WASHINGTON — Putting aside its reluctance to criticize Iraq in its war with Iran, the U.S. government accused the Baghdad regime Tuesday of using poison gas to blunt an Iranian offensive last week.
"Reports of the examination of victims by West European doctors complement other information available to us which I will not detail," State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said. "Based on this preliminary evidence, we conclude that Iraq used chemical weapons against the recent Iranian invasion attempt.
"We condemn the use of chemical weapons in violation of international law and conventions whenever and wherever it occurs, including this latest instance."
Other State Department officials said earlier that Secretary of State George P. Shultz bluntly told Iraqi's Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz on Monday that Baghdad should stop using poison gas.
Reluctant to Criticize
Even after the Shultz-Aziz confrontation, U.S. officials were reluctant to criticize Iraq in public. On Monday, Kalb had declined to say whether the Iraqis used chemical weapons.
But he said Tuesday that the most recent evaluation was based on "an accumulation of evidence" that Iraq has used gas on the battlefield. He would not say what kind of chemicals were used. Other reports have indicated that the Iraqis used mustard gas, which was widely used in World War I against mass infantry assaults.
Kalb would not answer when asked how Iraq's use of gas would affect Washington-Baghdad relations.
U.S. Officially Neutral
Although the United States is officially neutral in the 4 1/2-year-old Persian Gulf War, Washington has been much harsher recently in its criticism of Iran than of Iraq. U.S. officials have said frequently that Baghdad is prepared to settle the conflict by negotiations but that Tehran refuses a peaceful settlement.
The United States condemned Iraq on one earlier occasion, in March, 1984, for using poison gas against Iranian troops. Despite continuing reports that Iraq has used gas whenever it seemed to be militarily advantageous, the U.S. government avoided repeating the charge until Tuesday.
Iraq broke diplomatic relations with the United States in 1967 after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. The two countries restored full diplomatic ties last year. U.S. officials have said privately that Iraq, once among the most determined enemies of Israel, has changed its strategic outlook and now considers Iran its most dangerous adversary.
Embargo Harder on Iran
The United States refuses to sell weapons or military spare parts to either side in the gulf war. But the embargo hits harder at Iran, whose forces are equipped with U.S.-made arms purchased during the reign of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, than it does at Iraq, which obtained its basic arsenal from the Soviet Union and France. The Iranian arms inventory is known to be in run-down condition, with many weapons unusable because of a shortage of spare parts.
The United States has frequently urged other Western governments to refuse to supply arms to Iran, although it has not issued any similar appeal to refrain from shipping weapons to Iraq.