White House Ignored Iraq Rights Abuses for Years : Diplomacy: Critics say Washington made a ‘grotesque’ mistake in restoring ties to Baghdad in 1984.


In June, 1983, an American citizen named Robert Spurling and his Belgian wife and children were about to board a flight from Baghdad to Paris when, in the crush of passengers, Spurling disappeared.

He had been abducted by Iraqi secret police.

Over the next 110 days, Spurling later testified, “electric shocks were applied to my hands, feet, kidney region, genitals and, above all, to my ears.” His feet were repeatedly beaten with rubber truncheons. He was threatened with mutilation. He was given spoiled or heavily salted food to induce nausea and thirst. And he was led to believe that his family had also been arrested and would be maltreated.

Yet Spurling, a technical director for the luxury Novotel Hotel in the Iraqi capital, considered himself lucky.


“Time after time, I had to listen to the cries and noises of other prisoners while they were being interrogated under torture,” he later told Amnesty International, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights group.

Spurling’s ordeal, which ended in October, 1983, marked a turning point in U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq--a turn toward closer relations with Baghdad that some analysts now view as a grim mistake.

“It is a chronology of mistakes, of appeasement equivalent to our attitude toward events in Europe in 1939,” a leading Middle East analyst said.

Although Spurling was never told why he was detained or tortured, both he and U.S. diplomats in Baghdad speculated that he was given his freedom because of Baghdad’s desire to restore relations with Washington. And shortly after Spurling was freed, those ties were indeed restored after a 17-year break.


Today, a growing number of U.S. analysts are questioning why relations were re-established, given the human rights abuses exemplified in Spurling’s case.

“Looking back,” a former Foreign Service officer involved in U.S. policy on Iraq said this week, “it was grotesque. We helped give legitimacy to one of the most ruthless regimes in the world.

“It is not unfair to say that we are partly responsible for helping him (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) get so far. Sadly, in some ways, we let him become as dangerous as he is today.”

Iraq’s release of Spurling and its successful attempt to renew ties with Washington sprang from practical needs, not a fundamental change of heart toward Washington. Iraq had begun to lose the war to Iran, and its treasury, just three years earlier overflowing with petrodollars, was running dry. Hussein needed new friends and trading partners.


Despite many cases, well documented by a host of human rights groups, of Baghdad’s torture and arbitrary executions of both Iraqis and foreigners, the Ronald Reagan Administration responded to Hussein’s overtures. Relations, broken off by Baghdad during the 1967 Six-Day War because of U.S. support for Israel, were formally re-established in 1984.

In the aftermath of Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, a troubled conscience-searching is quietly spreading through Washington’s power centers. A growing number of U.S. officials and private analysts are questioning the last six years of U.S. policy in dealing with the so-called “bully of Baghdad.”

The questioning has been made all the more acute because of years of ignored reports and warnings about Iraqi atrocities. Even after an Iraqi warplane fired a missile at the guided-missile frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf in 1987, killing 37 American sailors, the Reagan Administration accepted Baghdad’s claim that it was “a mistake.”

“We so hated and feared the Ayatollah (Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s late supreme leader) that we were willing to look the other way on virtually every (Iraqi) violation of international law during the (Iran-Iraq) gulf war,” said the leading Mideast analyst. “And we just continued that policy after the war.”


Over the last two years, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has spearheaded repeated efforts to impose sanctions on Baghdad for human rights abuses and other kinds of violations of international law.

But these initiatives have been squelched by the Reagan and Bush administrations.

In its annual report to Congress on Iraq’s human rights record in 1988, the State Department said, “Execution has been an established method for dealing with perceived political and military opponents of the government.

“Among those executed were said to be army deserters, members of banned political parties, suspected government opponents and students.” It also confirmed U.N. evidence of widespread use of chemical weapons.


The same year, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Prevention of Genocide Act. The act would effectively have imposed a total trade embargo against Iraq.

The Reagan Administration described the bill as “premature,” even as it was presented against the backdrop of new evidence of Iraq’s atrocities, including the gassing of thousands of its own people and the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in de facto concentration camps.

In 1989, Pell sponsored the Chemical and Biological Control Act, which was passed by the Senate but opposed by the Bush Administration because it would automatically impose sanctions on any country that used chemical weapons. It is still pending in conference with the House.

A few months later, John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in a public speech: “Iraq is an important state with great potential. We want to deepen and broaden our relationship.”


This year’s State Department human rights report, mandated by Congress, was the most critical to date. Iraq’s human rights record has long been “abysmal,” it concluded. The report continued:

“Effective opposition to government policy is stifled; the intelligence services engage in extensive surveillance and utilized extralegal means, including torture and summary execution, to deal with anti-regime activity.”

Other widespread abuses included “continuing disappearances and arbitrary detentions, (and) lack of fair trial. . . . In some cases, a family only learns that one of its members has been executed when the security services return the body and require the family to pay a fine,” the report said.

Most telling in terms of the current crisis, it noted, “Iraqis do not have the right to change their government.”


Pell and Sen. Alphonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) this year introduced the Iraq International Law Compliance Act, which called for sanctions and an end to all U.S. financial credits and assistance to Baghdad.

Among the violations of six international conventions on human rights cited in the bill was the murder of children as a means of pressuring their parents.

The Bush Administration opposed the bill. In testimony before Pell’s committee, Kelly conceded that Iraq’s human rights record was below par, but he pointed out that the United States annually exported $1 billion in agricultural commodities to Iraq, including 23% of all U.S. rice output.

If the U.S. imposed sanctions, “our competitors in Canada, Australia, Europe and Japan would step in quickly to fill the breach,” Kelly said.


A leading U.S. policy analyst commented this week, “Since relations were restored (in 1984), U.S. policy on Iraq has been characterized by two things--political expediency and economic greed.”

The bill finally won endorsement from the Senate--five days before Iraq’s invasion as Congress was rushing to adjourn.

“It’s appalling,” said Peter Galbraith, a Senate Foreign Relations staff member. Galbraith toured Iraq in 1988 and compiled a Senate report outlining the massive abuses, including dynamiting of Kurdish villages and the depopulation of an area four times the size of Vermont. It also predicted Iraq’s aggressive intentions on Kuwait.

“This is a regime that was murdering thousands of its own people, that was using a weapon (chemical warfare) so insidious that it was banned earlier this century by international convention,” Galbraith said. “Yet, the Reagan and Bush administrations were prepared to do nothing about it.


“What was the great lesson of the Holocaust?” Galbraith asked. “The world sat aside and let Hitler kill millions of people. The lesson was: Never again. And yet it happened again, and our country was not willing to do anything.”