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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Why Iraq, Why Now?

Back in 1991, Saddam had promised an epic struggle, the Mother of All Battles, as the U.S.-led coalition assembled a massive army to drive him out of Kuwait. It turned out to be a grotesque mismatch. On January 17, U.S.-led forces began weeks of air and missile attacks. On February 24 they followed up with a ground offensive that lasted exactly 100 hours. With Iraqi forces fleeing in disarray, Bush senior called a halt to military operations from midnight Washington time on February 27, 1991. The Gulf War had ended in a crushing victory for the United States and its allies: less than seven months after invading Kuwait, Iraqi troops had been routed and expelled.

The United States could have gone further. In purely military terms, there was no question that it could have pursued the retreating Iraqis all the way to Baghdad. General Norman Schwarzkopf declared victory at a news conference, dubbed the "mother of all briefings," and said his forces could have overrun the country unopposed if that had been their intention.

But there were compelling political reasons to stop the war. President George Bush senior had painstakingly assembled a wide coalition—including traditional Arab foes such as Syria—for the express purpose of liberating Kuwait, not toppling Saddam. Ousting him would have gone far beyond the terms of United Nations resolutions. It would have meant higher U.S. casualties. There was no clear vision of who or what would replace him, and any successor government would have required substantial, costly and open-ended support, both military and financial. Not only did Bush call off the land war, but he declined to throw U.S. support behind the Kurds of northern Iraq or the Shias in the south, both of whom launched uprisings against Saddam almost as soon as the Gulf war was over. Successful revolts by either group would have carried unpredictable consequences and risks for both Iraq and its neighbors. Better for the United States to declare "mission accomplished" and withdraw its forces quickly from the region. In any case, many assumed Saddam was already fatally weakened and on the verge of being toppled. "We thought Saddam Hussein would leave power," Bush senior said in a speech in October 2002.

That assumption with hindsight proved at best naïve. Twelve years of sanctions failed to break Saddam. A U.N.-administered "oil for food" program allowed Iraq to export oil in order to buy essential goods, but glaring shortages of medicines caused indisputable suffering and handed a propaganda opportunity to the Iraqis, who blamed the sanctions for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

More than a decade after the war, Bush junior had personal as well as political motives for preoccupying himself with Saddam. In his U.N. speech, he alluded to Iraq's attempt to kill "a former American president" in a plot foiled by U.S. intelligence in Kuwait in 1993. On another occasion he spoke of the episode—and Saddam—in more personal terms: "After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad." Two other top figures in his administration had cause to see the Gulf War as unfinished business: Vice President Cheney had been defense secretary under Bush senior, while Secretary of State Colin Powell was the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Former U.N. arms inspector Scott RitterFormer U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter avoids walking on a portrait of former President George Bush as he enters the al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad, July 29, 2000. Ritter arrived in Baghdad to film a documentary about weapons sites and the impact of U.N. sanctions. REUTERS

In the wake of September 11, Bush and his Republican team saw a new opportunity to go after Saddam and remove this thorn in their side. Buoyed by strong public support, heightened patriotism and a bipartisan political consensus, they spotted a chance to test and validate their new security doctrine. "Before September 11 there would really have been no chance whatsoever of mobilizing the American people or the Congress behind a unilateral attack on Iraq or indeed any kind of pre-emptive strike against Iraq. It would just have been politically out of the question," said Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They're trying to use the nationalist energy generated by September 11 to carry a war with Iraq."

Domestic political considerations came into the equation. With an eye to his own re-election chances in 2004, the war on terror provided Bush with a unifying national cause, and he built up broad popular backing. He had fashioned it into the defining theme of his presidency, and opponents risked being branded unpatriotic or wimpish. Amid global and U.S. economic malaise, a prolonged stock- market downturn and a spate of corporate scandals, decisive leadership and defense of America's security interests were his strongest political asset.

Against this background, Bush began to set out before the American people and the world community a case for possible war against Iraq. Much of it was laid out in his U.N. speech on September 12, in which he declared: "Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger." It was reinforced by Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally, in a published dossier of evidence based partly on intelligence reports.

Weapons inspectors prepare a site in Iraq for the destruction of rocketsWeapons inspectors prepare a site in Iraq for the destruction of rockets containing the chemical nerve agent sarin, February 16, 1998. REUTERS

Chief among the Bush/Blair arguments were these: Saddam had a clear record of aggression against his neighbors, with attacks on Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He had repressed his own people, even using deadly poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. He was determinedly pursuing chemical, biological and atomic weapons and could build a nuclear device within a year if he got hold of fissile material. He had broken every promise to the United Nations and prevented arms inspectors from pursuing their work. Saddam was a threat to the world and to the authority of the United Nations, which risked irrelevance if it failed to oppose him.

U.N. Inspectors: The Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction

Evelyn Leopold

"At one level, major world leaders have major world weapons, or to put it more
colloquially, big boys have big toys."

Jerrold Post
professor of political psychology at
George Washington University

Scuds, super guns, calutrons, anthrax, botulinum toxin, sulphur mustard, nitrogen mustard, sarin nerve agents, VX nerve agents. It was supposed to take only 45 days in 1991 to get rid of them all, but more than a decade later no one is sure what is left.

At the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the United States and others believed that President Saddam Hussein would act as the leader of a defeated nation and give up weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise he would continue to lose $25 million a day in oil revenues, the heart of sweeping U.N. sanctions.

To this end, the U.N. Security Council in April 1991 adopted a complex 3,900-word cease-fire resolution, No. 687, which, in effect, dictated Iraq's surrender. The measure set up the world's most intrusive inspection system to rid Iraq of ballistic missiles and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as a condition for lifting the embargo on oil.

The first inspection unit, known as the U.N. Special Commission or UNSCOM, was created with Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish diplomat and disarmament expert, as its executive chairman. When Ekeus walked into his office in April 1991, he had a desk, a chair and a secretary, Olivia Platon, then on loan from the U.N. Center for Disarmament.

By the time Ekeus handed UNSCOM over to Australian Richard Butler in July 1997, he had hundreds of inspectors, a headquarters staff, the use of satellites, helicopters, cameras, equipment to measure air, water and soil, a testing facility in Baghdad and intelligence reports from governments.

By 1998 the inspectors had accounted for or destroyed equipment and materials that could be used to make an atomic bomb, 817 of 819 Scud missiles, 39,000 chemical munitions and more than 3,000 tons of agents and precursors. But unaccounted for were 500 mustard-gas shells, 150 aerial bombs, 17 tons of complex growth media that could be used to nourish biological agents, and 200 tons of chemicals for the nerve agent VX.

In hindsight, the carrot-and-stick approach was doomed almost from the start. Saddam neither admitted defeat nor wanted to be portrayed as "disarmed." Weapons inspectors blowing up factories or driving up to government ministries unannounced were an unexpected affront to what Iraqi officials called their "sovereignty, security and independence."

The incentive of lifting the oil sanctions also disappeared quickly. The first President George Bush, facing criticism for leaving Saddam in office after the Gulf War, said as early as May 1991 that he did not want to lift sanctions "as long as Saddam Hussein is in power," a contradiction of resolution 687.

A building inside one of Baghdad's presidential palace compoundsA building inside one of Baghdad's presidential palace compounds, an area off limits to United Nations weapons inspectors at the time, was photographed on a media trip organized by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz, December 19, 1997. REUTERS

The scene was set. Iraq at first "was merely offering up its obsolete and dangerous stock for UNSCOM to destroy, and keeping back its more modern and useful weapons," wrote Tim Trevan, UNSCOM's press spokesman in Saddam's Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq's Hidden Weapons.

In June 1991 David Kay, an inspector from the International Atomic Energy Agency, carried out the first surprise survey at the Fallujah camp, northwest of Baghdad. His group was photographing Iraqis loading into trucks bomb-making equipment, called calutrons, an antique technology used to separate atomic weapons-grade material. To stop the inspectors from getting closer, soldiers fired shots into the air.

Three months later Kay and his team were pinned down in a parking lot for days for refusing to give back documents, which in subsequent years were either handed over to UNSCOM by the truckload or refused entirely. Ekeus was called a "liar" by Iraqi officials, and inspectors Nikita Smidovich of Russia and Scott Ritter of the United States were referred to as "cowboys."

To bring the inspections back on track, the United States periodically threatened war, several times in 1998, dubbed the "year of the palaces." Butler in December 1997 was unable to gain access to Saddam's "palaces"—in reality eight huge presidential sites with more than 1,000 buildings. The inspectors hoped to find documents that would unravel the decision-making process by which Iraq had concealed a secret arsenal.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in an effort to avoid war, struck a deal that required inspectors to be accompanied by foreign diplomats. American Charles Duelfer, who led a 75-car caravan on the only inspection of the compounds, said no one learned anything. "The Iraqis had plenty of time to prepare. You couldn't get a cleaning service in Washington that was that good," he said.

Iraq evidently had decided that without a definitive promise to lift sanctions, it would make its case around the world against intrusive inspections. Although Baghdad now was allowed to sell unlimited amounts of oil, its imports of goods were controlled by the United Nations, which micromanaged the Iraqi economy under the "oil-for-food" program.

For many countries, fatigue and opposition to the sanctions had set in. Even if Saddam had built some luxury homes, the population was clearly suffering under the embargoes, especially children. The U.N. Security Council was bitterly divided, with Russia, France and others calling for steps toward lifting sanctions.

UNSCOM, in effect, was put on trial, its status diminished, its methods questioned. In December 1998, Butler gave another negative report on Iraqi cooperation. He then withdrew the inspectors, hours before the United States and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox, four days of relentless aerial bombardment of Iraqi facilities.

It was the end of inspections and, within a year, the end of UNSCOM itself.

The commission was harshly criticized by Russia and other council members, particularly after U.S. officials in 1999 openly admitted they had placed spies among the inspectors. In December 1999, after months of haggling, a divided Security Council created a new unit, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Hans Blix, the retired Swedish director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, became its executive chairman.

But Iraq had had enough. It refused to allow the weapons inspectors to return unconditionally until mid-2002, again under the threat of a full-scale U.S. invasion, this time aimed at toppling Saddam himself. Inspections were in vogue again. The inspectors, once accused of provoking a war, were now seen as the only means to prevent or delay Washington from launching a military strike.

Going beyond the Blair dossier and London's more cautious line, Bush and administration officials frequently asserted links between Saddam and al Qaeda. "This is a man that we know has had connections with al Qaeda. This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army," the president declared. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in late September 2002 that senior al Qaeda leaders had been in Baghdad in the previous weeks. "We have what we believe to be credible information that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe-haven opportunities in Iraq, reciprocal nonaggression discussions. We have what we consider to be credible evidence that al Qaeda have sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons of mass-destruction capabilities."

This drumbeat from the administration appeared to yield results. By the following month, an opinion poll showed two-thirds of Americans, despite the absence of any "smoking gun," believed Saddam had a hand in the September 11 attacks.

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