Commentary Magazine

Iraq's German Connection

On January 31, 1991 Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of Germany addressed the Bundestag on the matter of the Gulf War. Genscher was still shaken from his trip to Israel a week earlier, when Israeli authorities had shown him German components of the Soviet-manufactured Scud missiles that had fallen on Tel Aviv and Haifa. Without the expert assistance of the Germans, he was told, the Scuds would have been unable to reach Israeli soil from Iraq. He had publicly apologized to the Israeli people, and promised to take stern action upon his return to Germany. Now speaking to his own parliament, he was quick to assert Germany’s concern:

In view of the terrible threat to Israel, historical and moral responsibility especially attach us Germans to the Jewish people. In this situation which threatens Israel’s existence, we stand by Israel’s side without any reservation. For thirty years Germany has not authorized arms exports to Iraq. However, Germans who broke our laws and misled the authorities participated in Saddam Hussein’s poison-gas production. All of society must ostracize them.

Genscher’s speech was a monument to hypocrisy. For well over a decade, hundreds—possibly even thousands—of German businessmen, scientists, and middlemen had played the key role in Iraq’s $50-billion program to produce weapons of mass destruction. The best estimates of the American government suggest that roughly 70 percent of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological capacity was provided by Germans. About all this the German government knew in detail. How could it not, since the German, British, American, Spanish, and Dutch media had been reporting the story for years?

German involvement with Iraq’s chemical-weapons programs started in 1977, and three years later construction began on a “pesticide plant” at Samarra. As German engineers would later tell reporters, it was clear from the outset that this was no normal project, given the extraordinary security measures, the barbed-wire fences, and the armed guards that were in place almost as soon as the foundations were laid; in the words of one German engineer, the “pesticide” was to be used on “two-legged insects.” Recent German press reports even speak of gas chambers “for large animals” specially built for the Samarra project by German firms. The key technologies for Samarra came from four German companies: Karl Kolb and its subsidiary, Pilot Plant; Water Engineering Trading (WET) of Hamburg; and Preussag AG.

This was hardly classified information. The New York Times reported extensively about German poison-gas plants in Iraq in 1984—the year Samarra became operational—as did the German press following the first use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iran that same year. But Martin Bangemann, the Economics Minister at the time, dismissed all this as “professional jealousy” on the part of the Americans. Bangemann, like each Economics Minister after him, was a member of the Free Democratic party (FDP) headed by Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

In the early 90’s, after some ten years of German involvement, and after a torrent of international and domestic criticism, the German government undertook an investigation of Samarra. A Swiss expert, Professor Werner Richarz, was hired to determine if Samarra had indeed been “specially built” for chemical-weapons manufacture. Richarz said unequivocally that it had, and provided the additional information that, thanks to German technology, Iraq was now manufacturing the poison gas tabun and highly concentrated prussic acid as well. (Prussic acid is used to destroy filters in gas masks.) But even this was not enough to produce action against the four large companies—or the many others involved on a smaller scale.

Iraq’s other main chemical-weapons project—at Salman Pak, just 30 kilometers south of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris—was also headed by a German firm, Thyssen Rheinstahl Technology (TRT). The code name of this operation was the “Diyala Project,” and along with chemical weapons, an array of biological weapons such as anthrax, cholera, and typhoid agents was manufactured in substantial quantities in laboratories built by TRT. According to a recent report in the German weekly Stern, as many as 1,000 tons of such chemicals were produced.

In order to get the contract, TRT had to sign an unusually stringent “Israel clause,” certifying that Thyssen had no relations with Israel, did not manufacture anything there, had no representation in Israel, did not permit the use of its name in Israel, and provided neither advice nor know-how to Israeli companies. The report in Stern speculates that the Iraqis were trying desperately to prevent Israel from learning about the project, which was located just six miles from the Osirak nuclear plant that Israeli bombers destroyed in 1981.

In addition to chemical-weapons technology, Germany also took the lead in helping Iraq develop bigger and better missiles. Most notorious has been the huge Sa’ad-16 Project, which for years the Iraqis pretended was a research facility associated with the university at Mosul. Costing more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, Sa’ad-16 included advanced wind tunnels, electronics workshops, manufacturing facilities for missile parts, and assembly plants for the missiles themselves. The general contractor for Sa’ad-16 was, as usual, a German company, in this case Gildemeister Projecta Limited. And Gildemeister Projecta’s most important subcontractor was Messerschmidt Boelkow-Blohn (MBB) of Munich, the internationally-known manufacturer of fighter planes, anti-tank missiles, and full-scale ballistic missiles. MBB equipped the laboratories for testing Iraqi missiles. Evidently, MBB managers had some misgivings about this project because they kept it secret from members of their own board; the trade-union representative on the board only learned of MBB’s involvement when he read about it in the newspapers. Notwithstanding all the eventual publicity, the German Economics Minister announced in August 1990 that there was probably not enough evidence to indict MBB.

No newcomer to the Iraqi missile business, MBB was also the lead contractor in the international consortium that had financed the Condor project in the early 1980’s. The Condor was a short-range missile developed in Argentina and destined for sale to Egypt and Iraq. In 1985, under public pressure, MBB officially withdrew from the Condor project, but key personnel were simply transferred over to a new (Swiss) company named Consen, where they continued work on Condor II, a longer-range missile that could reach Israel from Iraq with a 500-kilogram warhead. MBB was also involved both in the manufacture of “hot” anti-tank missiles and in the Iraq anti-aircraft system known as “Roland.” Finally, MBB shipped civilian helicopters from Germany to Spain where they were fitted with Swiss-made Oerlikon cannons and then sent on to Iraq. To this day MBB denies any knowledge that its civilian helicopters were going to be transformed into attack helicopters, even though it owns 11 percent of CASA, the Spanish company that did the work.

German companies were also crucial to the construction of the huge manufacturing facility at Taji, Iraq, the largest weapons complex in the Middle East. It was at Taji that Saddam Hussein initiated “Project Babylon,” a visionary supergun program that, if completed, would have given the Iraqis a long-range cannon capable of launching chemical or nuclear artillery shells one meter in diameter into Israeli, Jordanian, and possibly even Egyptian cities.

But “Babylon” was only the most dramatic project among dozens in full swing at Taji. A giant steel mill was built by the Kloeckner company starting in 1984, under contract to the NASSR Establishment for Mechanical Industries. NASSR is not a normal commercial establishment but a department of Iraq’s Ministry of War, and the “steel mill” was a factory for manufacturing cannons. In 1988, the Iraqis turned to another German company, Ferrostaal, to build them a “universal smelting plant” at Taji which the German government subsequently discovered was going to manufacture artillery pieces. And these cases are just the tip of the iceberg; more than 100 German companies were involved in the Taji project alone.

Then there is the matter of the Iraqi nuclear program. Until the Israelis destroyed the Osirak reactor in 1981, France was the primary supplier of nuclear technology to Iraq. But then the emphasis shifted to Germany. The Germans helped both with raw materials and with sophisticated hardware: a company appropriately named Nukem sold uranium, and several others helped out with the technology. H&H Metallform supplied the machine tools necessary to manufacture very high-speed ultracentrifuges, which in turn can enrich Uranium-235 sufficiently to transform it into weapons-grade material. Export-Union GmbH is currently under investigation for providing special steel for nuclear technology to Iraq’s Technical Corps, a department for highly classified military projects that reported directly to Saddam Hussein. German assistance to the Iraqi nuclear program continued even after the invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1991; and there is evidence suggesting that a full three weeks after the Gulf War began in January, German companies were still actively engaged in shipping nuclear technology to Iraq via Pakistan.



There is no doubt that the German government knew about these activities. On a visit to Baghdad in November 1987, Genscher asked the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to intervene to save the life of a German citizen of Iraqi origin, Kasar Al Khadi, who had been sentenced to death as a German spy. A plea of clemency had also arrived from German President Richard von Weizäcker. For once, Saddam Hussein showed mercy: Al Khadi’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and shortly thereafter he was released and returned to Germany. Last summer, Al Khadi was arrested in Germany, facing charges of involvement in the shipping of German technology to the vast Iraqi poison-gas complex in Samarra and elsewhere.

American information about Samarra—William Webster, the Director of Central Intelligence, testified publicly in March 1989 that the plant produced “the blister agent mustard and the nerve agents tabun and sarin,” and that “several types of weapons, including bombs and artillery shells and rockets, have been filled with these agents”—had been shared with the German government for many years, in the hope that it would do something to block the technology pipeline to Iraq. The Germans had also been informed by Israel, and, we may safely presume, by the likes of Al Khadi, as well. Even though the BND (the German CIA) has denied extensive press reports that Al Khadi was working for them, it is hard to imagine that the German Foreign Minister and the German President would directly and personally intervene on behalf of someone who was not rendering services to the German government. And it would be incredible if he were not extensively questioned and investigated upon his release from death row in Baghdad.

Nor was Al Khadi the only German with possible links to the BND who was up to his neck in illegal trafficking with Baghdad. Last July Peter Leifer, the manager of the Water Engineering Trading (WET) of Hamburg, was arrested on charges of trading with Iraq in poison-gas technology; Leifer was on the BND staff in Iraq for four years, beginning in 1986.

If top officials in the German government knew generally what was going on, they also knew the specifics of at least some cases, even before there were any criminal investigations. As recently as January 1990, the BND informed the Foreign Ministry that an official “risk guarantee” for a million dollars had been issued, covering the various valves, intake jets, pumps, pressure tanks, and testing equipment necessary for the program to improve the range of Scud missiles. Thus, Genscher’s own ministry was formally advised of the German Scud improvement program about a year before he went to Tel Aviv to apologize for it and act as if he had not known.

Already by early 1989 the American government had approached the Germans roughly 150 times to warn about the transfer of dangerous technology to countries like Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Libya. Nearly half of the warnings concerned Iraq, yet with rare exceptions, these demarches from American diplomats—some of them made directly to Foreign Minister Genscher—were ignored. The Germans acted as if the Americans were simply trying to stop Germany from engaging in international commerce, and scoffed at suggestions that German firms were in violation of international agreements and standards to which Germany had subscribed.1



As if Germany’s astonishingly weak penalties and vague laws were not bad enough in themselves, neither the judiciary nor the bureaucracy, in the form of the professional civil service and the politicians, was inclined to enforce them. A recent court decision offers insight into the general attitude of the judiciary: a Freiburg businessman who had supplied nuclear technology to Pakistan in 1985 was sentenced to eight months on probation because the judges said that state control authorities made it very easy for him to commit the crime.

As for the bureaucracy, anyone tempted to take some initiative to punish illegal exporters would quickly discover that there was no political reward to be gained, and considerable risk. If the likes of Genscher were clearly on the side of wide-open exports, what could a lower-level civil servant, let alone a lower-ranking political figure, hope to achieve? And there is a feature of German law that acted as a further inhibitor: any bureaucrat denying permission to export could be—and often was—sued by the exporter, and if a judge found the denial unwarranted, the penalty would fall directly upon the civil servant. Rare indeed was the government official who would risk saying “no” to a German exporter, especially to such a powerful one as MBB.

In any event, even the most vigorous bureaucrat would have been able to exercise discretion only over declared exports; he would have had no way to detect, let alone block, the illegal or falsified exports that have comprised the bulk of the shipments to Iraq. For as a matter of official policy the German government does not conduct pre-shipment inspections or end-user checks, nor does it conduct post-shipment inspections to make sure that the exports have actually gone where they were supposed to, and are being used in the manner promised by the exporter. Without such verification, no law—and the German government is now busily “tightening up” its export laws—can prevent the export of technologies for weapons of mass destruction. What this suggests is that Genscher and his followers—for it is always the Free Democrats who control the Economics Ministry—have been less than serious about stopping the evil they were delivering into the hands of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the new Economics Minister, Jürgen Möllemann, is a founder of the German-Arab Friendship Association and a personal friend of Qaddafi and Arafat.



The remaining question has to do with motive: why have so many German businessmen, scientists, middlemen, and political leaders engaged so persistently in behavior which has earned them the opprobrium of the civilized world? And to this may be added a second question: why, for so long, has there been no public outcry from the German people?

The obvious answer to both questions is greed. Saddam Hussein was able to buy a lot of German souls by giving them a cut of his $50 billion. Like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s great fable, he was able to make a Faustian pact with Germany. The Germans gave their entrepreneurial energies, their scientific know-how and technology, and their superb engineering and manufacturing skills to the Iraqi devil, knowing full well what they were doing and what the consequences would be.

And the fact of the matter is that Iraq was just one aspect of a far larger pattern. Throughout the past two decades, Germany has been the greatest source of illegal diversions of sensitive technology not just to the Arab Middle East but to the Soviet Union and its allies and satellites. Despite Germany’s verbal commitment to the West, and its ostensible participation in the American-led effort to control high technology, it regularly and flagrantly violated those controls, and constantly pushed to weaken them.

The leader in this relentless drive was—once again—Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He and former Chancellor Willy Brandt convinced the majority of their countrymen that Germany’s unique destiny placed it outside the rules of the East-West struggle; by serving as a “bridge” between the two blocs, Germany could “transcend” the division of the world and, not least, of Germany itself. This seductive rationalization sealed the Faustian pact, covering the selling of the German soul with an idealistic vision of a higher good. The Scuds that fell on Israel are the perfect symbols of that moral corruption: weapons of destruction from the Soviet empire, perfected by the Germans.

Is there any hope of a change? The prospects among the German political class are poor, yet an amazing transformation of German public opinion did take place when Scud missiles began hitting Tel Aviv and Haifa. A population that had originally demonstrated in the hundreds of thousands against the Gulf War, and condemned the United States (!) for the outbreak of hostilities, suddenly rallied to the side of the Jewish state and endorsed the justness of the Allied cause. But whether this change of heart will lead to a reform of German trade practices only time can tell, and only a dreamer would be optimistic.


1 In 1989, the scandal over the German-built Libyan chemical-weapons plant at Rabta was exposed by the New York Times. The key figure in the design and construction of the Rabta facility was a German businessman by the name of Jürgen Hippenstiel-Imhausen. In the wake of the Rabta scandal, dozens of German companies were identified as primary suppliers of technology, spare parts, software, and know-how to Rabta and other projects in Libya, yet to date only Imhausen has been prosecuted, and he was sentenced to a mere five years in prison—the maximum penalty for illegal arms deals—and was permitted to keep the more than $40 million in profits he made from the deal. Incredibly, after the Libya scandal, German export standards were actually watered down. See my article, “The Curious Case of Chemical Weapons,” COMMENTARY, July 1989.

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