Financial Times: UK secretly supplied Saddam

The article below was penned by Michael Stothard on December 30, 2011 in he Financial Times.

Kindly note that the pictures and their accompanying descriptions shown below do not appear in the original Financial Times article. 

The Financial Times and the Reuters News Service also reviewed Kaveh Farrokh’s 2011 text, Iran at War: 1500-1988 which features several chapters on the Iran-Iraq war as well as the role of Western support for Saddam Hussein’s war machine


Margaret Thatcher’s government was covertly supplying military equipment to Iraq as early as 1981, according to newly released government documents.

Secret files made public on Friday contain an exhaustive list of equipment from Hawk fighter jets to military air and naval bases that the government was attempting to sell Saddam Hussein’s regime.

This came despite the fact that the UK was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq war, which begun in late 1980. Britain had also signed up to a UN Security Council resolution calling on its members to “refrain from any act which may lead to a further escalation and widening of the conflict”.


[Click photo to Enlarge] An Iraqi T-55 training with an advanced British-manufactured tank gunnery simulator in 1987. Iraq’s armoured corps had undergone a massive training and rearmament program by 1987-1988 – thanks to the the assistance of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Egypt, India, Pakistan, England and numbers of Western countries (Picture Source: Armed Forces journal, July 1987 , pp.354; see also Farrokh, Iran at War, 2011, pp.400-402). British military personnel also refurbished and re-activated captured Iranian Chieftains for Saddam Hussein’s forces. 

The list shows 78 different types of military equipment including Land Rovers, tank recovery vehicles, terrain-following radar and spare tank parts that were in the process of being sold. Not all the sales on the list were completed.

All the equipment on the sales list was technically “non-lethal”, although equipment such as tank parts stretched the definition.

One prime-ministerial brief recommended that the best way to avoid public condemnation but to still make money from Iraq was to sell only non-lethal equipment but to “define this narrowly”.

[Click photos to Enlarge] Iraqi-Kurdish victims of Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks at Halabja in 1988. Many Iranian (and Iraqi Kurdish) civilians and soldiers were to be exposed to chemical weapon attacks during the war. Despite the brutal rapacity of these actions, Western lobbies (including the UK) continued to support Saddam Hussein right up to 1990 (Picture sources: Iran Photo Foundation). Less known are Iraqi Chemical weapons “experiments” on Iranian prisoners of war – a fact which was virtually ignored by the UK and Western press during the 1980s (Farrokh, Iran at War, 2011, pp.402). 

“Contracts worth over £150m have been concluded [with Iraq] in the last six months including one for £34m (for armoured recovery vehicles through Jordan),” writes Thomas Trenchard, a junior minister, in a secret letter to Mrs Thatcher in March 1981.

The letter also says that a meeting with Saddam Hussein “represent a significant step forward in establishing a working relationship with Iraq which … should produce both political and major commercial benefits”.

Mrs Thatcher wrote by hand at the top of the letter that she was “very pleased” by the progress being made.

Throughout her premiership Mrs Thatcher took a direct roll in securing deals for British defence companies, calling her efforts “battling for Britain”. Partly thanks to her efforts, the UK climbed from being the fifth- to the second-largest supplier of military equipment over the decade.

A pair of Saddam Hussein’s modified Scud ground to ground missiles known as the “Al-Hussein”. These were essentially improved versions of the Soviet-designed SCUD missiles; the range of these missiles had been enhanced with the assistance of mainly German, Egyptian, Argentinean and other Western engineers. More ominous was Saddam’s threat to mount chemical warheads on the Al-Hussein for firing against Iranian population centers (consult Farrokh, Iran at War, 2011, pp.404; Ripley, 1991, pp.14). The pro-Saddam stance of the Western (especially US and British) governments at the time meant that such dangers were either ignored or at best downplayed by the Western media. Iraq was to fire 189 Al-Husseins at Iran (135 at Tehran) in February-March 1988 (picture source:

Her greatest defence coup over the decade was the Al-Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia in 1985 and 1988, which was one of the largest arms deals in history worth about £40bn to British Aerospace and other British companies.

The push to sell arms in Iraq, encouraged by the privatisation of British Aerospace in 1981, in the end caused serious embarrassment when, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Britain then found itself at war with the country they had been selling weapons to just a few months earlier.

Another consequence was the Scott Report, which was published in 1996 and gave a damming assessment of the Conservative government’s role in selling arms to the Middle East through the 1980s.

[Click photos to Enlarge] Iran Air Flight 655 [1] was shot down by missiles fired from the USS Vincennes [2]. All civilians and crew aboard the doomed airliner were killed [3]. Investigations by John Barry and Roger Charles of Newsweek Magazine and ABC News’ Ted Koppel of Nightline revealed the ugly truth behind these events. In short the reports revealed that both Captain Will Rogers III (Captain of the Vincennes) [4]  and Admiral William Crowe (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) [5] had falsified information to mislead US and world public opinion. Barry and Charles concluded that “The top Pentagon brass understood from the beginning that if the whole truth about the Vincennes came out, it would mean months of humiliating headlines…the US Navy…told lies and handed out medals” (Barry & Charles, 1992, “Sea of Lies”, Newsweek, July 13, pp. 29; see also Farrokh, Iran at War, 2011, pp.411).

The newly released papers also show how some in the government were concerned about Mrs Thatcher’s aggressive arms sales policy. One prime ministerial brief in January 1981 warned that

“if we expose ourselves to serious accusations of breach of neutrality obligation [in Iraq] or deviousness our efforts could backfire”.

Ivor Lucas, the ambassador to Oman, writes:

I should prefer a more balanced approach to arms sales in the Sultanate, for fear that an accumulation of sophisticated equipment largely for prestige reasons will be more than the defence capability of this country requires“.

[Click photos to Enlarge] Saddam’s “Wunderwaffe”: The Babylon Super-Gun. At left is the unfinished assembly of one of these super-guns and at right is an undelivered section of the weapon now in England. The project almost became an operational reality, thanks in large part to British technical and manufacturing expertise. Saddam Hussein planned to install at least 75 of these Super-guns for use against Iran. Each of these guns could then fire conventional or nuclear-tipped projectiles into Iranian population centers.