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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Washington File

02 July 2003

"Iraq's Real Weapons Threat" by Rolf Ekeus

(Column by Former Head of UN Inspections Effort in Iraq) (1890)
Rolf Ekeus was Executive Chairman of the United Nations Special
Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq from 1991 to 1997. A former Swedish
ambassador to the United States, he is now chairman of the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute. This article, first published
June 29, 2003, in The Washington Post, is in the public domain, no
republication restrictions.
(begin byliner)
Iraq's Real Weapons Threat 
By Rolf Ekeus
With no weapons of mass destruction as yet found in Iraq, the
political criticism directed against President Bush and British Prime
Minister Tony Blair is mounting. Before the war, the two leaders
publicly declared that the Iraqi regime had not only procured and
produced such weapons but still retained them with the intention to
use them. This was considered a good reason for a military operation
against Iraq -- an outright casus belli.
A United Nations inspection team, before the war, and the U.S.
military, after the war, have been searching Iraq and have not come up
with anything that can remotely be called weapons of mass destruction.
Is it now time to join the game of blaming Bush and Blair for an
illegitimate or illegal war? Let us first consider some facts in a
complicated picture.
Chemical weapons were used by Iraq in its war against Iran (1980-88).
Arguably that use had a decisive effect on the outcome: It saved Iraq
from being overwhelmed by a much larger Iranian army. Furthermore,
Iraq made use of chemical bombs in air raids against the Kurdish
civilian population in northern Iraq. Nerve gases, such as sarin, and
mustard gas immediately and painfully killed many thousands of
civilians. More than 100,000 later died or were crippled by the
These reminders illustrate that Iraq's acquisition and use of chemical
weapons were carried out in pursuit of two strategic goals, namely to
halt Iran's possible expansion of its sphere of influence in the
Persian Gulf region and to suppress internal opposition. The war
started by Iraq in 1980 was directed against its historical enemy,
Iran. In strategic terms and over generations, Iraq/Mesopotamia had
been positioned as a gatekeeper of the Arab nation against repeated
Persian expansion westward, a threat that had become acute with the
Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. All the emirates and states in the
gulf region, ruled by Arabs of traditionalist Sunni Muslim
orientation, considered Persian nationalism and expansionism a
constant problem, especially after Iran's Shiite revolution.
For Saddam Hussein, the self-styled, self-promoted defender of the
Arab nation, "the Iranian beasts," to quote Tariq Aziz in a
conversation with me -- not the United States or Israel -- were the
eternal enemy of Iraq. With its population of more than 64 million,
Iran constituted a challenge that Iraq, with its 24 million
inhabitants, could not match with conventional military means. By
using chemical weapons to gas and kill the "human waves" of young,
poorly protected Iranian attack forces, the Iraqi army repeatedly
saved itself from being overwhelmed. And thus it became conventional
wisdom, nourished by the Iraqi leadership, that only nonconventional
weapons could guarantee that Iraq would prevail in an armed conflict
with Iran.
Regarding biological weapons, the U.N. inspection team, UNSCOM,
managed after four years of investigation to confirm the existence in
Iraq of a major secret biological weapons program. This led in August
1995 to the defection from Iraq of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein
Kamal, director of Iraq's WMD programs. During UNSCOM's debriefings in
Iraq after the defection, Iraqi biological weapons scientists, able to
speak slightly more openly than normally, explained that their secret
work mainly was on assignments to find means for warfare against the
Regarding the nuclear weapons projects, the Iraqi authorities defended
their systematic violation of Iraq's obligations under the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty with the proposition that Iran, likewise a
party to the treaty, was active in developing its own nuclear weapons.
Iraq's obsession with Iran was illustrated by its air attack in 1983
on the Iranian nuclear reactors at Busher.
Even the quite remarkable missile developments in Iraq were related to
Iran. Iraq succeeded in modifying and re-engineering many hundreds of
the more than 800 Scud missiles bought from the Soviet Union --
increasing their range of 200-300 kilometers to 500-600 kilometers,
sufficient to reach Tehran.
In sum, all four components of Iraq's prohibited and secret WMD
program were motivated and inspired by its structural enmity and
rivalry with Iran. Thus, during the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq did not use
its readily available chemical weapons, stored in considerable
quantities in southern Iraq, against the U.S.-led forces. The Iraqi
leadership made clear to me that there would have been no military
sense in using chemical weapons on such a fast-developing battlefield,
where the enemy was highly mobile, well trained and well equipped for
chemical warfare. In addition, the Iraqi willingness to use chemical
weapons had been tempered by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's
promise to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that such a contingency
would change the U.S. war aim from the liberation of Kuwait to regime
change in Iraq.
The fact that Iraq in the recent war did not counter the coalition
forces, now even better trained and equipped than last time, with
chemical weapons should not have come as a surprise. The chemical
weapons, like the other WMD, had been developed with another enemy in
mind. But a big question remains about the puzzling absence of
chemical weapons in Iraq. Detractors of Bush and Blair have tried to
make political capital of the presumed discrepancy between the
top-level assurances about Iraq's possession of chemical weapons (and
other WMD) and the inability of invading forces to find such stocks.
The criticism is a distortion and trivialization of a major threat to
international peace and security.
During its war against Iran, Iraq found that chemical warfare agents,
especially nerve agents such as sarin, soman, tabun and later VX,
deteriorated after just a couple of weeks' storage in drums or in
filled chemical warfare munitions. The reason was that the Iraqi
chemists, lacking access to high-quality laboratory and production
equipment, were unable to make the agents pure enough. (UNSCOM found
in 1991 that the large quantities of nerve agents discovered in
storage in Iraq had lost most of their lethal property and were not
suitable for warfare.)
Thus the Iraqi policy after the Gulf War was to halt all production of
warfare agents and to focus on design and engineering, with the
purpose of activating production and shipping of warfare agents and
munitions directly to the battlefield in the event of war. Many
hundreds of chemical engineers and production and process engineers
worked to develop nerve agents, especially VX, with the primary task
being to stabilize the warfare agents in order to optimize a lasting
lethal property. Such work could be blended into ordinary civilian
production facilities and activities, e.g., for agricultural purposes,
where batches of nerve agents could be produced during short
interruptions of the production of ordinary chemicals.
This combination of researchers, engineers, know-how, precursors,
batch production techniques and testing is what constituted Iraq's
chemical threat -- its chemical weapon. The rather bizarre political
focus on the search for rusting drums and pieces of munitions
containing low-quality chemicals has tended to distort the important
question of WMD in Iraq and exposed the American and British
administrations to unjustified criticism.
The real chemical warfare threat from Iraq has had two components. One
has been the capability to bring potent chemical agents to the
battlefield to be used against a poorly equipped and poorly trained
enemy. The other is the chance that Iraqi chemical weapons specialists
would sign up with terrorist networks such as al Qaeda -- with which
they are likely to have far more affinity than do the unemployed
Russian scientists the United States worries about.
In this context the remnants of Iraq's biological weapons program, and
specifically its now-unemployed specialists, constitute a potential
threat of much the same magnitude. While biological weapons are not
easily adapted for battlefield use, they are potentially the more
devastating as a means for massive terrorist onslaught on civilian
As with chemical weapons, Iraq's policy on biological weapons was to
develop and improve the quality of the warfare agents. It is possible
that Iraq, in spite of its denials, retained some anthrax in storage.
But it could be more problematic and dangerous if Iraq secretly
maintained a research and development capability, as well as a
production capability, run by the biologists involved in its earlier
programs. Again, such a complete program would in itself constitute a
more important biological weapon than some stored agents of doubtful
It is understandable that the U.N. inspectors and even more, the
military search teams, have had difficulty penetrating the
sophisticated, well-rehearsed and protected WMD program in Iraq. The
task was made infinitely more challenging by the fact that Iraq was,
and indeed still is, a "republic of fear." Through my indirect contact
with some senior Iraqi weapons scientists, I have been given to
understand that the reign of terror is still in place.
Outsiders who have not dealt with Iraq cannot easily understand the
extent to which the terror of the Hussein years has penetrated that
unhappy nation. As long as Hussein and his sons are not apprehended or
proven dead, few if any of those involved in the weapons program will
provide information on their activities. The risk of terrible revenge
against oneself or one's family is simply too great. The first point
on a WMD agenda must be to create a safe environment free from the
remnants of terror.
The chemical and biological warfare structures in Iraq constitute
formidable international threats through potential links to
international terrorism. Before the war these structures were also
major threats against Iran and internally against Iraq's own Kurdish
and Shiite populations, as well as Israel.
The Iraqi nuclear weapons projects lacked access to fissile material
but were advanced with regard to weapon design. Here again,
competition with Iran was a driving factor. Iran, as a major
beneficiary of the fall of Hussein, has now been given an excellent
opportunity to rethink its own nuclear weapons program and its other
WMD activities.
The door is now open for diplomatic initiatives to remake the region
into a WMD-free area and to shape a structure in the Persian Gulf of
stability and security. Moreover, the defeat of the Hussein regime, a
deadly opponent to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, has opened
the door to a realistic and re-energized peace process in the Middle
This is enough to justify the international military intervention
undertaken by the United States and Britain. To accept the alternative
-- letting Hussein remain in power with his chemical and biological
weapons capability -- would have been to tolerate a continuing
destabilizing arms race in the gulf, including future nuclearization
of the region, threats to the world's energy supplies, leakage of WMD
technology and expertise to terrorist networks, systematic sabotage of
efforts to create and sustain a process of peace between the Israelis
and the Palestinians and the continued terrorizing of the Iraqi
(end byliner)
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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