By Harem Karem:
The death of Margaret Thatcher has reminded everyone of her divisiveness, in Britain and abroad. As Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister (1979-90) in recent times, Thatcher was loathed and loved simultaneously and her passing has caused both mourning and celebrations. Today her supporters will appreciate her publicly-funded £10 million funeral ceremony with appropriate military trappings.
Margaret Thatcher accelerated the decline of British manufacturing industry, focusing instead on financial services and armaments, and causing much misery in Britain and across the world. Her domestic legacy is condemned by millions, especially from former mining communities, trade unions and inner cities.
Globally, Thatcher is lauded by some as a ‘champion of freedom’, although her friends included ruthless dictators such as Chile’s Pinochet, Indonesia’s Suharto and Pakistan’s Zia. She also favoured South Africa’s apartheid regime and denounced the imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’.
Thatcher was coyer about backing Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein. However, Saddam’s brutal regime was sustained by the covert military aid it received throughout the 1980s, especially from her government and Ronald Reagan’s US administration.
This support cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Arabs and Persians. When Saddam finally ‘overstepped the mark’ and threatened Western interests by invading Kuwait in 1990, the US and Britain then decimated an Iraq army that, until recently, they had helped to equip. For the arms companies, it was all good business.
Under Thatcher, Britain became the world’s number two arms exporter. Her biggest arms deal was the Al-Yamamah contract with the Saudi Arabian dictatorship in 1985 and 1988, which was one of the largest in history, worth about £40 billion to recently privatised British Aerospace and other companies.
Iraq was another important arms sales target for Thatcher. In December 1981, she chaired a meeting of her cabinet’s Overseas and Defence committee to discuss how to “exploit Iraq’s potentialities as a promising market for the sale of defence equipment”. Although her government had voted for a UN Security Council resolution calling on all countries to maintain their neutrality during the Iran-Iraq war, the committee decided to interpret this “as flexibly as possible” (1).
In March that year, junior minister Thomas Trenchard had sent her a secret letter describing a meeting with Saddam which “should produce both political and major commercial benefits”. Thatcher wrote by hand at the top of the letter that she was “very pleased” with this progress (2).
Through the eighties, £1 billion public money was given to UK arms companies to facilitate their delivery of military equipment and technology to Saddam. These consignments were always camouflaged – for example, by routing them through neighbouring Jordan and Saudi Arabia or disguising them as ‘non-lethal’ supplies. They included tank spares, Land Rovers, radar equipment, command and control systems, rocket technology, materials that could be used in Saddam’s nuclear programme and possibly even some ingredients for chemical warfare.
Internationally-banned chemical weapons were used by Saddam, first against Iranian conscripts and then Kurdish civilians. In March 1988, 5,000 Kurds were killed in a chemical attack on Halabja, and many more were condemned to lives of pain and suffering.
This atrocity was well-documented and thousands of British citizens wrote to their government urging action against Saddam. Halabja was part of the Anfal campaign during which 4,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed, one million people were displaced and perhaps as many as 182,000 were killed. However, instead of halting the arms sales to Saddam, the Thatcher government took the August 1988 ceasefire between Iran and Iraq as a cue to increase them – even though they must have known that some of this weaponry was likely to be used against the Kurds.
Thatcher and her ministers did not care. Their only concern was business. In October 1988, senior foreign office official William Waldegrave argued in a memorandum that, “I doubt if there is any market on such a scale anywhere where the UK is potentially so well placed” (3).
Matrix Churchill was a British company that was effectively taken over by the Iraqis. In November 1989 the CIA reported to the White House and the State Department that it was part of “Iraq’s complex procurement network of holding companies in Western Europe for its chemical, biological and ballistic missile development programmes” (4).
Following the 1991 Gulf War, three British Matrix Churchill directors were put on trial at the Old Bailey for supplying equipment to Saddam during an official arms embargo. But the case collapsed after maverick Tory minister Alan Clark admitted in court that the government had known all about it.
This led to the Scott Enquiry which delivered a million-word report broadly critical of the government’s duplicity. Thatcher, now retired, appeared as a witness and claimed to be ignorant of the details of how government policy had been implemented.
At the time journalist Paul Foot lambasted Sir Richard Scott for pretending to believe her. “He swallows wholesale the fantastic notion that Lady Thatcher, the most interventionist prime minister in modern times, who was fascinated above all other things by arms sales and intelligence matters, did not know that three junior ministers, all of whom worshipped or feared her, changed the whole policy of defence sales to Iraq without her ever hearing of it”, wrote Foot. “Major too (Thatcher’s foreign minister and then her successor as prime minister – KT), according to Scott, knew nothing about anything, and gets off on that score”.
Last Sunday’s Observer carried previously unpublished extracts from a book by the mercenary Simon Mann, indicating that the Thatcher leopard never changed its spots. A decade ago, Mann plotted to oust the oil-rich government of Equatorial Guinea with Thatcher’s son Mark, a not notably talented ‘chip off the old block’ who has made millions from arms deals.
Mann claims to have met Margaret Thatcher in London in 2003 when she wished him well in his ill-fated African coup attempt and urged him to join a conspiracy to overthrow the elected Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. According to Mann: “She looked at me with her imperial gaze. ‘We must always look after our friends, Simon … as I’m sure you know'”.
For years Saddam Hussein was Margaret Thatcher’s ‘friend’ and Kurds paid a price for this secret alliance.
British Kurds have stepped up their efforts lobbying the British government to recognise Saddam’s 1988 Anfal and Halabja campaign as an act of genocide. Following debates in the British and Scottish parliaments, MPs recently voted in favour of this.
However, the government is holding out on giving formal recognition, possibly because it knows this could lead to a substantial compensation scheme.
Thatcher’s legacy indeed.
- ‘Spider’s Web – Bush, Saddam, Thatcher and the Decade of Deceit’, Alan Friedman, 1993, Faber & Faber, page 78
- Financial Times, ‘UK secretly supplied Saddam’, Michael Stothard, 30 December 2011
- ‘Spider’s Web’, page 167
- ‘Spider’s Web’, page 247