Hans Blix’s Stalinist rewriting of history

Far from being anti-war heroes, UN weapons inspectors paved the way for the bombing of the ‘bastards’ and ‘moral lepers’ of Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Hans Blix’s apparently ‘barnstorming’ appearance at the UK Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War this week confirmed his position as the hero of the chattering classes. The former UN weapons inspector attacked the ‘testosterone’-fuelled desire of Blair and Bush to bomb the hell out of Saddam’s regime, boosting his image as a deceptively quiet, bespectacled warrior for decency who tried single-handedly to prevent war by pointing out that Saddam did not have WMD. It is such a crock. This is the rewriting of history on a scale Joe Stalin would have been proud of. Blix and other UN weapons inspectors actually paved the way for the bombing of what they openly referred to as the ‘bastards’ and ‘moral lepers’ of Iraq.

The media have uncritically slapped Blix on the back for his angry comments at Chilcot. This ‘renowned international lawyer’ landed some ‘heavy body blows against Tony Blair’, gushed one account. He’s applauded for telling Chilcot that, despite carrying out six inspections a day of nearly 700 sites in Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, he and his team found ‘almost nothing’ that could be deemed a major breach of UN resolutions on Iraqi weapons (the importance of that wording – ‘almost nothing’ – will become clear shortly).

In truth, UN weapons inspectors laid the ground for war. Inspectors were crawling around Iraq from the mid-1990s, effectively as the international community’s spies following the devastating Gulf War of 1991. In 1998, however, as then US president Bill Clinton and Tony Blair prepared their latest Iraq-bombing escapade Operation Desert Fox, the inspectors had to leave. They returned to Iraq in 2002, in the run-up to the second Gulf War of March 2003, once again barging and bossing their way through Iraqi territory with the extraordinary power to have Iraq bombed at any time if it dared to develop weapons outlawed by UN resolutions. For this whole period, from the mid-1990s through to 2003, the inspectors raised suspicion after suspicion about the Ba’athists, describing them as ‘moral lepers’ in charge of a ‘terribly dangerous rogue state’ and accusing them of trying to develop the Plague, anthrax bombs, smallpox and other biological weapons programmes. Bush and Blair pulled the trigger in 2003, yes, but the inspectors loaded the gun.

The period between 1998, when inspectors left Iraq, and 2002, when under Blix they returned, is referred to in weapons inspection circles as the ‘dark years’. During this time the inspectors, bitter at having to leave their super-important, semi-colonialist jobs in Iraq, tried desperately to convince the world that Saddam was still a threat that needed to be neutered. They gave public speeches and contributed to books and newspaper articles on Iraq’s alleged weapons programmes.

Some of them helped Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg with their book Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, published in 1999 and republished in 2000. That book describes Iraq as ‘one of the most dangerous rogue states in the world today’ and as the possible site of the ‘first biological war of the millennium’. Britain’s own David Kelly – the Ministry of Defence scientist who committed suicide in July 2003 after being fingered as the BBC’s source for its claims that the Labour government ‘sexed up’ its Iraq dossier – was often at the forefront of this shrill scaremongering in the ‘dark years’. He had visited Iraq 37 times as an inspector. He told Mangold and Goldberg that Iraq had been working on ‘three viral programmes – camel pox, rotaviruses and haemorrhagic conjunctivitis… a robust, indestructible little virus which you can spray on clothes and skin’. He also said that Iraq might be trying to develop the Plague and that Iraqis ‘could send a couple of Scuds with anthrax warheads against Israel or Kuwait today’. These comments by Kelly were published in 1999 and 2000 – yet according to the Iraq Survey Group’s comprehensive report on Saddam’s WMD, published in 2004, Iraq most likely destroyed most of its WMD in the early and mid-1990s.

Another British weapons inspector, Hamish Killip, also said things about Iraq which have since been rubbished. He accused the Iraqis of developing remote-controlled flying vehicles with ‘biological warfare drop-tanks filled with anthrax’, describing these as ‘the most ghastly weapon, like the Nazis’ V1 doodlebug’. Richard Butler, head of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq in the late 1990s, told Mangold and Goldberg that the Iraqis still ‘hold keys to the biological warfare box’. He has also said: ‘I know what these bastards are like’; Mangold pointed out that ‘it is no secret that Butler finds the Iraqi regime deeply repugnant, run by moral lepers’.

Even when Bush officials went through a brief spell in 2001 of claiming that Saddam had wound down his WMD programmes, the inspectors continued to talk up Saddam’s threat. On 24 February 2001, then US secretary of state Colin Powell said Saddam ‘has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction’. Around that very time, Kelly and other inspectors were offering advice to Judith Miller for her shrieky book Germs: The Ultimate Weapon, published towards the end of 2001. Miller, the discredited NYT journalist, wrote in Germs about Iraq’s attempts to acquire anthrax and other germs. Kelly continued to provide Miller with ‘insights’ up to December 2002, three months before the start of the Second Gulf War. On 3 December 2002, Miller wrote a piece for the NYT in which she hysterically claimed that Iraq had ‘obtained a particularly virulent strain of smallpox from a Russian scientist who worked in a smallpox lab in Moscow…’ – for which Kelly was one of the few named sources.

The final nail in Iraq’s coffin was provided by Blix himself. At the end of January 2003, six weeks before war, Blix did not say what he says today: that Iraq had no WMD. Instead, like other inspectors before him, he raised suspicions and, in the words of one report, ‘buttressed’ the pro-war campaign. In his speech to the UN Security Council on 27 January 2003, he asked awkward ‘questions that need to be answered’. On chemical weapons he raised the problem that ‘some 6,500 chemical bombs containing 1,000 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.’ He also warned, ominously, that Iraq’s anthrax ‘might still exist’. Only it didn’t. The Iraq Survey Group said in 2004 that Iraq had no active chemical or biological weapons programme. Blix was as wrong as Bush and Blair were. This is why he now uses wording like ‘almost nothing’ – to cover up the awkward fact that on the eve of Bush and Blair’s war he had hinted darkly that there might be ‘something’.

Blix put Iraq in a no-win situation. Before setting off to inspect it in 2002/early 2003, he told a reporter that ‘not seeing something, not seeing an indication of something, does not lead automatically to the conclusion that there is nothing’. So if he found weapons there would be war, and if he didn’t find weapons, well, there might still be war. The pro-war lobby saw what it wanted to see in Blix’s suspicions-filled final report to the UN in January 2003, with one account rightly arguing that it ‘greatly strengthened the American and British case for war’. Far from trying to prevent war, the weapons inspectors – with their demented scaremongering between 1998 and 2003 – provided Washington and London with the perfect justification for their military venture.

Only a fool would idolise Blix. The spat between him and the US and the UK is no principled stand-off between anti-war and pro-war camps. Rather it is a struggle amongst clashing invading forces, with Blix defending the right of his people to occupy and blackmail the ‘moral lepers’ of Iraq for the rest of time, while Bush and Blair preferred to launch all-out war against those ‘moral lepers’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.


Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare, Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Pan Books, 1999

Germs: The Ultimate Weapon, Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, William Broad, Simon & Schuster, 2001

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