No Smoking Gun in Iraq

WHEN UN chief weapons inspector in Iraq, Hans Blix, returned from the first round of inspections in late January and reported that, based on these inspections and despite various problems that remained regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, he did not think that Iraq was in material breach of the relevant UN resolutions, US National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice reacted furiously. She is said to have telephoned Blix and rebuked him saying his job was merely to report on the inspections but the determination as to compliance with the UN resolutions would be done elsewhere. There can be little doubt that, had Blix’s findings been more to the US liking, they would have been latched on to immediately as the green signal to launch war on Iraq.

The Bush administration continues to argue aggressively that Iraq is indeed in possession of substantial quantities of WMD and continued to pose a threat to peace and security around the world, and that further inspections would be pointless since there was already overwhelming evidence against Iraq which therefore needs to be disarmed by force.

Germany, France, Russia, China and a host of other countries emphasised that more effective UN inspections could indeed not only establish whether, in fact, Iraq was in possession of WMDs but also provide means towards totally disarming Iraq of such weapons. In unprecedented open display of differences with US policy, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Belgium had extremely sharp public exchanges with US Defence Secretary and known hawk Donald Rumsfeld and made equally sharp public declarations that they were simply not convinced by the evidence so far available and refused to be bulldozed by the US into a war on Iraq.

No Smoking Gun

In a bid to persuade an increasingly sceptical world, the Bush administration started releasing evidence in its possession about Iraq’s WMD capability, the Blair government prepared and released a dossier and finally the US fielded its arguably most credible spokesperson, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to put forward the evidence in a dramatic and unprecedented audio-visual presentation at the UN televised live to an estimated worldwide audience of 1 billion people.

In substantial terms, Colin Powell’s presentation produced very little by way of concrete evidence. Just a few snippets of taped conversations of minor significance, some satellite photographs of doubtful vintage including one supposedly showing certain tell-tale facilities having been shifted in order to hide them from UN inspectors which even Hans Blix said proved nothing since such movements could easily be routine. Powell also dramatically displayed a small vial to demonstrate how lethal such small quantities could be but, beyond his statement that Iraq possessed lots of such material, did not produce any evidence to prove his claim.  No smoking gun, indeed very little smoke at all! And this despite the US administration having pulled out all the stops and playing numerous tricks and mind games. Powell was supposed to have come armed with latest intelligence including several items “de-classified” just the night before!  CIA Director George Tenet was personally brought from his hotel to the UN building by Powell in his limousine so they could be photographed together, and deliberately seated immediately behind him to convey a united Administration which everyone knows not to be the case, with the CIA scarcely making a secret of its differences with the Defence and State Departments’ assessments of the Iraqi WMD and threat capability. The Bush Administration the next day also upgraded the US terrorist alert status from yellow to orange, the second-highest level, citing intelligence reports of impending Al Qa’ida terrorist attacks in the continental USA, a stratagem cleverly designed to form an association between Iraq and Al Qa’ida.  However, Powell’s laboured efforts at emphasising this association and the potential threat posed by Iraqi WMD falling into terrorist hands was widely perceived to be the weakest aspect of his presentation at the UN.  In the absence of any hard evidence, it was no surprise that Powell’s presentation changed few minds among the audience at the UN or worldwide.  Even in the US, most polls such as that by CNN-Time Magazine showed that Powell’s speech had made little impact, with only 36 percent of the US public, as against 33 percent before the speech, favouring war against Iraq, a shift well within margins of statistical error.

It was left to the incorrigible Blair government in Britain to provide the comic touch to these efforts at producing “intelligence” secrets as evidence and to score an own goal in the Anglo-US campaign against Iraq. The British dossier which was said to contain damning revelations against Saddam Hussein was released a day before Powell’s speech at the UN, and was praised by him there. The dossier was soon found to have been drawn almost entirely on material contained in Jane’s Intelligence Review and plagiarised, including whole sections lifted verbatim, from a journal article by a California-based student, Ibrahim al-Marashi, itself based on a graduate thesis written in 2001 based on material collected during 1991!

Iraq & WMD Threat

The Bush administration and pro-US media at large have also virtually ignored the extremely important findings of the other half of the present UN team of Inspectors, the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei. He has been categorical in asserting,  as he indeed did before the UN Security Council, that Iraq no longer has any nuclear weapons nor does evidence show the existence of any credible nuclear weapons programme. CIA studies themselves state that, in the face of the current sanctions regime and extant Iraqi capabilities, Iraq would take till well after 2005 to develop enough fissile material to make even one nuclear bomb! Further, unlike biological or even chemical weapons, these cannot be developed in small or backroom facilities and can easily be detected.  An objective assessment of the threat from Iraq, even if it did possess nuclear weapons or other WMD, would show that it is in no position to pose dangers to the US, Europe or even perhaps to its neighbours given the present state of its military capabilities. The Iraqi military today has been reduced to roughly a third of its strength during the Gulf War. The Iraqi air force is virtually grounded due to the aggressive Anglo-US enforcement of the no-fly zone theoretically meant to cover only a part of Iraq but effectively being applied all over the country. Under the UN inspections imposed after the Gulf War, the then entire known Iraqi arsenal of 48 short-medium range ballistic missiles was destroyed along with 6 missile launchers. The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) set up in 1991 itself recorded having destroyed 817 out of the total 819 Scud missiles in Iraq’s possession at that time, leaving Iraq with only a few short-range Scud missiles, restricted again by UN mandate to a range of 150 kilometres deemed sufficient only for defensive rather than offensive purposes, apart from field artillery weapons with which it can lob shells over a few kilometers.  Hardly a picture conjuring up visions of a heavily armed and dangerous threat to world peace!

With no missile capability except for what are derisively known as “dud Scuds”, no deep penetration aircraft and in any case no possibility of penetrating the Anglo-US no-fly barrier, it is clear that Iraq possesses no delivery capability for nuclear weapons which, in any case, it does not appear to have.

In the spectrum of WMD threats from Iraq, that leaves biological and chemical weapons. And here the tale gets very murky indeed, with more skeletons in the US cupboard than WMD weapons in Iraq’s armoury!

US Involvement In Chemical & Biological Weapons

It has been known for many years that Iraq had an active chemical and biological weapons (CBW) programme during the late ‘80s and ‘90s. What is less widely known, or at least remembered, is that the Iraqi CBW programme was built through direct, active and sustained US support, a fact the Bush administration and its media friends are heavily suppressing since this would severely compromise the US campaign against the “evil” regime of Saddam Hussein.

While Iraq had an active CBW programme since the ‘60s, weapons production began in earnest in the mid-‘80s. Iraq focused on producing mustard gas along with lesser quantities of sarin and other nerve gases. Mustard gas requires ethylene or thiodiglycol as precursor chemicals and these were purchased by Iraq from US and European firms through the ‘80s, with the other main ingredient hydrochloric acid being widely available. During the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, the world watched with horror as both sides resorted to extensive use of chemical weapons and some biological weapons as well. The then US administrations, led by Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, the present President’s father, provided tactical and battlefield assistance to Iraq led by Saddam Hussein against Iran which the US then regarded as the main enemy.

Contrary to the holier-than-thou image the US now seeks to portray, painting Iraq as a monster for not only possessing but actually using CBWs, US supplies of CBW materials continued apace during this period despite full knowledge of their use against both military and civilian targets. The US in any case has no moral ground from which to accuse Iraq of evil-doing in respect of possession and use of CBWs. The US itself has over 1 million litres of mustard gas and 31,000 tons of chemical weapons munitions besides huge stocks of CBW material and munitions distributed in 99 sites in the US not included in the above figure declared in 1986. The US has also itself used huge quantities of chemical weapons such as Agent Orange in Indo-China during 1962-70.

A US Senate Committee Report of 1994 on “US Chemical and Biological Warfare-related Dual Use Exports to Iraq” has documented the huge shipments of chemical and biological weapons-related materials to Iraq continuing throughout the ‘80s. With regard to biological materials, the Senate Committee recorded the shipment of bacillus anthracis (causing anthrax), clostridium botulinum (causing botulism), histoplasma capsulatum (causing attacks on lungs, brain, spinal chord and heart), brucella melitensis (a bacteria that can damage major organs) and many other items in a veritable witches brew of pathogenic biological agents. Worse, the Committee recorded that “these micro-organisms exported by the United States were identical to those the UN Inspectors found and removed from the Iraqi biological warfare program”. Senator Donald Riegle, Chairman of the Senate Committee also recorded that between January 1985 and August 1990, “the executive branch of our government approved 771 different export licenses of dual-use technology to Iraq [which is] a devastating record”. As a result of these and other revelations, US Senator Robert Byrd recently stated that “the United States is, in large part, responsible for the very Iraqi weapons of mass destruction [it] now seeks to destroy.”

Donald Rumsfeld has denied any knowledge of the earlier US shipments of CBW materials to Iraq. In fact, Rumsfeld also does not remember that, as a businessman then, he was the personal emissary of Ronald Reagan to meet Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in December 1983 to reassure him of continued US support against Iran! Questioned on this on the Senate floor, Rumsfeld had promised to “review Pentagon records” and revert to the house which he has not done for over a year. All those involved in these dealings such as then Presidents Reagan and George Bush, apart from present President George W.  Bush and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have over the years all displayed collective amnesia regarding these events, much like the Watergate perpetrators who could “not recollect at the present point of time”!

Where Have All The CBWs Gone?
The question may still be raised as to, whatever their origin, where are all these CBW materials and/or weapons?

After its defeat in the Gulf War, Iraq had accepted UNSCR 687 calling for destruction and neutralisation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.  Iraq had itself acknowledged its production of 100 botulinum bombs, 50 anthrax bombs, 7 aflatoxin bombs and 16 missile warheads with botulinum, 5 with anthrax and 4 with aflatoxin. The UNSCOM set up in 1991 under UNSCR 715 and headed by Scott Ritter oversaw the detection and destruction of all these among 38,000 chemical munitions, 480,000 tons of chemical warfare agents and precursors and 30 CBW warheads which, according to UNSCOM, represented 90-95 percent of all such material in Iraq.  As against US claims reiterated by Powell that Iraq retained “vast amounts of chemical weaponry”, UNSCOM at that time and the present UN Inspection Team under Hans Blix have “found no firm evidence that Iraq still retains [CBW] weapons or material”. Nor have the UN inspectors found the “upto a few dozen Scud-type missiles” which Powell claimed Iraq has. Former UNSCOM Chief Scott Ritter, a self-confessed “card-carrying Republican” who voted for George W Bush  has repeatedly stated that UNSCOM had destroyed most of Iraq’s CBW capability and materials and has called President Bush a “liar” for propagating otherwise. Former UN Under Secretary General and Co-ordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck also termed the Anglo-US charges that certain Iraqi factories are producing CBWs as “lies”. The Al-Dora and Faluja factories near Baghdad had been destroyed by UN inspectors in 1999 and were visited by von Sponeck who, upon re-visiting these sites, saw them still in a state of total wreck.

US Cornered? OR Waiting?

Despite all these weaknesses in the Anglo-US case, however, in the weeks to come one aspect pertaining to CBWs in Iraq are likely to come to the fore.  Hans Blix has several times pointed to the need for Iraq to provide concrete evidence as to its destruction of any remaining CBWs and related materials.  If such action has been taken, such evidence is possible to produce and can be scientifically verified. This is the one aspect that the UN Inspections and Europeans are likely to focus on in the near future. If Iraq co-operates in this regard, or brings forth any remaining stocks so that the UN team can verifiably confirm their destruction, then the US drive to war can be firmly checked, at least for now.

Some commentators have pointed out that, in the face of mounting and massive opposition from friendly governments and from public opinion worldwide, the US is already backtracking on immediately launching a war on Iraq. However, others have speculated that the US may just wait out the current impasse at least for one important reason. White House insiders are pointing out that George Bush Senior won the previous Gulf War two years before the election by which time the victory euphoria had worn off and the economic after-effects had set in, allowing Bill Clinton to win. By this logic, they argue, George W Bush should go to war not now but sometime next year, closer to the US elections.

23 feb2003