The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

An investigative tool for business executives, government, and the media.

The Death Lobby: How the West ArmedIraq

by KennethR. Timmerman

Copyright © 1991 by Kenneth R. Timmerman. All rightsreserved.

Prologue: Chirac and Saddam


It was a magnificent early autumn afternoon when Saddam's Boeing707 touched down at the Orly airport in Paris, decked out for theoccasion with the eagle of Saladin, Iraq's martial national symbol.The date was Friday, September 5, 1975. Jacques Chirac, the FrenchPremier, was on hand to greet his visitor the instant his foottouched French soil. A long red carpet led into the VIP lounge, wherechampagne and French cocktail sandwiches awaited the Iraqi guests. "Iwelcome you as my personal friend," Prime Minister Chirac told hisvisitor. "I assure you of my esteem, my consideration, and myaffection."

Touched by this reception, Saddam replied with characteristicmodesty. "We hope that the relations France maintains with[other] Arab countries will benefit from the same warmth andcordiality as today. The relations between our two countries can onlyimprove as a result of my visit, which, I hope, will be beneficialfor world peace in general. "

What Saddam didn't say, and Chirac didn't ask, was that the Iraqileader had a peculiar notion of world peace, which many in the Westwould have failed to comprehend. Peace, for Saddam, meant dominationthrough arms. He had come to France to seal a strategic pact whichwould soon translate into massive French arms sales and the transferof critical nuclear technologies to Iraq, dramatically acceleratingthe Middle East arms race and marking the start of Saddam's ambitiousnuclear weapons program.

Until this fateful trip to France, the Soviet Union had beenIraq's principal arms supplier. But the French were eager to gettheir foot in the door. They explained their willingness to sell armsand technology to Iraq in grandiloquent terms, in newspapereditorials dedicated to the "philosophy" of technology transfer.Prime Minister Chirac and his advisors made a direct pitch. Buyingarms from the French offered a "third way" out of the super powerembrace, and had no political strings attached. It was an argumentthat struck home with Saddam Hussein, who was eager to wriggle out ofthe Soviet grip.

Although the 38-year old Saddam was nominally only second incommand of the Baathist regime, the French accorded him all thehonors of a head of state. They lodged him at the sumptuous Marignypalace in Paris, where visiting Kings and State Presidents hadresided before him. They threw a gala reception in his honor at theChateau of Versailles. President Valéry Giscard d'Estainginvited him for state lunches at the Elysée. Prime MinisterChirac stuck to him like glue. The five-day trip was a longsuccession of champagne panegyrics. The French wanted Saddam asdesperately as Saddam wanted them, for the Iraqi had something theyneeded to keep their economy afloat: oil. French media pundits,taking a tip from the spin doctors at the Elysée, called it "amarriage of reason." Today, it has become a cliché to speak ofarms-for-oil deals, but this is where it all started, as a loveaffair between France and Iraq.

That weekend, Chirac tapped an old Gaullist Party hand whocontrolled one of the most superb medieval sites in France, to assisthim in the wooing of oil-rich (and arms hungry) Saddam. RaymondThullier was one of France's best-known chefs. He had served as theMayor of Baux-en-Province for more than twenty years, and had hostedthe mighty many times before. His discreet weekend resort went by thequaint provençal name, L'Oustalou de Baumanière, andwas undoubtedly one of the most extravagant weekend hideawaysfrequented by the French political elite. Nestled in a shelteredravine in the depths of Provence, not far from the Mediterraneancoast, it offered a dramatic view of an abandoned medieval fortresstown perched up on the cliffs like a Wild West version of the HangingGarden of Babylon.

Although he was almost 90 years-old when he recalled the scene,Thullier's mind was as lively as ever. He described the menu he hadserved his distinguished guests, and dug up photographs of Chiracsitting side by side with the new Master of Babylon, drinking coffeeafter their meal in the sheltered gardens of L'Oustalou. "Chiracnever left him for a second," Thullier recalled. "It was like theywere bride and bridegroom." In the photograph, Saddam Hussein iswearing a white and black checkerboard suit with a colored shirt andmismatching tie. "He glowed like a peacock," Thullier laughed. (Notlong after this trip, Iraqi exiles say, Saddam invited a Frenchtailor to take up residence at his court in Baghdad, so he wouldnever be embarrassed by the poor quality of his Arab suitsagain).

After lunch, Chirac had prepared a surprise for his guest: abullfight through the streets of the ancient necropolis up on thecliffs. Thullier, who had personally supervised the restoration ofthe medieval ruins, handled all the arrangements. The site was sealedoff from tourists, bleachers were set up, and a large, well-protectedbull pen was erected among the crumbling buildings. The village boystrained for days in preparation of the event, which was something ofa provençal tradition. Unlike Spanish bullfights, theprovençal jeu de taurillons involved no bloodshed. It was moreof a game, pitting baby bulls against the local boys, who scamperedthrough the ring trying to pluck a bright flower from behind the earof the bull.

"Saddam caught on almost immediately," Thullier recalled. "Afterthe first bull, he was jumping up and down and shouting, encouragingthe boys. Then one of his retainers came up to me and said he wasoffering one million francs (around $200,000) to the boy who couldbeat the next bull. You can imagine what happened after that! Everyboy in town tried to get into the ring."

Three times, Thullier said, Saddam bet on the bulls, and each timehe promised a one million franc prize. "After it was all over, thekids who won came up to me and asked if I thought he was serious. 'Ofcourse, he is,' I said. 'Just you wait and see.'"

A few weeks later, Thullier recalled, an emissary from the Iraqiembassy in Paris wandered into his office, and delivered threechecks, each for one million francs. Saddam had come through for thelocal boys. Soon he would come through for the big boys as well. Overthe next fifteen years, he would spend a good $20 billion on Frencharms. For Saddam Hussein, it was the price of independence from theSoviets. For the French, it was a veritable bonanza.