Three U.S. companies sued over Saddam's 1980s chemical attacks

Published 13 April 2009

In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, the United States provided intelligence, weapons, and economic aid to Iraq; materials provided by American companies were used in the making of chemicals which Saddam used in 1988 in his chemical attacks on the Kurds; five Kurdish families, now living in the United States, sue three U.S. companies over these chemical attacks

There used to be a time when the United States and Saddam Hussein were quite close. Those were the days of the Iran-Iraq war (or, as they call it in Iraq — قادسيّة صدّام, Qādisiyyat Ṣaddām). The war was launched by Saddam on 22 September 1980, and lasted until 20 August 1988. The war was wasteful in human terms, with between 500,000 and 800,000 soldiers and civilians killed on both sides. Three aspects of the war stand out.

  • The war became known as the “war of the cities,” because both sides, beginning in 1984, used hundreds of missiles to attack the adversary’s cities.
  • In 1982 with Iranian success on the battlefield, the United States made its backing of Iraq more pronounced, supplying it with intelligence, economic aid, normalizing relations with the government (broken during the 1967 Six-Day War), and also supplying weapons. President Ronald Reagan decided that the United States “could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran,” and that the United States “would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran.” Reagan formalized this policy by issuing a National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) to this effect in June, 1982. One of the photo opportunities former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld would no doubt want to forget was a 1983 picture showing him in a warm hand shake with Saddam Hussein (at the time Rumsfeld was CEO and president of G. D. Searle & Company, a worldwide pharmaceutical company based in Skokie, Illinois; in 1983-84 he served, with no pay, as Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East)
  • The young Islamic revolutionary Ahmed Ahmadinejad made a name for himself during the as a recruiter of kids for Iran’s “human wave” attacks on Iraq’s positions. Short on munitions, weapons, and trained soldiers, the Mullahs in Tehran sent Revolutionary Guard members such as Ahmadinejad to small towns and villages across Iran with a call for teenagers, some as young as 13, to guarantee their place in heaven by joining the Iranian military. The Revolutionary Guard ordered tens of thousands of small plastic keys from a manufacturer in South Korea, and Ahmadinejad and his colleagues would give the keys to the teenagers being sent to the front, telling them that if they die in battle, these keys would open the gates of heaven for them. There were tens of thousands of young volunteers, but since, sent with not much more than kitchen knives to run directly at dug-in Iraqi positions, thousands would die every day, there was a need for more. The Mullahs issued a decree that  families had to “contribute” at least one son to the war effort, but since the stricture did not stipulate the level of fitness of the son, many families “contributed” their crippled and sickly kids to die at the front, figuring out that it would be better to leave the able-bodied sons to work the fields back home. One of the more poignant descriptions of the Iran-Iraq war are reports of Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard comrades visiting remote villages and loading sick and crippled teenagers into the Guard’s vans in order to take them to the front.

That was then, and this is now: VOA News reports that three U.S. companies are being sued for selling material to the former Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein used in his chemical weapon attacks against Iraqi Kurds. Five Iraqi expatriates filed a class action lawsuit this week in Maryland, accusing the companies of violating the Geneva Conventions in connection with the attacks. The Republic of Iraq is also named in the suit.

Saddam’s government used various chemical weapons in the anti-Kurd Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. At a ceremony last month honoring victims in Halabja, one of the most infamous attacks, Iraq’s environment minister Narim Osman told VOA Kurdish Service foreign companies should be put on trial for their role in the killings.

The companies being sued are Alcolac, VWR International, and Thermo Fisher Scientific.