An Iranian soldier watches smoke billow from burning oil refineries in Abadan, Iran (27 September 1980)
It began 30 years ago this week when Saddam Hussein launched what he hoped would be an easy victory over a disorganised enemy. By its end, nearly eight years later, more than 1 million people were dead and both countries deeply scarred. It has marked the politics of the Middle East ever since.
It is quite clear that oil played a major role in the war inasmuch as it gave the two opponents the where withal to continue the fight for such a long time. If the two belligerents had had normal diversified economies, either one or the other or both would have collapsed much earlier under the extraordinary burden of the war. Instead, access to oil revenue and the authoritarian nature of the political leadership on both sides imposed extraordinary human costs on their respective populations.
Iraq's era under President Saddam Hussein was notorious for its severe violations of human rights. Secret police, torture, mass murder, rape, deportations, forced disappearances, assassinations, chemical warfare, and the destruction of southern Iraq's marshes were some of the methods the country's Ba'athist government used to maintain control.
In June, 1982, President Reagan decided that the United States could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran. President Reagan decided that the United States would do whatever was necessary and legal to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran.
Halabja chemical attack victims
Both Iraq and Iran have used poisoned gas in the Iran-Iraq War. While this never had a decisive impact on the fighting, it provides an important lesson in the risks inherent in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The only detailed data on the history of each side's effort to produce chemical weapons are those available on Iraq...
Iran acquired weapons and parts for its Shah-era U.S. systems through covert arms transactions from officials in the Reagan Administration, first indirectly through Israel and then directly in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history -- and still gave him a hand.
No one had any doubts about [the Iraqis'] continued involvement in terrorism.... The real reason was to help them succeed in the war against Iran.
Support from the U.S. for Iraq was not a secret... The [Riegel] report then detailed 70 shipments (including Bacillus anthracis) from the United States to Iraqi government agencies over three years, concluding "It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the UN inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program."
In the early 1970s, Saddam Hussein ordered the creation of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs were assisted by a wide variety of firms and governments in the 1970s and 1980s. As part of Project 922, German firms such as Karl Kobe helped build Iraqi chemical weapons facilities such as laboratories, bunkers, an administrative building, and first production buildings in the early 1980s under the cover of a pesticide plant. Other German firms sent 1,027 tons of precursors of mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and tear gasses in all.
Iran was getting supplies from countries such as North Korea, Libya, and China. The Iraqis had many more suppliers, including the USSR, NATO members (France, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, U.S., etc.), Brazil, Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. More than 30 countries provided support to Iraq, Iran, or both. Iraq, in particular, had a complex clandestine procurement network to obtain munitions and critical materials, which, in some transactions, involved 10-12 countries.
From the United States and Soviet Union to Israel, Europe, China, and the Arab powers, many nations meddled in this conflict, supporting one side or the other and sometimes switching allegiances. The Iran-Iraq War answers questions that have puzzled historians. Why did Saddam embark on this expensive, ultimately fruitless conflict? Why did the war last eight years when it could have ended in months? Who, if anyone, was the true winner when so much was lost?