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|Reports of weapons 'greatly exaggerated'
By Bronwen Maddox
Foreign Editor's Briefing
Times of London
April 25, 2003
WHY have American and British Forces not found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? The most plausible answer is that there are none, in the true sense of the word, even though forces are likely eventually to come across some very unpleasant weapons created by Saddam Hussein.
But Tony Blair and President Bush cannot give this answer, as they asserted unambiguously that these weapons existed in justifying the war. So members of Blair’s Cabinet and Bush’s Administration have felt obliged to offer less plausible accounts of where the elusive weapons might be.
The most ambitious so far were put forward yesterday by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, in a fabulously implausible narrative which contradicated earlier statements by his Prime Minister, his colleagues and himself.
It is an understatement to say that the failure to find such weapons is an embarrassment for the British and American governments. Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, was always very careful to say that he was looking for weapons which were “unaccounted for”, discrepancies between what Iraq could have produced and what it had declared.
Blix never said they definitely existed. But Blair, Bush and their henchmen stepped repeatedly over that line, particularly in the frenetic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to secure the backing of a second UN resolution.
In particular, Blair presented Parliament with a “dossier” on September 24 last year, headlined Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction — The Assessment of the British Government. It said that “Intelligence has established beyond doubt . . . that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons”.
The most dramatic claim of the dossier, much publicised, was that Saddam’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”.
You do not have to be a fan of BBC Radio’s Today programme, or its breathlessly shrill style of interrogation, to concede that there is such a thing as a bad performance. Hoon delivered one yesterday in response to a shrewd series of questions, also the ones which any ordinary, interested person would ask first.
Top of that list is why the Saddam regime, facing annihilation, did not use weapons of mass destruction if it had them. According to Hoon, this is because the weapons were “scattered across Iraq (and) were well hidden” while UN inspectors were in the country.
But then they weren’t ready to use in 45 minutes, surely? Hoon appeared unaware of this claim. “I do not recall ever saying that. I specifically did not put a time on it,” he said.
No, he didn’t say it, but his Government did, and the claim is central to Britain’s justification for pressing ahead with the war. Hoon himself, just before the outbreak of war, made a speech that gave warning of the “very real threat today . . . of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”.
Hoon then alleges that the sudden onslaught of war disrupted command structures and prevented the weapons being reassembled. It didn’t seem that sudden at the time. Several days passed between the departure of the UN inspectors and the start of the bombing. There was also a solid two weeks after the bombing started in which Iraqi command structures looked anything but shattered, to the point where Washington was grimly bracing itself for a long war.
Why, on Hoon’s “well hidden” account, has nothing of significance been found, even though American forces have been in the country for more than a month? There is a limit to the number of possible hiding places. US Intelligence had identified about 150 sites worth investigation, and are already believed to have visited about half, according to analysts. Not one of these has yet yielded a “smoking gun”.
On Hoon’s account, the regime was organised and skilful enough to dismantle, transport and hide all these weapons beyond the detective skills of US forces, and yet so disorganised that it could not retrieve and deploy even one.
What about the chance that weapons have been smuggled out, to Syria, or sold to terrorists? This possibility has been gaining currency; it has been raised by David Kay, a former UN weapons inspector, and Alexander Downer, the Australian Foreign Minister, although citing reports he said he could not verify.
But that, too, is implausible. Smuggled out to Syria? Not likely. Damascus is certainly capable of making serious misjudgements, but knowingly allowing Iraq’s banned weapons across its border would be only slightly short of accepting Saddam himself, a risk which no sane regime, looking at the American force camped in the region, would contemplate.
Could they have been sold to terrorist groups? It is unlikely that they would want them, or pay much for them. The kind of chemical or biological weapons Saddam is accused of making are needed in large quantities, say a tonne, to be of any use. They need complex, expensive and conspicuous delivery systems, such as aircraft equipped with sprays or missiles. Terrorists targeting subway trains or water supplies can make do with something far simpler, such as ricin.
The exception is weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. That is scarce, small in volume and easily hidden, and could be sold for a lot of money. But the nuclear part of the weapons programme is widely thought to have been the least developed; Saddam is not believed to have overcome the difficulty of buying or making weapons-grade material.
Gary Samore, director of studies at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and an expert on Iraq’s weapons programme, also questions the motivation. “If I were an Iraqi fleeing for my life, I’d take cash before bottles of liquid anthrax,” he says. True, documents can be easily destroyed or transported, he says, but missiles are particularly hard to transport or conceal.
The most plausible account so far is the one given by Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, in his resignation speech. This is that Iraq certainly made highly unpleasant weapons but not in large enough quantities or at a level of readiness to warrant the term “mass destruction”.
“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term — namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target,” he said.
“It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munititions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories.”
There is no question that Saddam’s regime produced, and used, terrible weapons. The odds are that forces will uncover evidence of them. But this is a long way from the claims made in the run-up to war, or the accounts now offered about why the weapons remain so hard to find.
What they said about weapons of mass destruction:
“If we know Saddam has weapons of mass destruction — and we do — does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him?” “It (Iraq regime) possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons . . . we know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, and VX gas”
George Bush, October 7, 2002
“We are dealing with a very real threat today, that of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”
Geoff Hoon, March 10, 2003
“His (Saddam Hussein’s) regime has large, unaccounted-for stockpiles of chemical and biological weaponsand he has an active programme to acquire and develop nuclear weapons”
Donald Rumsfeld, January 20, 2003
“Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
“In fact, they (Iraqi regime) can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people. “Saddam Hussein has never accounted for vast amounts of chemical weaponry: 550 artillery shells with mustard, 30,000 empty munitions, and enough precursors to increase his stockpile to as much as 500 tons of chemical agents. If we consider just one category of missing weaponry, 6,500 bombs from the Iran-Iraq war. . . Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tonnes of chemical-weapons agent. Even the low end of 100 tonnes of agent would enable Saddam Hussein to cause mass casualties across more than 100 square miles of territory, an area nearly five times the size of Manhattan”
Colin Powell, address to the UN Security Council, February 5, 2003
“It is right (going to war) because weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, are a real threat to the security of the world and this country”
Tony Blair, House of Commons, January 15, 2003
“What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.
His (Saddam Hussein’s) military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”
Tony Blair, Foreword to Iraq “dossier”