Inspecting the truth

Those canonising UN weapons inspectors as the 'peace warriors' of Iraq have very short memories.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

In Death of a Scientist – a documentary on the suicide of British weapons expert David Kelly shown on Channel 4 on 5 October 2003 – former BBC reporter Tom Mangold claimed that Kelly and other UN weapons inspectors knew that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

He contrasted the inspectors’ commitment to the facts with Bush and Blair’s ‘sexing up’ of the pre-war evidence. According to Mangold, during the ‘dark years’ – the four years between 1998, when the first lot of weapons inspectors left Iraq, and 2002, when under Hans Blix they returned – inspectors were aware that Iraq had not developed new WMD and did not pose a significant threat.

Mangold has a short memory. He seems to have forgotten that in 2000 – slap bang in the middle of the ‘dark years’ – he published a book containing detailed interviews with weapons inspectors, entitled Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare. Then Mangold described Iraq as ‘one of the most dangerous rogue states in the world today’. He wrote: ‘The first biological war of the millennium will not be a cataclysmic superpower exchange, but a low intensity regional conflict between a “rogue” state and its neighbour. Iraq qualifies.’ (1)

In the acknowledgements, Mangold thanked a ‘small team who were always at my side’ as he wrote the book – and top of the list was David Kelly. Kelly told Mangold that Iraq ‘could send a couple of Scuds with anthrax warheads against Israel or Kuwait today…. They can easily produce the 145 litres of anthrax per warhead…. In a crude operation, they could use this stuff internally by spraying it from a helicopter…. I remain deeply suspicious….’ (2)

This disparity – between today’s claims that weapons inspectors do not consider Iraq a threat and the recent reality of weapons inspectors spreading ‘deep suspicions’ about Iraq’s threat – reveals much about the postwar debate. In recent months, the inspectors have been hailed as the heroes of the Iraqi debacle. According to the UK Guardian, the publication of the Iraq Survey Group’s report on 3 October (which, in the words of its author, found ‘no shiny, pointy things that I would call a weapon’) merely confirmed what the inspectors apparently knew all along: ‘that no WMD would be found in Iraq.’ (3) Chief inspector Hans Blix won international praise when he declared in September 2003 that Bush and Blair’s war had been a waste, because Iraq probably destroyed its WMD 10 years ago (4).

This canonisation of the rational inspectors, in contrast to hysterical Bush and Blair, is a spectacular rewriting of history. Far from being the ‘peace warriors’ described in one report, the UN inspectors have for the past 12 years held a gun to Iraq’s head. Their relentless ‘search and destroy’ programmes ensured that Iraq remained top of the international agenda, while their reports provided the US and British elites with the moral authority to take action against Iraq as and when they pleased. In the 1990s, between Gulf War I and Gulf War II, inspectors twice paved the way for major air assaults on Iraq, which left hundreds dead.

Far from being anti-war, Hans Blix, David Kelly and the rest helped to make war an easy option for the West. The inspectors’ differences with Bush and Blair in the past year have nothing to do with opposing Western intervention in Iraq – and everything to do with cynically defending their special position on the world stage.

The first inspections team, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), was born out of Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War of 1991. Its role was to verify the Ba’athist regime’s compliance with UN Resolution 687, which declared that Iraq must ‘unconditionally accept’ the ‘destruction, removal or rendering harmless of its weapons of mass destruction’ (5).

From the outset, UNSCOM was far from a neutral, peace-loving body. Its powers of intervention and destruction were unlike anything that went before in the arms control and inspection business. As one report put it, UNSCOM inspectors ‘possessed powers that were almost war-like in their fight against Iraqi deception. They could mount surprise challenge inspections; they could go where they liked, when they liked; and they had substantive powers of seizure’ (6). In the early 1990s, UNSCOM officials gained additional powers to fly aeroplanes inside Iraq and to destroy through detonation suspicious factories and buildings.

The inspectors’ authority over Iraq derived largely from the threat of force if Iraq failed to comply with their demands – or the threat of ‘serious consequences’, as the UN resolution politely put it. This threat became a reality in January 1993, when 100 American, British and French fighter planes bombed targets in southern Iraq. US President Bush senior drew a direct link between UNSCOM’s complaints about Iraqi intransigence and his decision to launch air strikes:

‘On 15 January 1993, UNSCOM found Iraq’s refusal to guarantee the safety of flights constituted an abdication of Iraq’s responsibilities to ensure the safety of UNSCOM personnel. On 16 January 1993, UNSCOM found that Iraq’s decision to condition ensuring the safety of flights on entry of Iraqi airspace to be an unacceptable attempt to restrict UNSCOM’s freedom of movement. On 17 January 1993, at my direction, US Tomahawk missiles destroyed the Zaafaraniyah nuclear fabrication facility near Baghdad….’ (7)

After the January attacks, Iraq appeared to have learned its lesson. In June 1993, Iraqi officials refused to allow UNSCOM officials to install remote-controlled monitoring cameras at two weapons testing sites. Again, UNSCOM officials complained. Again, the UN Security Council threatened ‘serious consequences’. This time Iraq bowed to the inspectors’ demands – having learned that when UNSCOM officials issue complaints, bombs cannot be far behind.

Towards the end of the 1990s, UNSCOM again provided American and British forces with a premise on which to attack Iraq – though this time, the attack led to the collapse of UNSCOM itself. In December 1998, then US President Bill Clinton and UK prime minister Tony Blair launched Operation Desert Fox, a bombing campaign over Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. According to US officials, the air raids killed 1400 Iraqi Republican Guards; estimates of civilian casualties range from 50 to 200 (8).

Again, both the USA and Britain cited complaints made by UNSCOM officials as justification for their mini-war. Throughout 1998, UNSCOM had upped the ante against Iraq, demanding access to Saddam’s presidential palaces as well as to factories and other sites. When Saddam refused, UNSCOM’s then chief inspector Richard Butler complained that Iraq was ‘failing to comply’. This was all the excuse needed by Clinton and Blair to launch their self-serving campaign. Blair, virtually repeating UNSCOM’s allegations, said the air strikes were launched because Saddam had failed to give ‘unconditional access to inspectors’ (9).

Operation Desert Fox showed up the useful role that UNSCOM played for Western powers keen to intervene in Iraq. Throughout the 1990s, UNSCOM effectively maintained a permanent state of crisis between the West and Iraq. UNSCOM officials went from demanding access to factories and chemical plants to demanding access to presidential palaces and Ba’ath Party buildings. By its nature, the search for weapons could never be fully satisfied – at least not until the inspectors had given Saddam himself an intimate body search.

In many ways, UNSCOM was effectively an open-ended licence to create a crisis between the US and British elites and Iraq. As Iraq’s minister for oil General Amer Rashid put it in 1998: ‘The policy within UNSCOM is always to have an issue under consideration. So always the technique is to make it endless, this tunnel without a light at the end; the goalpost is always moving’ (10).

That was the reality of UNSCOM – not a body with a definite brief that could be achieved over a given period of time, but an ever-present ‘war-like’ force, which could ‘move the goalposts’ whenever necessary. UNSCOM thrived on the kind of ‘deep suspicion’ articulated by David Kelly in 2000 – that is what guaranteed its position of authority over Iraq, and what granted the West a beeline to bombing Baghdad.

However, Desert Fox also exposed some much more explicit links between the US authorities and UNSCOM. Reports indicate that UNSCOM had been infiltrated by CIA spies in 1998, who had cynically increased the pressure on Iraq in order to justify the December bombing campaign – even that UNSCOM head Richard Butler had allegedly provided the US authorities with sensitive information about Iraq. Certainly, as one report described it, ‘there was evidence that intelligence information collected by inspectors had been handed to the US/UK military targeters for Desert Fox’ (11). Having provided the American and British with a reason to attack Iraq, some UNSCOM elements then provided them with insider info on where to aim the bombs.

How many of UNSCOM’s supposed ‘peace warriors’ resigned when they realised that UNSCOM had helped to start and guide a bombing campaign? One. Scott Ritter was the only inspector to leave, claiming that UNSCOM had become a ‘cover’ for espionage operations against Iraq. Whatever you might think of Ritter’s subsequent career – as a shrill commentator on America’s intentions over Iraq – he at least had the gumption to resign. All the rest – including hero of the anti-war movement David Kelly – remained UNSCOM members during and after Desert Fox.

Just before Desert Fox kicked off, UNSCOM officials left Iraq. Then came the ‘dark years’, the four-year period when there were no weapons inspectors inside Iraq. Today, as was clear from Tom Mangold’s programme on Channel 4, this is seen as a time when weapons inspectors had few worries about Iraq and knew that Saddam’s regime was not developing new WMD. In reality, many inspectors spent the ‘dark years’ trying to keep Iraq alive as an international issue, raising suspicions about Saddam in an attempt to justify their return to Iraqi territory.

Former UNSCOM head Richard Butler, bitter at being fingered as America’s man in the UNSCOM team, continued to talk up Saddam’s threat. ‘I know what these bastards are like’, he said. ‘We’ve got to win.’

Other inspectors continued to give interviews raising concerns about Iraq. One of the most prominent of these was David Kelly. For Mangold’s book in 2000, Kelly claimed that Iraq could be working on ‘three viral programmes – camel pox, rotaviruses and haemorrhagic conjunctivitis’. He said: ‘There’s some intelligence evidence showing that they imported the correct growth medium to grow the Plague bacteria.’ (12) Up to 2002, Kelly also voiced his suspicions to pro-war American journalist Judith Miller, another contact he first made in Iraq in the late 1990s (see Kelly’s connections, by Brendan O’Neill).

Far from turning a blind eye to Iraq during the ‘dark years’, weapons inspectors called for the international community to return its focus to Saddam’s regime.

What about today? In 2000, the UN set up a second inspections body to replace UNSCOM. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) was headed by Hans Blix, but it was not allowed back to Iraq until late 2002.

As President Bush junior and Blair were talking war against Saddam’s regime in 2002, Blix and his team were sent in to assess the state of Iraq’s WMD programmes. Now, five months after Gulf War II ended, Blix says that Iraq probably destroyed its WMD 10 years ago. But he, too, has changed his tune. At the end of January 2003, six weeks before Bush and Blair launched their war, Blix said no such thing about Iraq having destroyed its weapons. Instead, he again raised suspicions and, in the words of one report, ‘buttressed’ the pro-war campaign.

Blix admitted that inspectors did not find any illegal weapons, but he outlined his fears about Saddam’s intentions. Some of the issues he highlighted included: ‘Some 6500 chemical bombs containing 1000 tons of chemical agents and “several thousand” chemical rocket warheads are unaccounted for…. Inspectors found a “laboratory quantity” of thiodiglycol, a precursor of mustard gas…. Iraq has prepared equipment at a chemical plant previously destroyed by the UN….’ (13) As a report in the UK Daily Telegraph said: ‘Hans Blix…stated unequivocally that Saddam Hussein had failed to disarm, greatly strengthening the American and British case for war.’ (14)

After 12 years of interrogating Iraq, calling in the bombing squads, allowing their intelligence to be used by US military forces, raising suspicion after suspicion, and earlier this year ‘strengthening the American and British case for war’, one thing is clear – there is no principled clash between peace-loving weapons inspectors and warmongering Bush and Blair. For all the anti-war lobby’s posthumous respect for David Kelly (left-wing writer John Pilger described him as ‘heroic’), Kelly himself said that he supported ‘regime change’ in Iraq. None of the other inspectors are anti-war, either.

Rather, the inspectors’ sudden turnaround – from being ‘deeply suspicious’ about Iraq to claiming that Iraq is not a threat after all – is driven by a far more squalid clash with the US and UK governments. In criticising Bush and Blair, the inspectors are merely attempting to defend their own position rather than actually challenging America and Britain’s actions in Iraq. The inspectors thrived on a climate of suspicion about Iraq, on the notion that Saddam might potentially be a threat and must constantly be kept in check just in case. The inspectors are irritated by Bush and Blair’s war because it knocked them off their perch, undermining their authority and purpose on the world stage.

Those who oppose Western intervention in Iraq and elsewhere should have no truck with the inspectors’ current claims. Say no to war – and no to weapons inspections.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(3) A tribute to weapons inspectors, Isabel Hilton, Guardian, 7 October 2003

(4) Iraq dumped weapons years ago, says Blix, Guardian, 18 September 2003

(5) United Nations Resolution 687, 3 April 1991

(6) Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) Letter to Congressional leaders reporting on Iraq’s compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions, George Bush, 19 January 1993, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

(8) USA reportedly ready for prolonged attack on Iraq, Knight Ridder News Service, 9 January 1999

(9) Iraq attacked in Operation Desert Fox, CNN, 16 December 1998

(10) Inside UNSCOM: Iraq’s response, CNN, 4 March 1998

(11) Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(12) Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Macmillan, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(13) The damning of Saddam, Robin Gedye, Toby Harnden and Toby Helm, Daily Telegraph, 28 January 2003

(14) The damning of Saddam, Robin Gedye, Toby Harnden and Toby Helm, Daily Telegraph, 28 January 2003

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Topics Politics


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