WASHINGTON — As vice president during the Ronald Reagan Administration, George Bush acted as an intermediary in sending strategic military advice to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at a critical point in the Iran-Iraq war, according to sources and classified documents.
The specific advice--that Iraq unleash its air force against Iran--was passed on during a trip to the Middle East by then-Vice President Bush in August, 1986. Bush used Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to relay the message to Hussein, according to two Bush Administration officials familiar with the incident.
At the time, the Reagan Administration was maintaining a public posture of neutrality in the war while secretly assisting Iraq in an attempt to stop Iran and its spreading Islamic fundamentalism.
The Reagan and Bush administrations have admitted sending Iraq intelligence data about Iranian troop movements during the eight-year conflict. However, it has not been disclosed previously that the intelligence was augmented by military advice and that Bush played a personal role in conveying the advice.
The extent of Bush's personal commitment to assisting Iraq has attracted increasing scrutiny amid revelations that U.S. aid continued long after the Iran-Iraq war and extended into his own Administration. Baghdad received billions in U.S. food credits and retained access to sensitive technology until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait--despite Hussein's increasing belligerence and the objections of several top-level Administration officials.
A White House spokesman said he could find no information that Bush relayed the military advice to Iraq through Mubarak. In response to earlier stories in The Times about his role in executing Reagan Administration policy toward Iraq, Bush has said he is proud of his actions and defended them as part of a strategy to contain Iran.
The U.S. advice that Hussein step up his bombing of Iran came in response to fears among Iraq's Arab allies and Administration supporters that Iran was on the verge of winning the war in mid-1986, according to analysts and classified documents.
At about the same time that Bush relayed the military advice during a trip to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia shipped Iraq an undisclosed number of American-made, 2,000-pound bombs, according to a classified State Department cable.
A source knowledgeable about the transfer said the Saudis sent Iraq 500 of the Mk-84 bombs, along with a number of British Lightning fighter-bombers to help Hussein escalate the air war. Three sources told The Times earlier that the Saudis transferred the weapons with approval from unnamed U.S. officials.
In congressional testimony last week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III described the Saudi transfer as "inadvertent" and indicated that it was done without U.S. authorization. The State Department has declined to say how many bombs were involved.
One former Reagan Administration official said the separate plan to provide secret military advice to Iraq in the summer of 1986 came as a result of "the frustration that Saddam was not properly using the intelligence information about Iranian troop movements and capabilities."
The official said it was decided to expand the intelligence sharing to military advice at meetings of an interagency advisory group, known as the Contingency Pre-Planning Group. The group included officials of the National Security Council and assistant secretaries of various agencies, such as the state and defense departments.
Iran had launched a major military offensive against Iraq earlier in 1986 and U.S. intelligence analysts believed that Hussein had to be persuaded to unleash his air force to fend off the attacks. But analysts said Hussein was reluctant to carry out a sustained bombing campaign because he was hoarding his air resources.
Using Bush to urge Hussein to conduct a more aggressive air war was discussed at a meeting of the interagency planning group on July 23, 1986, according to a secret State Department account of the session. Bush was embarking on a 10-day trip through the Middle East on July 25, including stops in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as a meeting with Mubarak in Cairo.
"We have encouraged the vice president to suggest to both King Hussein (of Jordan) and President Mubarak that they sustain their efforts to convey our shared views to Saddam regarding Iraq's use of its air resources," the account said.
The account indicated that previous efforts had failed to persuade Hussein to increase air attacks. "The very recent report from Amman (Jordan) on that subject leads us to conclude that Saddam may not be open to the suggestion," according to the account.
In addition to proposing Bush as messenger, the account said there was general agreement to use a senior U.S. official to convey the message directly to Hussein in Baghdad.