Page 2 of 2   <      

U.S. Tolerated, Then Villified Saddam

Yet a decade later, in the words of the younger President Bush and aides, including Powell, the case for war was about "Saddam's chemical weapons business," "his weapons of mass destruction," "his terrorist associations," his "massive clandestine nuclear weapons program," "his evil mind."

U.S. officials were never comfortable with Saddam but treated him as a useful counterweight to the hostile theocracy in Iran after the U.S.-supported shah fled the country in 1979.

Iraq was at least a partly westernized and secular presence in a time of rising anti-American sentiment in the region, and had relations with the Soviets that Washington wanted to restrain.

In the long war between Iran and Iraq, the Reagan administration helped Saddam get international loans, restored formal relations in 1984 and secretly provided Iraq with intelligence and military support.

It sent Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, on a tour in December 1983 that included a stop in Baghdad and meetings there with Saddam and his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.

Worried about Syria and oil supplies as well as Iran, Rumsfeld suggested relations between the two countries had "more similarities than differences," according to his report from the meetings. An equally accommodating Saddam suggested his part of the world had more in common culturally with Washington than Moscow.

In his meeting with the foreign minister _ but not Saddam _ Rumsfeld parenthetically raised subjects that hindered the U.S. from doing more for Iraq in its war with Iran. Two decades later, with Rumsfeld as defense secretary, these subjects would be used to summon rage against the Iraqi leader.

"I made clear that our efforts to assist were inhibited by certain things that made it difficult for us, citing the use of chemical weapons, possible escalation in the Gulf, and human rights," Rumsfeld wrote back then.

By 1991, the United States was at war with Iraq, assembling a coalition to force Saddam to reverse his annexation of Kuwait. Saddam was the target of U.S. denunciation from then on, as a sponsor of terrorism, a seeker of weapons of mass destruction, and a ruthless murderer of Kurds, opponents of his rule and inconvenient family members.

Left in power after his forces retreated from Kuwait, Saddam was a volcanic presence in U.S. affairs for another decade, capped but toxic. It was a time of convoluted sanctions, fitful weapons inspections and no-fly-zone confrontations.

A fuzzy Iraqi TV picture captured the 1983 handshake between Saddam and Rumsfeld the envoy on a day when the two men agreed it was too bad a generation of Americans and Iraqis had grown up without knowing each other.

The future would bring the next generations together on bloody streets in a conflict neither side imagined then. And the man who shook Saddam's hand would direct the costly war that drove him from power, into the hole and to the executioner.


AP Diplomatic Writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.

<       2

© 2006 The Associated Press