As coalition troops advance on Baghdad and special forces capture Iraqi sites suspected of housing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the United States and its allies are still searching for Iraqi nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—so far without any visible results. The United States and coalition members initiated military conflict against Iraq March 19, citing Iraq’s failure to comply with its disarmament obligations as a chief justification for military action.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage cautioned that the process of finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction would be “quite time consuming” in a March 25 interview on the PBS “Newshour with Jim Lehrer.”
UN weapons inspectors left Iraq March 18 after almost four months of work when the United States failed to gain support from Security Council members opposed to the immediate use of force against Iraq.
In a March 21 briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listed locating and destroying weapons of mass destruction as one of the most important U.S. military objectives. U.S. Central Command briefer General Victor Renuart said March 25 that coalition forces, consisting almost entirely of U.S. and British troops, are exploiting information gained from seized documents and interviews with captured Iraqi soldiers to find WMD facilities, although no weapons have yet been found.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke said in a March 26 briefing that U.S. forces did discover 3,000 chemical protective suits, along with gas masks, nerve agent antidote, and antidote injectors in an Iraqi hospital March 25. The equipment was to protect Iraqi forces if Baghdad decides to use chemical weapons, Clarke claimed.
By month’s end, no weapons of mass destruction have been used in the war, but Rumsfeld confirmed, in a March 23 briefing, the existence of intelligence reports that Iraq has dispersed chemical weapons among some of their forces and given “selected” commanders the authority to use them.
The final steps to war began March 7 when the United Kingdom formally introduced a draft resolution stating that Iraq had until March 17 to comply with its disarmament obligations—implying that the council members would take military action if Iraq failed to meet the deadline.
The resolution, co-sponsored by the United States and Spain, stated that, “Iraq will have failed to take the final opportunity afforded by resolution 1441 unless…Iraq has demonstrated full…and active cooperation in accordance with its disarmament obligations…and is yielding possession to UNMOVIC and the IAEA of all weapons, weapon delivery and support systems…and all information regarding prior destruction of such items.”
Resolution 1441, adopted November 8, 2002, gave Iraq a “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” as set out by Security Council resolutions stretching back to the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. (See ACT, December 2002.) The resolution was an attempt at compromise. A similar resolution introduced by the three countries February 24 had said that Iraq had failed to comply with Resolution 1441 and did not give Iraq any further time to disarm. (See ACT, March 2003.)
Washington ultimately failed to persuade a majority of Security Council members to adopt the resolution. France, Russia, China, and Germany called for allowing inspectors more time and increasing their resources. France said it would veto any resolution that implicitly or explicitly authorized the use of force, and Russia backed the French position. Whether China would have vetoed the U.S.-U.K.-Spain resolution is unclear, but it supported France and Russia’s stance. Various compromise proposals to outline specific disarmament tasks and give Iraq more time to comply also failed.
In a March 6 speech, Bush said the United States would push for a Security Council vote on the resolution, regardless of whether it would pass. In the face of opposition to Bush’s plan for an immediate confrontation with Baghdad, however, Washington decided not to call for a vote. In a March 17 statement, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte cited France’s previous veto threat as the reason for the decision.
The Bush administration had repeatedly said that it did not need UN authorization to go to war. After the United States had already begun the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that existing Security Council resolutions provided justification for the use of force.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced March 17 that he was ordering weapons inspectors to leave Iraq.
On March 17, UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei presented their last pre-war briefings to the Security Council. On March 19, Blix and ElBaradei submitted draft work programs to the Security Council outlining remaining disarmament tasks for Iraq. The work programs are required under Security Council Resolution 1284. (See ACT, April 2003.)
Since beginning work November 27, the inspectors have found no concrete evidence indicating that Iraq has reconstituted its WMD programs. ElBaradei stated in a March 7 report to the Security Council that the IAEA found “no evidence or plausible indication” that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons program. The UNMOVIC work program states that “no proscribed activities, or the result of such activities from the period of 1998-2002 have…been detected through inspections.”
The inspectors, however, said many unresolved questions remain. Blix noted March 19 that, since his February 14 Security Council briefing, Iraq had turned over several sets of documents related to prohibited weapons programs, but they yielded little new information.
Despite outstanding issues regarding Iraq’s arsenal, Blix reported that Iraq’s cooperation with the inspectors had improved. In his March 7 briefing, which discussed and augmented the UNMOVIC quarterly report submitted March 1, Blix reported that inspectors were able to “perform professional no-notice inspections all over Iraq and to increase aerial surveillance.” Iraq had previously objected to the operation of aerial surveillance.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of Iraqi cooperation is its destruction of its al Samoud-2 missiles. Iraq complied with an UNMOVIC order to destroy the missiles, as well as their rocket motors, warheads, and any casting chambers capable of manufacturing motors for prohibited missiles. Iraq agreed to destroy the missiles late last month, and it had destroyed 72 of them as of March 17, according to an UNMOVIC press release that day.
Blix also stated that UNMOVIC continued to supervise the excavation of a site where Iraq had destroyed biological weapons—an effort which began in February.
Additionally, inspectors were able to secure more private interviews with Iraqi weapons scientists. While Blix reported February 14 that only three scientists had agreed to private interviews, 11 had agreed to do so since that briefing, according to a March 17 UNMOVIC press release. Five scientists, however, refused private interviews, according to a March 12 UNMOVIC press release.
Resolution 1441 gives inspectors the right to interview anyone they choose, without Iraqi officials present, and in any location they wish, including outside of Iraq. Most scientists had declined private interviews, insisting on recording the interviews or having an Iraqi official present.
Blix also pointed out that Iraq provided some additional names of scientists involved with Iraq’s chemical weapons program, but its disclosures fell far short of the total number of scientists UNMOVIC estimates to have been involved in the program, according to a March 15 UNMOVIC release.
ElBaradei also said in his March 7 briefing that Iraqi scientists had begun agreeing to private interviews with IAEA inspectors, citing two interviews. Subsequent IAEA press releases, however, indicate only one other such interview took place since the director-general’s briefing. In addition, ElBaradei stated that Iraq “provided a considerable volume” of documents related to procurement issues for its nuclear program.
Both the inspectors and the Bush administration suggested that the cooperation Baghdad offered was due in large part to the pressure created by U.S. military forces stationed in the Persian Gulf.
Differences with the United States
The inspectors’ assessment of Iraq’s weapons activities disputed several pieces of evidence the Bush administration has used to support its contention that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.
ElBaradei’s March 7 report stated that documents allegedly detailing Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Niger were forgeries. A December 19 State Department fact sheet cited such attempts as evidence that Iraq was withholding information about its nuclear program. Powell acknowledged during a March 9 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the documents might be false.
In addition, the IAEA contradicted U.S. assertions that Iraq was trying to import aluminum tubes to build centrifuges for use in a uranium-enrichment program. ElBaradei said in his March 7 briefing that Iraq was probably using them for rocket production and that it is “highly unlikely” that Baghdad could have used them for centrifuges. Powell had asserted during a February 5 briefing to the Security Council that the tubes were linked to efforts to build centrifuges.
Blix also suggested March 7 that the inspectors needed better intelligence from UN member states, saying he would like to have more high-quality information about possible weapons sites. The inspectors have criticized the United States for its hesitancy to provide them with adequate intelligence.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration continued to dismiss reports about the inspectors’ progress. Powell stated in a March 5 speech that Iraq was continuing to move weapons around the country in an effort to thwart inspections. He also said that the Iraqi regime had ordered the production of more al Samoud-2 missiles to replace those being destroyed.
Vice President Richard Cheney openly expressed skepticism of the IAEA’s report during a March 16 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying that the IAEA has “consistently underestimated or missed what…Saddam Hussein was doing.”
Whether UN weapons inspectors will have a future role to play in Iraq is unclear, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated in a March 20 press briefing.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov stated March 26 that U.S.-British claims about WMD discoveries would not be believed without a “conclusive assessment” by “international inspectors.”
According to a March 30 Washington Post report, the Bush administration does not want to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq except, perhaps, with the limited role of verifying any U.S. and allied discoveries of weapons of mass destruction. The administration prefers to rely on its own inspectors and possibly inspectors hired through private companies, the Post reported.
UN weapons inspectors began their work in Iraq November 27 and left March 18. Iraq submitted a declaration containing information about its weapons of mass destruction December 7, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1441. IAEA inspectors conducted 237 inspections at 148 sites, including 27 sites not previously inspected. As of February 28, UNMOVIC inspectors had conducted approximately 550 inspections at 350 sites, including 44 sites not previously inspected.
The IAEA found no evidence that Iraq is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but UNMOVIC found and/or supervised the destruction of some items related to proscribed weapons programs.
The UNMOVIC inspectors:
- Supervised destruction of 72 prohibited al Samoud-2 missiles and 47 associated warheads. Iraq declared 76 of these missiles and 118 warheads to UNMOVIC.
- Supervised destruction of three al Samoud-2 missile launchers. Iraq declared nine launchers to UNMOVIC.
- Supervised destruction of two casting chambers capable of producing motors for prohibited missiles.
- Discovered 231 illegal Volga missile engines.
- Discovered 14 empty 122-millimeter rocket warheads that could be used to deliver chemical weapons.
- Discovered a component of a cluster sub-munition designed to deliver chemical or biological weapons.
- Discovered fuel spray tanks modified for possible use in delivering chemical or biological agents.
- Found and destroyed one liter of a precursor chemical for the production of mustard agent.