The Unknown “Pink Death” in Iraq

A “natural” pandemic, like the one we currently go through, can paralyze entire societies by causing widespread medical emergencies. Usually, governments should be able to deal with such emergencies, but sometimes they are the result of governments’ dysfunctional conduct. It is therefore advisable that intelligence agencies, including their research and policy planning branches, should follow those eventualities and provide their skippers with valuable previews into the national endurance and behavior of a given regime.

Long before the Iraq-U.S. conflict erupted, the modern history of Iraq could provide a suitable example. Some fifteen years prior to the Iraqi usage of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the village of Halabja, Iraq had experienced a severe case of mass poisoning, intensified by the government’s incapability if not malice. This event could have provided an adequate case study for intelligence agencies, including in the U.S., but the opportunity was missed.

Iraq was a confrontation state not only vis-à-vis Israel but, to a lesser extent, towards the U.S. as well. Iraq refused to resume diplomatic ties with the U.S., which were severed by Baghdad following the 1967 Six-Day War, and continued siding with the Soviet Union. Washington was not familiar with the Ba’ath regime and its leaders, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussain, and was satisfied with the definition of the regime as a brutal dictatorship disguised as a socialist government keen on the wellbeing of its population.  However, in 1969-1970, Iraqi food security was badly compromised following a few years of drought. During those years, Iraqi peasants consumed the grains usually designed for re-sowing.  Subsequently, there was an acute need to purchase grain-seeds to secure future crops.

Iraq’s government opted for the top-seeds of wheat branded commercially as Maxipak. Developed by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug, it was dubbed “the wonder seed”, yielding bigger crops. Baghdad signed a deal with the Minnesota based Cargill Company. In fact, the deal was so large that Cargill dispatched a senior special representative to Baghdad to extend the company’s gratitude to the government of Iraq.

The main difficulty was the tendency of these grains to develop mold during long-term storage or sea shipping. Iraqi buyers had therefore insisted on preemptive treatment of the full cargo, and the chemical agent selected for that purpose was methyl mercury. However, following several cases of contamination of fish and especially of tuna in the early 1970s, both the U.S. and Europe declared this composition as dangerous for food and banned it. Nevertheless, the United States, which was a major producer of mercury by DuPont, did not prohibit its export.

The grain cargo, shipped in American containers in September 1971, was unloaded in the port of Basra in order to be distributed in the mostly Kurdish rural areas of northern Iraq. Even though the kernels were painted daunting pink, the starving fellahin (peasants) disregarded the directive not to use the grains as food for either humans or animals. The sacks (packaged in Mexico) were marked in Spanish, and most fellahin could not read or write in this (or in any other) language.

The Iraqi government did not act quickly and efficiently enough and took its time issuing the adequate restrictions. Although the first poisoning cases took place in December 1971, the warning alert was not issued until mid-January 1972. The government then imposed a total ban on using the grains, and launched an attempt to recall the whole cargo, but the frightened fellahin simply threw the poisoned wheat into the canals and streams, causing further contamination of the Tigris River. The regime’s handling of the population was typical of a dictatorship; Ba’ath operatives took control of law enforcement and banned media coverage.  With the assistance of the military and at gunpoint, the authorities enforced the cessation of use of the infected wheat. The main victims of this move were the poor fellahin. A sample-group of 47 infected individuals was treated in Baghdad but none came from rural areas, and many more in the periphery had no access to treatment. According to Iraqi reports submitted to the World Health Organization (WHO), from December 1971 to March 1972, there were 6,142 cases of infection (out of whom 452 died). However, later studies of the same data, conducted after the fall of the Ba’ath regime in 2003, estimated the correct number of casualties at ten times larger than the original Iraqi report.

The Iraqi government then appealed for international medical assistance. A delegation from the World Health Organization, which included experts in metal poisoning from East Germany and Czechoslovakia, arrived in Baghdad. The Iraqis specifically invited Dr. Thomas Clarkson of the Center for Environmental Medicine at Rochester University in New York. However, though the U.S. government provided the grant for both the aid and the research, Iraq still avoided official direct contact and forwarded the invitation by Baghdad University through the Iraqi delegation to the United Nations. Clarkson arrived in Baghdad on February 24, 1972. Dr. Sa’dun Tikriti, who headed the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Iraqi Ministry of Health and presented himself as close to Saddam Hussein, was entrusted with the administration and treatment of the poisoning. Dr. Tikriti and his stuff provided the team with data and relevant samples; he also selected the experimental subjects (and later patients) for the University Hospital in Baghdad. The joint effort resulted in numerous scientific publications in the international medical press.

The 1971-72 mercury poisoning in Iraq aroused interest at the time mainly among scientific and medical researchers and in the World Health Organization, around the widespread consumption of tuna fish, yet the general Western media did not cover the event. Moreover, it hardly raised any attention within Iraq itself, as most Iraqis who were not harmed by the poisoning, were kept in the dark regarding both the medical emergency and its muted coverage.

This was a typical example of the Ba’ath regime’s treatment of its population, and especially the rural one.  It also reflected the attitude towards the West in general; the regime viewed the West as potentially a major source of aid and scientific cooperation but offered no reciprocity in the form of political openness.

The United States also did not see the issue as anything beyond a humanitarian situation and did not use the opportunity as a test case for the character of the new Ba’ath regime, its modus operandi or its plans for the future. Added to this was a concern, which in retrospect was exaggerated, that the United States, both a major supplier of wheat and the maker of the deadly mercury, would be blamed for the poisoning. The administration, therefore, avoided altogether dealing with the issue, and a proposed resolution in Congress, to ban future exports of methyl mercury, was blocked. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders even scripted on the National Security Council report to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the issue was conveniently “dead” in the American press. Hence, the National Security Council, while being aware of the poisoning, did not see it as an opportunity to examine the issue and form a credible intelligence picture of the regime and the ambitious goals of Saddam Hussein, the already recognized up and coming regime’s strong man.

What can we learn from the Ba’ath regime’s conduct and the US reaction to it? First, that the regime did not shirk its responsibility and took the initiative in dealing with the food shortage. The regime also ventured to purchase an unprecedentedly large amount of a new type of wheat from a U.S. company, on the one hand recognizing the prominence of the American agricultural technology, while on the other hand disregarding  the lack of relations between the two countries (albeit the outcome of an Iraqi persistent refusal to resume diplomatic ties).

In September 1974, Baghdad hosted an international conference on mercury poisoning, sponsored by the WHO and in cooperation with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). In the course of this conference, the joint teams presented their findings. For Iraq, the aim was to demonstrate its openness towards the international scientific community. It also served as a token of Iraqi recognition of the preeminence of Western technology. This, regardless of the fact that Iraq received from the Soviet Union most of the technology and hardware it needed to fulfill its ambitious geopolitical programs.

In fact, the Ba’ath regime used the poisoning to mislead Western researchers, and Iraq harnessed the poisoning to obtain scientific assistance and international legitimacy. Iraqi medical and research personnel began to take part in international conferences and to publish their works abroad. It was only after the fall of the regime in 2003 that the data provided by Iraqi doctors Sa’dun Tikriti and Farhan Bakr was found out to be government-dictated and false, and not reflective of the real findings. This caused major embarrassment for the scientific community, as the incorrect data was already used to set standards for the WHO, the FDA and the EPA.  This inaccurate information was also used in seemingly-groundbreaking studies, conducted in collaboration between Iraqi and Western researchers, dealing with the impact of methyl mercury on pregnant women and infants, on the causes of brain damage, and even in new areas such as autism and infant death.

Dr. Jane M. Hightower, a mercury poisoning specialist who wrote a book about this poisoning, was concerned with the reliability of the Iraqi data and interviewed Iraqi doctors who participated in the study.  For example, Dr.Tikriti who immigrated to the United States admitted to Jane Hightower that the samples, which were used as the basis for many studies in the West, were collected selectively and not methodically. The tests, which were carried out by the Iraqi team, were not conducted according to accepted standards of medical investigations and did not reflect the full picture and scope of the poisoning. Hightower was uncertain whether the poisoning was due to negligence, or had a deliberate and vengeful intention against the Kurds.  Hightower said it was not likely that Saddam Hussein was unaware of previous mercury poisonings in Iraq in 1955 and 1960. There is no evidence of deliberate negligence in harming the population, but it should be noted that in September 1971, the Ba’ath regime attempted to assassinate Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, and that 16 years later Saddam Hussein massacred Kurdish residents in Halabja using chemical weapons.

In late 1975, Iraq renewed its cooperation with Rochester in order to set up a plant of organic fertilizers, allegedly for agricultural use. The Pfaulde plant in Rochester was approached through the close trade connections Iraq had in France.  Among the materials the Iraqis sought to produce were organic toxins which could be also used for the production of nerve gas, such as Amiton, Demeton, Paraoxon, and Parathion.  Although the deal did not materialize, the Iraqis scored some gains from the very existence of these contacts, as they could obtain the plans and specifications of the pilot project prepared by the company. Based on these plans, the Iraqis went on to procure the same materials from other Western companies and eventually managed to set up a manufacturing plant on their own.  According to a report by UN inspectors operating in Iraq (as part of UNSCOM after the Gulf War), the construction phase of chemical weapons began as early as the 1970s. Intelligence organizations woke up to the new threat only when it was reported that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians in the 1980s. It also preoccupied Israel and the coalition states in the Gulf War.

Had the US Intelligence monitored correctly the modus operandi of the Ba’ath regime on relatively minor and controllable disasters, it could have estimated where Iraq was heading in the issue of WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Intelligence agencies could familiarize themselves with the Ba’ath regime’s points of strength (e.g., the regime’s speedy response to disaster) and vulnerabilities (e.g., lack of reliable internal reporting). Such monitoring could have enabled an assessment of the social and military strong points and especially of the decision-making processes during a crisis in any given country, including its overall national standing power. The American intelligence services had such an opportunity in the Iraqi “Pink Death” affair, but they failed to take advantage of it.

A previous version of this column was published in Hebrew in Mabat Malam, Bulletin of the IICC (October 2020).

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after a full career in analysis and evaluation. She lives in Israel.
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