounded up another 100,000 Kurds – and on the grounds they had fought with the Iranians – slaughtered them with poison gas. Secretary of State George P. Shultz reported this latter assertion without checking and the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning Saddam, relying upon a report from Kurdistan by a staff member of its Foreign Relations Committee, Peter Galbraith, son of the famous economist, John Kenneth Galbraith. The story faded but resurfaced when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. In the years since, it has been amplified again and again by the Washington organization, Human Rights Watch. Its resident expert, Joost Hiltermann, an Arabic-speaking law professor at Johns Hopkins School for International Studies, was chiefly responsible for this amplification.
In 1997, I had come upon a 1991 report of the Army War College at Carlyle, Pa., that had come to completely different conclusions. Its author, Dr. Stephen Pelletiere, had headed a team that pulled together all the specialists of the US intelligence agencies to study the Iran/Iraq war, to study how Iraq had defeated a country three times its size. The report touched on the Halabja deaths, saying that “hundreds” of civilians had died, with indications they were killed by a cyanide gas known to be used by the Iranian army, not possessed by Iraq. It said nothing about the “disappearance” of 10,000 Iraqi Kurds. Pelletiere had been the CIA’s senior analyst in covering the eight-year Iran/Iraq war. When I tracked him down a year ago, living in retirement near the War College, he insisted nothing had happened in the dozen years since to change his mind. There was no genocide, he told me, and said the story about the 100,000 deaths was a hoax, a non-event, propagated by Human Rights Watch. He said he had discussed his differences with Joost Hilterman, arguing the “victims” had never been found, nor had any mass graves been located.
I called Hiltermann at HRW for a discussion of his differences with Pelletiere, which led to an exchange of e-mails over a period of weeks. Here is the last contact I had with him, a long e-mail from me asking questions, and his lengthy response. I’ve merged the two letters so they can be read seamlessly. There are of course no follow-up questions in this exchange, but I think the exchange speaks for itself, and why I could easily conclude that Human Rights Watch had made an enormous blunder in propagating the genocide story and now will say anything to insist it was right all along. Unfortunately, President Bush has not yet been advised by his team that the U.S. intelligence agencies had the story correctly in the first place, as it suits the interest of the warhawks at the Pentagon to have the President believe Saddam is not just a dictator, but a Hitler.