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Iraq and the search for WMD

New book by Hans Blix details what happened during the months leading up to the declaration of war against Iraq in March 2003. Read an excerpt of "Disarming Iraq."
Pantheon Books

Friday, March 19 marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-led war against Iraq. In the days and months leading up to the war, it was the job of the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, to try and find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He writes about his experiences in a new book titled, "Disarming Iraq," which he discusses on NBC's "Today" show. Read an excerpt here:

Disarming Iraq: Moments of Truth? Invasion Instead of Inspection
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 16, 2003, I was in my office on the thirty-first floor of the United Nations Secretariat building in New York, the headquarters of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq (UNMOVIC). Some of my close collaborators had joined me to put the final touches on a work program I was to submit to the Security Council.

When our commission was established by a Security Council resolution in December 1999, the Council had recognized that there might still be weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, despite the fact that a great deal of disarmament had been accomplished through UN inspections after the end of the Gulf War in 1991. In November 2002, a new round of inspections had been initiated to identify key remaining tasks in the disarming of Iraq.

Although the inspection organization was now operating at full strength and Iraq seemed as determined to give it prompt access everywhere, the United States appeared determined to replace our inspection force with an invasion army. After the terror attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, a policy of containment-keeping Saddam Hussein in his box-and ensuring the disarmament of Iraq through UN inspections was deemed no longer acceptable.

The people around me were all solid professionals coming from different parts of the world. There was Dimitri Perricos, probably the world's most experienced inspector. A Greek and by profession a chemist, he had more than twenty years of experience with international nuclear inspections — in Iraq, North Korea, South Africa and many other places. He was the head of operations. Muttusamy Sanmuganathan, known to all as Sam, was from Sri Lanka. Both Dimitri and Sam had worked closely with me for many years in Vienna, when I was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Ewen Buchanan, a Scot, was our manager of media relations and institutional memory. For years he had been a political expert and the spokesman of the previous inspection authority, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). There was Torkel Stiernlöf, who had been stationed in Baghdad and knew Arabic. He was about to return to his job at the foreign ministry in Stockholm after six intense months as my executive assistant. Lastly, there was Torkel's successor, Olof Skoog, an ambassador at the early age of 35 and on loan to me.

The military invasion of Iraq was all but announced and here we were at the UN sketching a peaceful way to try to ensure the country's disarmament! The military force, whose buildup had begun in the summer of 2002 and had been an essential reason why Iraq had accepted the inspectors back, had reached invasion strength and was now waiting to be deployed.

In the Security Council, all efforts to reach agreement on what might be demanded of Iraq in the next few weeks had collapsed. Proposals had been made by the British that Saddam Hussein should go before Iraqi television and declare his determination to disarm and to cooperate fully with the inspectors. The declaration would be accompanied by Iraq's fulfillment of a number of specific disarmament tasks within a very short time — perhaps ten days. (The approach had some similarity to the British efforts which ten months later would prompt Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, to declare that Libya was stopping all efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and would open up for thorough inspection.) The U.S./UK would consider themselves authorized to take armed action against Iraq if they determined that Iraq was in non-fulfillment of the demands.

While the guidelines in the December 1999 UNMOVIC resolution were perfectly valid and called for a work program covering a first period of 120 days of inspections, the U.S., the UK and Spain had been taking their cues from Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted on November 8, 2002. In their reading, this resolution gave Iraq only a limited time and a last opportunity to cooperate to attain disarmament or else face "serious consequences." That limited time, in their view, had now expired. Others in the Security Council thought the process of inspections required more time. They were not ready, at this stage, to authorize "serious consequences" — armed action. Most member states of the Council were of the view that such a decision was for the Council collectively, not for individual members, as the U.S. and the UK insisted.

On this Sunday, U.S. president George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar Lopez had met for an hour on the Azores islands in the middle of the Atlantic and, for the record, made a last appeal to reluctant members of the Security Council to go along with the draft resolution on Iraq. Blair had stressed that they had gone an extra mile for peace, but Bush seemed already to be describing the blessings that would follow from armed action.

Most observers felt the war was now a certainty — and, indeed, it came. Although I thought the probability was very high, I was also, even at this very late date, aware that unexpected things can happen. I remembered how, in July 1991, after confrontations, the Iraqis had sent the IAEA a note admitting that they had tried several methods of enriching uranium. In October 1998, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, had secured an important concession from Iraq, prompting U.S. president Bill Clinton to call back bombers that had been sent to punish Iraq for its lack of cooperation. If, in the current situation, Saddam Hussein had made the kind of dramatic speech the British suggested, and offered quickly to solve a number of issues, there might well have been a suspension of the marching and flying orders and, instead, intensified inspections. Saddam did make a speech on his son's television channel, but it was not the dramatic gesture that the situation called for. In it, he noted that Iraq had had weapons of mass destruction in the past, but that it had none now.

As we were sitting around the table in my office, the telephone rang. It was Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf in Washington, calling to advise me that it was time to withdraw our inspectors from Iraq. No further notice would be issued and expeditious action was suggested.

Preparations for the Withdrawal of Inspectors
We had been preparing for this situation since the end of February, and in the previous few weeks had deliberately decreased the total number of our staff in Iraq. The chartered helicopters had already been removed by their owners. We had one airplane sitting in Baghdad and another was chartered to enable us to assist the UN by airlifting staff dealing with humanitarian assistance. Jeeps and buses for land transport would also be available, if this were to prove necessary.

It was now around 3 p.m. this Sunday in New York, and 11 p.m. in Baghdad. If Dr. Miroslav Gregovic, the head of our mission in Baghdad, were instructed immediately, the first planeload of staff would leave Baghdad the following morning. I was anxious to bring the people for whom I was responsibile to security as soon as possible. However, I was not the only one with responsibility. As secretary general, Kofi Annan had the highest managerial responsibility for all UN staff in Iraq. My colleague Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, was responsible for the nuclear inspectors in Baghdad. I phoned both. Mohamed did not want to hasten the process. He was anxious that the withdrawal should not look like a retreat.

Although the secretary general did not need permission from the Security Council to issue an order of withdrawal, he wanted to inform the Council before he gave the instruction. He decided that he would do so at a meeting the Council was scheduled to hold on Monday morning. This meant that the withdrawal could not take place until Tuesday morning. I was not happy about the delay, but I assumed Kofi had reasons to be confident that this delay did not increase the risks.

Security Council, March 17: Resolution Authorizing War Withdrawn from Vote
Our inspectors in Iraq continued to work on Monday, March 17. They supervised the destruction of two Al Samoud 2 missiles, bringing the total number destroyed to seventy-two. They conducted a private interview with a biological scientist, bringing the total number of such private interviews to eleven. Inspection teams visited a dairy factory 140 kilometers north of Baghdad and two sites northwest of Baghdad. I worried about the risk of any hitches in the arrangements for their withdrawal on Tuesday morning. We had earlier received assurances from the Iraqi side, but I remembered that, in 1990, hostages had been taken.

The Security Council met at 10 a.m. To my dismay, Kofi Annan did not announce the withdrawal of UN staff from Iraq. It was already 6 p.m. in Baghdad and every hour's delay in issuing instructions from New York would make the preparations for departure more difficult.

The tone in the Council was not combative or acrimonious. The struggle was over. The path of inspection had been blocked by the U.S., the UK and Spain, and a resolution implicitly blessing armed intervention had been blocked by the majority of states in the Security Council. The Azores meeting and all the working of telephones during the weekend had not brought any change in the positions of governments. The UK said that the draft resolution, which it had sponsored in the Council, would not be put to a vote. This was a tacit admission that it could not have passed. If the resolution had been submitted to a vote and rejected, the negative vote would have further undermined the doubtful claim by the sponsors that earlier resolutions by the Council authorized them to use armed force if and when they deemed that Iraq was in non-fulfillment.

Even though the UK and the U.S. pointed to the threat of a veto from France as the reason for this debacle — ignoring the possibility that China and Russia might have joined France — a majority of the Council had, in fact if not in form, refused to legitimize armed action. The UK persisted in stating that although the chances for a peaceful solution were now slim, Saddam could still take action to save the situation. The U.S. confirmed the advice that the UN should take expeditious action to withdraw staff.

France declared its opposition to any resolution that would authorize force and rejected the view that individual members could use armed force without Council authorization. France wanted UNMOVIC to present its work program for inspections and suggested the Council meet — perhaps at ministerial level, as Russia had urged — on Wednesday to approve the program. A time line should be set after which the Council would evaluate the results of the inspections. Mexico said there was at the time no justification for the use of force in Iraq. Angola said it had lived with war and insisted on the need to exhaust all peaceful means.

War Justified by Iraq's Failure to Disarm; Moment of Truth Expected
In a televised speech on the evening of Monday, March 17, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq with his family within forty-eight hours. Vice President Dick Cheney said that an offer by Iraq to disarm was no longer an option. Referring to Saddam Hussein, he said, "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." His declaration was as firm as it was unfounded.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was more nuanced. At a press conference on March 17, he said the U.S. had become concerned about Iraq's sincerity shortly after the adoption of the new resolution in November 2002. The 12,000-page declaration Iraq had submitted a month later had, he stated, been an incomplete and untruthful rendering of their weapons programs. The U.S. had cooperated loyally with and assisted the inspectors. Despite some improvements, Iraq had not, however, provided the kind of cooperation demanded. The resolution which the U.S., the UK and Spain had now decided not to put to the vote would have given Iraq yet another last opportunity, but it had been blocked by France's threatened veto. So, although the UN would remain an important institution, the Security Council, in this case, had not met the test.

Perhaps it was convenient to blame the diplomatic failure on France, but it was evident that a majority of the members of the Council were against armed action at this juncture, though none of the states had excluded agreement on it at a subsequent stage. It is an interesting notion that when a small minority has been rebuffed by a strong majority, it is the majority that has failed the test.

There was no reference in Colin Powell's statement to the U.S. asserting a right to strike preemptively against Iraq. Instead, his legal justification given for the armed action was the same as that claimed by the UK: namely, that Iraq had not fulfilled its obligations under binding Security Council resolutions to disarm and that this entitled individual members of the Council to take action without the need for any collective decision by the Council.

With an expression used also by other U.S. spokesmen, Powell declared that the window on diplomacy was closing and that the "moment of truth" was arriving. Armed action, indeed, stands in contrast to diplomacy — but it does not necessarily stand for truth. There might be more to the saying "The first casualty in war is truth." Nor do I find it appropriate to make diplomacy the opposite of truth — to project it as lies or illusion. Diplomacy will often use language that understates the divergence of positions so as to minimize the gaps that have to be bridged and make reconciliation less difficult, but lying is not a part of diplomacy — at least not of good diplomacy.

The most important truth that U.S. spokesmen had in mind and expected to be revealed through the war was undoubtedly the existence of stocks of biological and chemical weapons and other prohibited items, and the people and programs related to them.

Withdrawal of UN Staff and Submission of Work Program to the Council
On Tuesday, March 18, Dimitri Perricos phoned at 7 a.m. and told me that our first plane from Baghdad had arrived in Cyprus and that the second was due a little later. All had gone well! They had even been able to take along sensitive equipment. The Iraqis had been most helpful throughout the operation. What a relief! Our inspectors would now stay in Larnaca for some days before being released to go back to their home countries. As they remained formally in our service until their contracts expired, they would still be available in the rather unlikely case that UNMOVIC would be asked to perform some verification function during the coming occupation. I was relieved that all our staff was out of danger, but I also felt empty, as after a school test for which you have braced yourself, and I was disappointed that we had not been given a reasonable amount of time to achieve the mission with which we had been entrusted. I had accepted the task of building and leading the new inspection organization three years before.

Excerpted from "Disarming Iraq" by Hans Blix. Copyright© 2004 by Hans Blix. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.