Iraq: the myth and the reality

  • From: "Muslim News" <editor@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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  • Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 05:51:09 -0000

As the drumbeat grows louder for a possible attack on Baghdad, we ask
arms inspectors and military and foreign affairs experts: is Saddam as
dangerous as the US makes out, and what would be the consequences of
Julian Borger in Washington, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and
Brian Whitaker
Friday March 15, 2002 
1. Does Iraq have, or is it developing, weapons of mass destruction?
The case for military action against Saddam Hussein stands or falls on
this apparently simple factual question. President George Bush and his
deputy, Dick Cheney, backed by Tony Blair, claim there is no doubt that
Baghdad possesses and could use weapons of mass destruction, and so, as
Mr Bush put it, "inaction is not an option". 
Most analysts, however, concede that there is considerable doubt about
the extent of Saddam's weapons programme, and about how dangerous it
could be to the rest of the world. What is not in doubt is that Saddam
has a record of aggressively pursuing the acquisition of weapons of mass
destruction, and has had more than three years since the UN weapons
inspectors withdrew to try to reconstitute his former nuclear,
biological and chemical programmes. 
At the centre of the debate on Iraq's weapons capability are the
inspectors from the now-defunct United Nations Special Commission on
Iraq (Unscom), who spent seven years, from 1991 to 1998, attempting to
gain access to the regime's arms facilities. Despite their shared
technical background, not all of them can agree on the facts. 
Charles Duelfer, an American who was deputy chairman of Unscom, believes
the Iraqis still have dangerous weapons in their arsenal - probably not
nuclear warheads, but possibly chemical weapons and, almost certainly
and most worryingly, biological agents. 
"The biological issue is the biggest issue and the least understood," Mr
Duelfer says. "[Saddam] has mobile labs, which have the capacity to
produce stuff in large quantities, and he's continuing to build
Mr Duelfer's judgment is that Iraq "retained a missile capability that
could constitute a strategic reserve; how effective that would be is an
open question". 
Not effective at all, says Scott Ritter, who stands as a vocal minority
at the other end of the former arms inspector divide. While in Unscom he
gained the reputation of being one of its most aggressive sleuths, but
he has since sharply shifted tack and is today a leading sceptic on the
Mr Ritter is sure the Iraqis never succeeded in turning their chemical
and biological agents into a weapon that could spray its lethal warhead
over a large area. 
"They lacked an effective dispensing mechanism. That requires specific
capabilities, like bomblets, and the ability to aerosolise the weapon.
Missiles require a precise fusing mechanism which Iraq never had." 
Although Mr Ritter concedes that 5-10% of Iraq's known pre-1990
stockpile of chemical and biological arms has not been accounted for, he
argues that even if Saddam had tried to hide this remnant of his arsenal
"it would no longer be viable". Weapons built before the Gulf war that
slipped through the Unscom net would by now have passed their sell-by
Ali Muhsin Hamid, the Arab League's ambassador in London, agrees. UN
inspectors destroyed 95% of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and the
remaining 5% has been rendered unuseable by the fact that Iraq is
prevented under sanctions from replacing equipment needed to deploy
Ben Bradshaw, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle
East, including policy on Iraq, has no doubts that "Iraq has and is
developing weapons of mass destruction. We cannot afford to ignore his
More specifically, Saddam is developing new missile-launching technology
that would allow him to strike beyond the 150km (93-mile) limit imposed
by the UN. Israel and several Gulf states would lie within his range. 
Most analysts believe that Iraq has so far failed to procure long-range
missiles able to deliver weapons of mass destruction. However, it has
developed an unmanned aerial vehicle modelled on a converted jet trainer
aircraft, which the CIA said recently had been adapted to deliver
chemical or, more likely, biological warfare agents. 
The most vexed area of disagreement relates to the most profound fear:
is Saddam building nuclear weapons? Western intelligence agencies and
independent analysts all agree that nuclear weapons are far more
difficult to develop than chemical or biological, simply because of the
difficulty involved in acquiring fissile material. 
Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at the Royal
Institute of International Affairs, says that from discussions with
nuclear scientists it seemed clear that Iraq does not have the capacity
to build nuclear weapons. She suggests that the emphasis now on Saddam's
nuclear ambitions is dictated by Washington's plans for a pre-emptive
strike on Iraq. 
Mr Bradshaw believes that Iraq has restarted its nuclear weapons
programme. "Saddam could develop a nuclear weapon within five years," he
says, though he adds that would only happen "if controls are lifted". 
Opponents of military intervention such as Mr Ritter counter that even
before Saddam was walled in by sanctions and international surveillance
he failed to create a nuclear bomb. 
Were Saddam to possess fully operational weapons of mass destruction,
would he use them? Among Iraqis themselves, there is rare agreement
between supporters and opponents of the Baghdad regime that Saddam is
unlikely to do so. Dr Burhan Chalabi, an Iraqi-born British businessman
and a strong critic of sanctions against Iraq, said deploying such
weapons would serve no useful purpose. "Apart from Kuwait and Israel,
Iraq has made peace with all its neighbours, including Saudi Arabia." 
Brigadier-General Najib Salihi, a prominent member of the Iraqi
opposition, agrees. Saddam would risk losing control of both the army
and his people if he pressed the button, he says. 
Mr Bradshaw points out that Saddam has already used chemical weapons
against Iran and against the Kurds of northern Iraq at Halabja,
attacking and killing them with mustard gas and the nerve agent tabun. 
To which Mr Ritter replies: "Under international law, at what point do
we justify a war about bad behaviour in the past?" 
2. What evidence is there for Saddam's possession or development of
weapons of mass destruction?
For the Iraqi-born Dr Chalabi, the answer is blunt: "There is no
Mr Hamid, of the Arab League, makes the same point more expansively.
Talk of "evidence" is political rhetoric, he says. "Either the US aim is
to force Iraq to accept the inspectors again or to have this issue
burning in order to distract the attention of Arabs from the situation
in the Palestinian occupied territories." 
Sir John Moberly, who was the British ambassador to Baghdad between 1982
and 1985, argues that to dismiss any fear of the regime as rhetoric is
to belie the evidence of history. Though he concedes he is not privy to
specifics, he is familiar with Saddam's past duplicity. 
"The Iraqis said they had abandoned weapons programmes but we found
later when one of the leadership defected to Jordan that the programmes
were continuing." 
Exhibit A in the debate over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is the
final substantive report delivered by Unscom in January 1999, in which
it gave an account of what biological and chemical weapons had been
accounted for and what remained unknown. The document confirms that much
of the pre-1990 stockpile was destroyed either in the Iran-Iraq war or
under Unscom supervision. For the rest, though, the key recurring phrase
was "cannot be verified". 
Colonel Terry Taylor, a former UN inspector in Iraq, says he and his
colleagues had proof that the Iraqis had weaponised anthrax, botulinum
toxin and aflatoxin. They also carried out research and development work
on other agents including ricin (a toxin) and animal and plant agents,
and had several hundreds of tons of mustard agent in missiles, artillery
and rocket form, as well as a weaponised version of the nerve agent
"The most worrying outstanding issue is that Unscom had documentary
proof that the Iraqis had acquired hundreds of tons of the chemicals
essential to the production of VX nerve agent - one of the most deadly
nerve agents developed in recent times. They refused to disclose the
location and confirm the quantities." 
Col Taylor adds that the Iraqi engineers and scientists are still in
place to develop and produce similar weapons. "Having been at close
quarters with these programmes over a number of years in Iraq I
concluded that they would make every effort to conceal their weapons of
mass destruction programmes and continue to develop them as far as
Mr Duelfer described as "very credible" an Iraqi defector named Adnan
al-Haideri who fled Iraq last year. Mr al-Haideri, a civil engineer,
claimed that he had worked on renovations to secret weapons of mass
destruction facilities concealed in private villas, wells and under the
Saddam Hussein hospital in Baghdad. 
Evidence of a nuclear capability is sketchy. The International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for monitoring nuclear
weapons and which is still making visits to Iraq, is upbeat, concluding
recently that there is no sign of a surviving programme. 
However, the comfort that affords is undermined by Mr Duelfer and Mr
Ritter who for once can agree that the IAEA has proved largely
ineffectual. Key components of three prototype nuclear bombs are
reported to have been made before the Gulf war but were never handed
over, including the high explosive "lenses" designed to force the
fissile core to implode. 
However, according to Mr Ritter the same Iraqi source which revealed the
existence of the three lenses also said that the delicate devices had
been roughly handled and wrecked by Saddam's Special Republican Guard.
"What the Iraqis retained is useless," he says. 
Mr Duelfer accepts that it is unlikely Saddam has a nuclear bomb, but
argues that there is credible evidence from defectors and other
intelligence that the Iraqi leader is marshalling his nuclear experts to
have a fresh attempt at building a bomb. 
3. Would an offer to allow UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq be a
meaningful and sufficient response to negate the threat of military
Again, the experts at the centre of the dispute - the arms inspectors -
cannot agree. The most optimistic view comes from Hans Blix, the Swedish
head of Unmovic, which in 1999 replaced Unscom after it was expelled
from Iraq. He is confident that once his newly trained 230-strong team
of inspectors are back in Iraq they will have a real impact. He is also
certain that this route would be a much safer and more efficient way of
removing the fangs from the regime than a military offensive. 
"Ten years and thousands of inspections and reports later it is
recognised that Unscom's efforts probably led to the destruction of more
weapons of mass destruction than did the Gulf war," he says. 
Mr Duelfer, with years of experience of Saddam's evasions, is less
sanguine about Unmovic's chances. "Blix can do no more than what Iraq
permits and the security council is willing to back up," he says,
pointing out that as a UN body, it would have to make its information
and intelligence available to countries such as France, Russia and
China, which have had a history of sympathy and cooperation with Iraq. 
Sir John Moberly thinks that if the Iraqis did allow the inspectors
back, they would take much wind out of US military sails. "It will be
very difficult to carry out any attack and maintain support
internationally if Iraq has complied." 
Other analysts suggest the US is adopting a cynical approach. For Mr
Ritter, no Iraqi response would be sufficient to stop an attack by an
administration that has set its sights on "regime change". 
Dr Chalabi also sees a double game being played. "If the Americans have
made up their mind to attack Iraq, they don't need any excuse such as
demanding to send inspectors back. This is just spin to prepare public
opinion for an attack." 
Mr Hamid, of the Arab League, says the only way to convince Arabs that
the US is genuine in its resolve to deal with weapons of mass
destruction is to tackle Israel's nuclear arsenal as well as Iraq's. "If
the Israeli weapons are looked at, the Arabs will feel that the US is
serious, fair, even-handed and objective." 
In the strategy being pursued by Washington and London, access to UN
inspectors and military action are inextricably linked - one depends on
the other. The British government now shares the Bush administration's
view that there is no chance of Saddam allowing in UN inspectors without
a credible threat of serious military action. 
Col Taylor agrees with that view. For him, bargaining is not on the
agenda. "You have to demonstrate to Baghdad that substantial and
credible military action will take place. You cannot negotiate with
Saddam Hussein." 
4. How easily, and with what risks, could Saddam be removed militarily?
For many defence analysts, the answer to this question takes us back to
the beginning. If Saddam does have weapons of mass destruction and is
ready to use them, then the battle to topple him will be neither easy
nor risk-free. 
Rear Admiral (retired) Stephen Baker, the chief analyst at the Centre
for Defence Information in Washington, stresses that such weapons have
to be regarded with utmost respect. "We would have to have a very, very
robust defensive response." 
The attacking forces would need to have airborne tactical aircraft with
precision-guided missiles, as well as upgraded Patriot missiles, able to
intercept Iraqi missiles minutes after they were launched. 
John Pike, who runs - a military and intelligence
online newsletter - said the greatest danger could be an Iraqi attack on
Israel, instantly transforming the conflict into one that pits all Arabs
against the Jewish state and its supporters. Pentagon planners, he said,
"are having a very hard time coming up with a workable plan which does
not involve chemical or biological weapons versus Israel". 
How much resistance could the 400,000-strong Iraqi army put up? There is
general agreement that the bulk of the force, made up of conscripts,
will not fight. Adm Baker believes that even applies to the elite
Republican Guard. "They have paid attention to Desert Storm. They know
the lethality of the coalition and the US." 
But Judith Yaphe, a former senior analyst on Iraq for the CIA now at the
National Defence University, warns that the Republican Guard has grown
"a lot leaner and meaner" since the Gulf war. 
Once again, Mr Ritter takes the most radical view. "The Republican Guard
never cracked during Desert Storm," he says. "They always fought. And
the Special Republican Guard, about 50,000 to 60,000 men, will fight to
the death." 
Moreover, Mr Ritter said, the ruling Baath party would mobilise a
guerrilla resistance. US casualties, he predicted, could run to hundreds
and perhaps thousands. Iraqi deaths would be in the tens of thousands or
Dr Chalabi paints a similar doom-laden picture. Just as the US has been
unable to pin down the leader of al-Qaida, so Saddam could simply
disappear into the Baghdad crowds. 
"Saddam is one person in 25 million. He would be more difficult to find
than Bin Laden. He has only to put on a dishdasha and walk in the souq,
and nobody would recognise him." 
Any serious military campaign would take months of planning, say British
defence officials. They dismiss as extremely unlikely a ground invasion
that would require tens of thousands of troops, the support of
neighbouring countries and a massive bombing campaign. 
"Where would American troops invade from?" asks a senior defence
official, adding that only Kuwait would provide a base, and even then
with extreme reluctance. 
In Afghanistan, much of the fighting against al-Qaida and the Taliban
was conducted by local opposition groups.Gen Salihi thinks Iraqi
opposition groups would be just as crucial in any strike against Saddam,
and insists that were these groups properly supported by the US then
victory would be guaranteed. 
"That's a dream," says Ms Yaphe, who scoffs at the idea of a substantial
involvement of local opposition forces. "It's going to be 99% American
Sir John Moberly also questions any central role for the Iraqi
opposition. "The Americans hope a lot of Iraqis would rise up. I am not
sure that would be the case. The Kurds would not want to get involved
and the Shia muslims in the south, who have the best military
capability, look to Iran as their mentor. It was not very sensible to
include Iran in the 'axis of evil'." 
5. If America went to war with Iraq, would it be in the British national
interest to take part?
"Absolutely not," says Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at
Bradford University. "It would risk destabilising the the whole region."

Dr Hollis is also fearful that by backing a US strike, Britain could be
brought into the firing line. Iraq could be provoked into establishing
direct links with al-Qaida and provide the network with more recruits,
she says, raising the spectre of terrorist attacks on Britain. 
But for diplomats such as Sir John Moberly a middle path needs to be
struck. "It would certainly be in the British interest not to be
creating problems for the Americans," he says. But nor should Tony Blair
allow himself to be seen as Washington's puppet. "We have to be ready to
support the Americans, but not accept everything they do." 
6. What kind of regime would replace Saddam were he toppled?
No Iraqi with an ounce of decency will ever accept a government bearing
the stamp "Made in the USA". So says Dr Chalabi, who ridicules the idea
of exiled opposition leaders returning to Baghdad to replace Saddam.
"Once the dollars stop, none of these dollar-revolutionaries in the
opposition will leave the comfort of London and New York to live in
Baghdad and rule people that most of them haven't seen since the Gulf
Gen Salihi, by contrast, holds up the vision of a post-Saddam multiparty
democracy representing all peoples and religions. The Kurds must get
their rights, within a united Iraq, and no group or family should
dominate Iraq alone. 
"A democratic system can resolve all problems and give all groups a
chance to participate in the next government," he says. 
It is precisely Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity that would be the
problem were Saddam overthrown, believes Mr Hamid, of the Arab League.
He prophesies not one, but several civil wars inside Iraq. 
Whitehall officials also speak of a potential "nightmare scenario" with
Iraq split into three parts, with the Kurds in the north demanding a
separate state, something which would be fiercely opposed by Turkey,
Iran and Syria. 
"There is an enormous risk of expectations. Kurdistan is not what people
want," said a defence official. 
At worst, says Sir John, such would be the instability that there would
be a great temptation to replace Saddam with another Saddam - another
iron-fisted military man. 
"The US has a personal animus against Saddam. I do not think they have a
clear idea of what they are going to do or what the results will be." 
7. Would removing Saddam by force make the world a safer place?
"The biggest danger is you might remove one danger and increase
another," says Dr Hollis, referring to the prospect of further
alienating Arab and Muslim opinion at a time when "Israel was being
allowed to get away with murder". 
"It is most likely to lead to further tension and conflict", says Prof
Rogers. Alternative solutions would have to be found, he added. 
For Dr Chalabi, the Middle East is only safe with an Iraq that is fully
intact and fully participating in the peace process. Mr Hamid goes
further, warning that war would be "a disaster for the region, because
Iraq's neighbours will be flooded with tens of thousands of Iraqi
Mr Duelfer sounds a rare note of hope, not least for Iraq itself. "Iraq
could be the engine of development in the Middle East. It can rebuild
itself. They've got a lot of real talented people, and there is a lot
more holding Iraq together than pulling it apart." 
In the end, this question also circles back to the beginning, and
President Bush's maxim: Inaction is not an option. "Saddam Hussein is a
danger to Iraq, to the region and to the world," says Col Taylor.
"Whatever you do entails risks, but the risk in not doing anything is
more risky." 

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