October 28, 2002 | Backgrounder on Iraq
To deflate international pressure for a new and tougher U.N. Security Council resolution and to deflect the United States from war, Iraq recently agreed to permit the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, which it had blocked since 1998. But the crucial issue is to disarm Iraq, not merely to inspect it.
Inspections can work effectively only if Iraq is cooperative. As the timeline in the appendix shows, Baghdad has been far from cooperative in the past, and there is little reason to presume that it will be more accommodating in the future. Although Iraq disingenuously announced on September 16 that it was pleased "to allow the return of United Nations inspectors to Iraq without conditions,"2 it has already tried to impose conditions on what the inspectors can do after they return.
Indeed, the Iraqis already are backpedaling away from unconditional inspections. In the formal notification that Iraq sent to the United Nations later that week, it stipulated that inspectors must respect Iraq's dignity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and that the U.N. must apply the rules governing the elimination of Iraq's WMD programs to Israel as well.3 Iraq also proclaimed on September 21 that it would not abide by any new U.N. Security Council resolution that altered its prior agreements with the U.N.4 Acceding to this demand would result in a stillborn inspection system. It would allow Baghdad to retain the increasingly tight restrictions it had placed on U.N. inspectors through renegotiations, which watered down the effectiveness of the original inspection regime.
Washington cannot permit Saddam Hussein to make a charade of Iraq's disarmament obligations, as he did from 1991 to 1998. During that period, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), which dispatched the inspectors to verify that Iraq had relinquished prohibited weapons, was thwarted by systematic Iraqi denial, duplicity, and deception. The lesson of UNSCOM is that Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted to disarm his own regime.
Inspections are only worth doing if the inspectors have a strong mandate from the Security Council to do their jobs on an "anytime-anyplace" basis. Any new inspection regime must be stronger and more intrusive than were the UNSCOM inspections, which Iraq successfully thwarted. The inspectors must be able to interview any relevant Iraqi and have the power to conduct such interviews without the presence of Iraqi official observers. They must also be backed by robust military forces capable of brushing aside local Iraqi resistance and serving as a trigger for more extensive military operations if Baghdad again defaults on its obligations.
After losing the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq agreed, as a condition of surrender, to declare within 15 days all of its nuclear, chemical, and biological arms, and the missiles to deliver them, and then to destroy them. This obligation was reinforced by U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 on April 3, 1991, which required Iraq to "unconditionally" accept under international supervision the "destruction, removal, or rendering harmless" of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with a range of over 150 kilometers.
Under the terms of Resolution 687, Iraq was barred from selling oil until UNSCOM verified the destruction of its prohibited weapons. These sanctions were eased in 1996 under the "Oil for Food" program that allowed Baghdad to sell oil, place the proceeds in a U.N. supervised escrow account, and use the funds to purchase non-military goods. But Baghdad's stubborn refusal to comply with Resolution 687 has cost Iraq more than $120 billion in forgone oil income--a measure of the importance Saddam accords to retaining his WMD capabilities.
Denial. Iraq initially denied that many of its suspected weapons programs existed, and was only gradually forced to admit their existence when confronted with irrefutable evidence by U.N. inspectors. Iraq's "cheat and retreat" strategy led it to admit only what the inspectors already knew. Although Baghdad admitted that it possessed missiles, which it had launched against Israel, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, it denied having a nuclear or biological weapons program. Baghdad denied the existence of its biological weapons program to UNSCOM until July 1995, when it grudgingly admitted the existence of such a program after being persistently confronted with evidence by inspectors. Iraq stubbornly denied that it had a nuclear weapons program, despite the fact that U.N. inspectors found the entire payroll ledger for roughly 20,000 Iraqis who worked in that program.5 According to British intelligence, Iraq recalled nuclear scientists to the program after the U.N. inspections ended in 1998, and it "has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa."6 Iraq has no nuclear power plants or civil nuclear power program and therefore has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium.
Deception. The Iraqis made extensive and elaborate efforts to hide their prohibited weapons programs. The strategy involved highly coordinated efforts among many Iraqi bureaucracies, including the Office of the President; Special Security Organization (run by Saddam's son and heir apparent, Qusay); Special Republican Guard; Higher Security Committee; Military Industrial Commission; Iraqi Intelligence Service; and Directorate for Military Intelligence.7
Baghdad's pattern of denial and deception continued until the termination of inspections in 1998 after a series of crises provoked by Iraqi noncompliance. Baghdad relentlessly sought to deceive and confuse UNSCOM inspectors through fraudulent statements, false documents, and the misrepresentation of the roles of government personnel and the purpose of facilities. Iraqi propagandists developed false cover stories for weapons facilities, such as the "Baby Milk Factory" that had sprouted security fences and roof camouflage at the onset of the Gulf War.
Obstruction. Baghdad also undertook strenuous efforts to frustrate inspections in the field by blocking UNSCOM convoys, diverting inspectors to safe areas, and moving banned weapons, materials, and equipment to isolated hiding spots. In several instances, satellite intelligence revealed that Iraqi officials literally moved forbidden items out the back door of a facility while U.N. inspectors were coming in the front door.8
The Iraqis also made repeated attempts to defeat the inspection by gaining advance notice of inspections through intelligence-gathering operations targeting inspectors in Iraq, Bahrain (where UNSCOM maintained a field office), and even New York City at U.N. headquarters.9 Iraqi agents bugged hotel rooms, conference rooms, and offices used by inspectors, monitored U.N. radio frequencies, and tapped telephones. Iraqi agents also infiltrated a number of spies into UNSCOM's Baghdad operations. When Hussein Kamal al-Majid, the high-ranking defector who oversaw some of Iraq's most secret military programs, met with UNSCOM Executive Chairman Rolf Ekeus after defecting in August 1995, he was shocked to recognize that the UNSCOM interpreter Ekeus brought with him was an Iraqi spy whom he himself had infiltrated into UNSCOM.10
Former UNSCOM inspectors reported: "It was a rare inspection when the Iraqis did not know what the inspectors were looking for before they arrived."11 A panel of former U.N. inspectors concluded that of UNSCOM's 260 inspections, "only a half-dozen actually surprised the Iraqis."12
Iraq also learned to defeat intelligence-gathering by U.S. satellites and electronic signal intercepts. Baghdad was given key satellite data by the Soviet Union and helped by the East Germans to develop sophisticated means of defeating satellite intelligence collection.13
Intimidation. In many instances, Iraqi officials resorted to physical intimidation and harassment. They shoved television cameras and lights into the faces of inspectors to distract them, snatched documents out of their hands, and blocked entrance to certain facilities or rooms within those facilities. David Kay, an inspector dispatched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reported that
Inspectors were awakened with telephoned threats; obscene and threatening notes were slipped under hotel doors; hotel rooms were ransacked; verbal abuse on the street and at inspection sites became common; on several occasions inspectors were physically attacked by outraged Iraqi `civilians'; UN vehicles were bombed and tires slashed; and shots were fired over the heads of inspectors as a team photographed Iraq's secret uranium enrichment equipment.14
Iraqi soldiers on September 24, 1991, prevented one inspection team from removing documents related to the design of a nuclear weapon from the Nuclear Design Center in Baghdad by holding the inspectors in a parking lot for four days, before allowing them to depart with the documents.15
Saddam's internal security forces also sought to intimidate Iraqi personnel familiar with the details of its illicit programs to deter them from passing information to the inspectors. If the Iraqi authorities discovered that government officials had been too cooperative with the inspectors, they harshly punished not only the whistleblower, but also his entire extended family. Former IAEA inspector David Kay recalled that disloyalty often was punished by death:
The first Iraqi defector after the war came out and gave us some basic information on the calutron process. He had staged his own death on the highway to Mosul, and he thought they would not find out that he was still alive and had defected. He had been out for less than two months when a journalist printed the story. His entire family down to second cousins were killed.16
Not surprisingly, few Iraqis chose to put their families at risk by providing information to the UNSCOM inspectors. According to official Iraqi documents seized by UNSCOM, 85 percent of the defectors from Iraq's scientific community chose not to contact Western governments.17
Under these conditions, UNSCOM's efforts to uproot Saddam's proscribed programs were a thankless, difficult, and potentially dangerous task. Given the fact that Iraq is bigger than the state of Texas and had extensive government-owned compounds often disguised as civilian industrial facilities, fertilizer plants, or other innocuous buildings, searching for Saddam's clandestine WMD programs was like searching for a needle located in one of hundreds of haystacks.
One Step Ahead. In addition to its shell game of storing contraband items in underground structures, wells, and houses in residential areas, Iraq also played a frustrating game of cat and mouse with inspectors, shuttling prohibited components from site to site. For example, on June 28, 1991, IAEA inspectors searching for calutrons used in Iraq's nuclear program were denied entrance to a military barracks at Abu Ghraib. With the aid of U.S. satellite intelligence, UNSCOM was able to track the movement of trucks transporting the calutrons to the Military Transport Command facility in Fallujah. The inspectors arrived just in time to see the Iraqis, who had been warned of their approach, trucking the calutrons away, leaving the inspectors to follow in hot pursuit.18
As it became more sophisticated, Baghdad reportedly moved particularly sensitive documents and materials to new hiding places every 30 days to prevent defectors from giving useful intelligence on a timely basis to UNSCOM authorities.19 By the time defectors had left the country, established their bona fides with foreign intelligence agencies, and passed their information on to foreign governments to pass on to UNSCOM to act upon, the information was outdated.
Biological Weapons. A particular worry is Saddam's biological warfare program. Iraq has admitted that it has made enough deadly microbes to kill everyone on earth three or four times over.20 Many deadly viruses, bacteria, or toxins can be produced in small laboratories that are extremely difficult to ferret out. And some facilities can be diverted from other purposes, such as pesticide production installations altered to produce nerve gas instead. The Iraqis have even built mobile biological research labs in the back of trucks, which Pentagon officials have nicknamed "ice cream trucks."21 Such trucks can be moved at night to avoid satellite detection and relocated to safe zones sprinkled all over the countryside or tucked away inconspicuously in residential neighborhoods.
U.N. Dealings. Baghdad has tried to drive wedges between members of the Security Council to undermine its support for the inspectors. It has dangled oil deals before France and Russia.22 Moscow also has a sizeable financial stake in the survival of Saddam's regime because it otherwise is unlikely to recover about $8 billion in Soviet-era loans to Iraq. Russia has landed the lion's share of contracts under the U.N.-sponsored "Oil for Food" program, and has become Iraq's largest export customer, signing more than $4 billion in business deals since 1996.23 The United Nations also has become a major beneficiary of Iraq's oil exports through its supervision of the "Oil for Food" program.24
Iraq also sought to undermine the inspectors by going over their head to deal with the U.N. bureaucracy in New York. After Iraqi defiance sparked a series of crises that paralyzed the inspections, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was drawn into negotiations to revise the ground rules for inspections in February 1998. Annan announced an agreement with Saddam Hussein with much fanfare at a press conference, saying: "Can I trust Saddam Hussein? I think I can do business with him."25 But Annan's agreement was quickly violated by the Iraqis, like all the previous agreements on inspections.
Continued Iraqi violations led the United States and Britain to bomb suspected Iraqi weapons facilities for four days in December 1998, after the final withdrawal of the UNSCOM inspectors. Although UNSCOM had managed to destroy tons of missiles, chemical weapons, and biological weapons materials from 1991 to 1998, Iraqi deceit prevented it from ever getting a full picture of Saddam's efforts to build weapons of mass destruction.
The United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), set up in 1999 to replace UNSCOM, will be even less effective than its predecessor. UNMOVIC inspectors will have no direct access to intelligence gathered by member states, unlike UNSCOM, which would have been even less effective if it did not benefit from access to intelligence gleaned by U.S. and other intelligence agencies. UNMOVIC inspectors will be drawn from a more diverse list of countries, because Iraq had complained that UNSCOM personnel disproportionately came from Western nations, especially the United States and Britain.
Choosing inspectors on the basis of geographic diversity rather than their expertise, experience, and reliability is a huge mistake. A panel of former UNSCOM inspectors warned that "In effect, UNMOVIC will be a team of rookies going to bat against a world-class intelligence organization highly practiced in foiling inspections."26
Moreover, UNMOVIC will be composed of career U.N. bureaucrats who would have a vested interest in vouching for "successful" inspections. While UNSCOM was staffed primarily by officials on loan from national governments who did not owe their jobs to the U.N., UNMOVIC personnel will be much more dependent on U.N. headquarters and much more vulnerable to being hobbled by U.N. bureaucrats.
UNMOVIC's top leadership is likely to be much less aggressive in rooting out Iraqi weapons programs than were Rolf Ekeus and Richard Butler, who directed UNSCOM from 1991 to 1998. UNMOVIC is led by Hans Blix, a Swede who led the International Atomic Energy Agency before assuming his present post in 2000. Blix has a reputation for avoiding confrontation. Under his leadership, the IAEA compiled a poor record in Iraq. It demonstrated a deferential "see no evil" mentality that led it to give Iraq a clean bill of health on nuclear weapons issues before the Gulf War.
After the war, the IAEA was slow to carry out its inspection responsibilities. UNSCOM was obliged on several occasions to designate sites for inspection over Blix's objections. After the initial inspections in 1991, Blix was ready to report to the U.N. Security Council that Iraq was in full compliance with its nuclear disarmament commitments until two American inspectors threatened to file dissenting opinions.27 Blix reportedly later sought to silence David Kay, an aggressive IAEA inspector who was critical of the IAEA's poor record in Iraq.28
UNMOVIC staff, like the IAEA's staff, will not be adequately vetted for their reliability. Sensitive information about inspection procedures, targets, and timetables is sure to leak to the Iraqis. The IAEA leaked like a sieve. After the huge scale of the Iraqi nuclear program was revealed following the Gulf War, the Iraqi official in charge of nuclear safeguards boasted that he was able to deceive the IAEA inspectors because of the knowledge he gained from his former job--as an IAEA inspector.29 Iraq also has held a seat on the board of governors of the IAEA. UNSCOM was more reliable than the IAEA in conducting Iraq inspections in part because there were many inspectors detailed from U.S. and other Western government agencies who were knowledgeable and trustworthy. UNMOVIC, however, will have proportionately less Western personnel in response to Iraqi complaints about British and American inspectors.
UNMOVIC will also be hamstrung by an ill-advised agreement brokered by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February 1998. Under the terms of that agreement, Saddam was obligated to give inspectors access to eight of his palaces, which were declared to be "sensitive," provided that diplomats from neutral countries escorted the inspectors and Iraq was given advance notice of impending inspections. Returning to this arrangement would defeat the whole purpose of inspections and enhance Saddam's ability to protect illicit weapons and components by shuttling them around various sites, one step ahead of the inspectors.
Iraq's recent "unconditional" acceptance of the return of inspectors was quickly followed by attempts to impose conditions on the behavior of the U.N. inspectors. Baghdad seeks to retain all the restrictions that it imposed on UNSCOM inspectors through agreements that followed a series of engineered "crises." Baghdad is especially eager to renew inspections on the basis of Kofi Annan's 1998 agreement, which restricted access to "presidential sites."
Iraq initially designated eight such sites and it can designate new sites at any time. This loophole threatens to make a mockery of the whole inspection process. The eight presidential palaces are actually vast compounds, each covering up to 10 square miles and containing up to 700 buildings. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said, "We're not talking `Sleeping Beauty' here. We're talking massive structures, gigantic facilities, extremely well-guarded."30
The advance notice provisions of Annan's 1998 agreement are also a threat to the effectiveness of the inspections. Former UNSCOM inspector Richard Spertzel warned that "Given 24 hours notification, any country could hide even `smoking gun' evidence of a biological weapons program. Such inspections are designed for failure."31
The Pentagon has indicated that it already has uncovered signs that Iraq is getting ready to defeat future inspections. The Defense Intelligence Agency is investigating reports that Iraq has built numerous mosques to create hiding places for banned material.32 By secreting weapons programs in mosques and hiding documents and material in residential neighborhoods, Saddam's regime hopes to evade inspections and deter effective U.S. air strikes in the event of war. Moreover, recent reports indicate that Iraq has moved substantial caches of WMD material and resources to safe havens in Syria.33
Saddam's biological weapons are the most worrisome immediate threat, since Iraq already has enough deadly microbes to kill everyone on earth. Biological weapons are among the easiest to produce and stockpile without being detected. Iraq's biological weapons program is supervised by Iraqi intelligence, not the Iraqi armed forces. Another disturbing fact is that, in the words of a former inspector: "From its inception in the 1970s, Iraq's biological weapons program included both military and terrorist applications, the latter part of which were not actively pursued by UNSCOM inspectors."34
Weapons inspections are a means to an end, not an end in itself. The goal of the United States and the United Nations should be to disarm Iraq as soon as possible, not merely to reintroduce inspections, which failed to end Iraq's military and terrorist threat despite the seven years of inspections between 1991 and 1998.
A flawed inspection regime is worse than none at all. It would encourage a false sense of security provided by the illusion of arms control. This has led one analyst to conclude that: "The return of U.N. arms inspectors to Iraq would do more harm than good."35 Moreover, the presence of inspectors protects Iraq from military action and could furnish Baghdad with hostages in the event of a crisis.
The UNSCOM inspection regime was based on the assumption that Iraq would cooperate to lift sanctions. But Saddam values his WMD programs over oil revenues. Saddam's obstinacy requires a coercive inspection regime backed by the threat of military force to compel compliance. The Iraqi dictator will acquiesce to meaningful inspections only if he is convinced that the alternative is a war that will destroy his regime.
The U.N. inspection program, as currently structured, cannot work. UNMOVIC is designed to fail. It is not capable of ferreting out Iraq's clandestine weapons of mass destruction programs, but could allow Baghdad to defuse international pressure and even escape with a clean bill of health that would lead to the lifting of U.N. economic sanctions.
If the U.N. Security Council does not approve a strengthened new inspection regime backed by the credible threat of force, then the United States should abandon the idea of inspections altogether. U.N. inspections cannot eliminate Iraq's military and terrorist threats; they can only impede Iraq's buildup of WMD and missiles. The U.N. inspectors cannot destroy what they cannot find. And they cannot know precisely what they have not found.
Inspections address the symptoms but not the cause of the chronic confrontations with Iraq in the past. The root of the problem is the nature of the Iraqi regime, not the regime's weapons. The United States and its allies cannot allow such a dangerous regime to attain the most lethal weapons, given its long history of terrorism.
As he has done in the past, Saddam can feign cooperation while clandestine work continues on prohibited weapons at concealed sites inside Iraq or in third countries such as Libya or Sudan. Even if Saddam surrendered all his banned weapons, Iraq could reconstitute its weapons programs in months, if not weeks, after the inspectors left. It has the scientists, the knowledge, and the technical base to regenerate prohibited weapons programs and the oil money to buy what it cannot make. Ultimately, the only way to be certain of ridding Iraq of WMD is to rid it of Saddam Hussein's menacing regime.
--James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle East Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
The following information on the history of U.N. inspections in Iraq has been derived from (1) the Chronology of UN Inspections, published by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, at http://cns.miis.edu/research/iraq/uns_chro.htm; (2) Timeline: Saddam Hussein's Deception and Defiance, released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary on September 17, 2002; and, (3) the Associated Press, "Iraq Inspections Timeline," at Newsday.com, September 17, 2002.
April 3, 1991: U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, Section C, declares that Iraq shall accept "unconditionally," under international supervision, the "destruction, removal or rendering harmless" of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with a range over 150 kilometers.
April 6, 1991: Iraq accepts U.N. Resolution 687, requiring it to end its WMD programs and allow for ongoing monitoring and verification of compliance. Its provisions were later reinforced through subsequent resolutions in June and August of 1991.
June 1991: UNSCOM/IAEA inspectors try to intercept Iraqi vehicles loaded with nuclear-related equipment (calutrons). Iraqi officials fire warning shots to prevent the inspectors from approaching the vehicles. The equipment is later confiscated and destroyed as demanded by Resolution 687.
September 1991: Inspectors discover a wealth of documents relating to Iraq's nuclear weapons program; several Iraqi officials seize documents from the inspectors. The inspectors refuse to yield a second set of documents, leading to a four-day standoff between the inspectors and the Iraqi officials. Iraq refuses to allow the team to leave the parking lot at the site. The standoff ends with a threatening letter from the U.N. Security Council, and the inspectors are finally permitted to leave with the documents.
October 11, 1991: Adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 715, confirming that Iraq shall "accept unconditionally the inspectors and all other personnel designated by UNSCOM/IAEA." Iraq finds Resolution 715 to be "unlawful" and insists that it is not ready to comply with it.
February 1992: Iraq refuses to destroy specific facilities deemed by the special commission as being used for unlawful weapons programs. The Security Council condemns Iraqi obfuscation, and the facilities are later destroyed.
March 19, 1992: Iraq finally declares the existence of 89 ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and other unlawful materials. These items were believed to be destroyed in 1991 based on reports Iraq submitted to the U.N. Special Commission.
June 6-29, 1992: Iraq refuses an inspection team access to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. UNSCOM claimed the site held valuable archives, describing in detail activities and acquisitions deemed unlawful under U.N. Security Council Resolution 687.
July 1993: Iraq refuses to allow UNSCOM to install monitoring cameras at two missile test stands. Iraq finally agrees to permit installation, after a threatening letter from the U.N. Security Council.
October 15, 1994: Complying with U.N. Security Council Resolution 949, which demands that Iraq "cooperate fully" with UNSCOM, Iraq withdraws its forces from the Kuwaiti border and continues to work with UNSCOM.
August 8, 1995: With the defection of General Hussein Kamel, Director of Iraq's weapons programs, Iraq is forced to admit to a more extensive biological weapons program than earlier believed, including weaponization of biological agents. Further declarations provide insight into Iraq's long-range missile and VX gas capabilities. Iraq finally withdraws its decision to halt cooperation with UNSCOM/IAEA.
November 1995: Jordan intercepts a shipment of high-grade missile components destined for Iraq. An UNSCOM investigation further concludes that Iraqi authorities and missile facilities have been involved in purchasing these guidance and control units for missiles. UNSCOM later retrieves additional components, disposed of by Iraq into the Tigris River.
March 1996: Iraqi security forces refuse inspectors access to five specific sites designated for inspection. The inspectors finally enter sites after delays ranging up to 17 hours. The Security Council issues another statement condemning Iraq's behavior as a "clear violation of Iraq's obligations under relevant resolutions."
June 1996: Iraq again denies UNSCOM teams access to sites under investigation. This results in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1060, demanding Iraq grant "immediate and unrestricted access" to all sites designated by UNSCOM.
September 13, 1997: An Iraqi officer physically prevents an UNSCOM inspector onboard a helicopter from taking photographs of suspicious movements by Iraqi vehicles inside a designated inspection site.
February 20-23, 1998: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan secures Iraq's cooperation. Iraq signs a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations, pledging "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access" for their inspections.
5. David Kay, "Iraqi Inspections: Lessons Learned," Lecture for the Program of Nonproliferation Studies, Monterrey Institute of International Studies, February 10, 1993, p. 7, available at http://cns.miis.edu/research/iraq/kay.htm.