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Doing a bad job badly.

IN A REVIEW last month of Kenneth Timmerman's The Death Lobby, a book about Western manufacturers' supply of military-related equipment to Iraq during the 1980s in contravention of official embargoes, The Middle East wondered whether the governments concerned were hood-winked, turned a blind eye or actively connived. The collapse of the prosecution case in a trial in Britain in November adds more weight than ever to the suggestion that some Western governments at least deliberately encouraged Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes.

British Customs and Excise brought a case against three former directors of Matrix Churchill, a machine-tool maker which has since gone bankrupt, for exporting material which it was known would be used for military ends. This flew in the face of stated government policy which was, as stated in 1985, to refuse to supply Iraq with "lethal equipment" or anything which would "exacerbate or prolong" the Iran-Iraq war.

From classified documents made public as a result of the trial, however, it is evident that Matrix Churchill (certainly not the only British company supplying such equipment to Iraq) was supported by the government in its efforts to sell material to Iraq while being advised to emphasise on export documents the "peaceful uses" to which it could be put. No-one seems to have been in much doubt that Matrix Churchill was engaged in helping Iraq's notorious "supergun" project.

Secrecy was all-important. One Foreign Office memorandum issued in January 1988 backed the recommendation that export licences should continue to be issued, but noted "if it becomes public that the tools are to be used to make munitions, deliveries would have to stop at once ... The companies should be warned of the falling guillotine and urged to produce and ship as fast as they can."

One of the key witnesses at the trial was Alan Clark, a minister at the time successively with the trade and industry and the defence departments. In both posts he was closely involved in overseas defence sales. In court he admitted that he had found the guidelines "tiresome and intrusive". With some "stretching and bending" it was possible to get results. He went on to tell the jury that he would have supported the sale of British equipment to Iraq even if the suppliers had explicitly admitted it was going to be used for weapons production.

From the documents it appears that by 1989 at the latest government ministers had "conclusive evidence" that British technology was being used by Saddam Hussein to make weapons, but they made a decision in secret to relax export guidelines. The decision was endorsed by the Cabinet in July 1990 and on 27 July -- only six days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait -- the British government approved the export of yet another consignment of Matrix Churchill technology, in full knowledge that it would be used in Iraq's Aba missile project. All this time the government was stoutly denying that military equipment was being sold to Iraq.

Why the subterfuge? One argument is that, while the Gulf war arms ban was supposed to apply equally to both Iran and Iraq, it was imperative to prevent a victory by the Iranian ayatollahs. This is the excuse for undermining the embargo touted in Britain and the United States and espoused more openly by France. The best that can be said in the light of Iraq's subsequent occupation of Kuwait is that they had all seriously misidentified the real danger to Gulf stability.

The other justification is that supplies had to be maintained because they provided a means of access to intelligence concerning Iraq's ambitious but mysterious military industrialisation programme. The only reason the court case against Matrix Churchill collapsed (and the incriminating official documents came to light) is that one of the defendants, the company's former managing director, was able to demonstrate that he had been working for M16, the British foreign intelligence service. One Foreign Office memorandum dating back to 1989 warned that stopping the trade "could force Matrix Churchill to close down. If this happened, we would lose our intelligence access."

This is most odd. It adds up to a confession that (to quote from another Ministry of Defence memorandum) "UK Ltd" was actively helping Iraq to "set up a major arms research and development and production industry" in order to find out what Iraq's programme was all about. In other words, increasingly worried about Saddam Hussein's intentions, the government chose to assist him in pursuing them in order to find out what they were.

Such convoluted and seemingly self-defeating logic might be justified by claiming that, if used judiciously, illicit arms sales constitute a useful channel for acquiring sensitive and otherwise inaccessible information. What puts the seal of absurdity on the whole business -- and removes the last threadbare cover of morality -- is that at the end of the day Britain and its allies indulging in a similar exercise all proved remarkably ill-informed about the Iraqi leader's political intentions and his weapons programmes.

The evidence of the British government's complicity has come to light despite the best efforts of ministers to suppress classified documents in the interest of security. In order to suppress information about its activities, the government was prepared to let innocent men go to jail.

The collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial has provoked a scandal in Britain. An equally outrageous tale is unfolding in the United States regarding the prosecution of former officials of the Atlanta, Georgia branch of Italy's Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. They are charged with extending some $5bn of unauthorised credit to suppliers of military equipment to Iraq (including Matrix Churchill's subsidiary in Ohio) on the instigation of the Baghdad government.

Yet it is becoming daily more obvious that the US administration and the CIA not only knew what was going on but actively encouraged the illegal loans. In October the presiding judge felt obliged to excuse himself from the case with a damning criticism of the US government. It is worth quoting because of the similarities it shows with the behaviour of the British government.

According to Judge Shoob, "it is apparent that decisions were made, at the top levels of the United States Justice Department, State Department, Agriculture Department and within the intelligence community to shape this case and that information may have been withheld from local prosecutors seeking to investigate the case or used to steer the prosecution."

In the light of latest revelations it is clear that in both Britain and the United States an irresponsibly misconceived policy has been compounded by a disgracefully botched cover-up. Truly a bad job badly done.
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Title Annotation:Leaders; illicit arms sales to Iraq
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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