"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Pentagon Details Hussein's Pre-Invasion Efforts

Matt Dupuis

A Pentagon report released March 24 offers new insights into Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s pre-war actions related to his country’s then-suspected nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and the response of the United States and its allies.

The Iraqi Perspective Project, based on captured Iraqi government documents and interviews with former Iraqi officials, reiterates some findings of previous U.S. government reports (see ACT, November 2004), but provides a more detailed analysis of Hussein’s leadership style, strategic calculations, and pre-war diplomatic maneuverings prior to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

It shows that Hussein made late efforts to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors when they returned to Iraq in late 2002 after a four-year absence but that these attempts were wrongly dismissed by Western intelligence agencies because of Iraq’s past record of obfuscation. The report, like other post-war U.S. reports, concludes that Hussein was intent on restarting suspected weapons programs once sanctions were eventually lifted.

The report states that, in the decade after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein had often pursued a strategy of “purposeful ambiguity” regarding his real and purported arsenals, a deceptive tactic aimed at deterring external threats from Israel and Iran as well as internal threats such as coups.

But after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Hussein began to shift course, fearing that the United States would turn against his regime. He sought to avoid provocative actions. As pressure mounted on Baghdad in late 2002, he ordered Iraqi officers to cooperate fully with UN weapons inspectors, “thus denying President George W. Bush and the Americans any excuse for starting a new conflict.” The strategy was also aimed at “solidifying the promise of more substantial French and Russian efforts on Iraq’s behalf,” to forestall UN support for military action, according to the report.

At times, however, the strategy of cooperation appeared not only to fail but to backfire because of preconceptions created by Hussein’s record. The report, for example, cites an episode related to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the UN General Assembly. (See ACT, March 2003.) Arguing that Iraq was concealing illicit weapons, Powell cited an intercepted conversation between two Iraqi Republican Guard Corps commanders, in which one commanded the other to “remove” the listing of “nerve agents…wherever it comes up,” as proof of Iraqi obstruction of the inspections process. But the report says that Powell and U.S. intelligence agencies had reached an erroneous conclusion in assuming that “military actions to remove lingering traces of weapons fielded in the past” were “attempts to conceal current [weapons of mass destruction (WMD)] assets or operations.”

More broadly, the report concluded that “when it came to WMD, Hussein was simultaneously attempting to deceive one audience that they were gone and another that they still had them,” putting himself into a “diplomatic and propaganda Catch 22.”

Captured documents reveal that Hussein kept many of his closest advisers in the dark about the state of Iraq’s weaponry for fear of possible coup attempts and an attack from Israel. If it was revealed that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, “it would not only show Israel that Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction] but might actually encourage” Israel to attack, Hussein and other Iraqi officials believed. Hussein used chemical weapons in his successful efforts to crush rebellions by the Kurds in the 1980s and Shiites in the 1990s, as well as in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. (See ACT, January/February 2006.)

The report notes that, based on Iraq’s previous stockpiles, the plausibility of secret and compartmentalized prohibited weapons programs, and Western governments’ public assessments, “a number of senior Iraqi officials continued to believe it possible…that Iraq still possessed a WMD capability hidden away somewhere.” But the report notes that the same officials denied having any “direct knowledge” of these weapons.