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Critical Questions on Iraq have yet to be addressed

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The Scotsman

Tue 3 Jun 2003

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Crucial questions on the war in Iraq that have to be addressed


SO where are those elusive chemical and biological weapons? Was the threat of weapons of mass destruction exaggerated? That is what everyone - the critics of the war against Iraq, the press in every continent and even those of us who were supportive of the war - wants to know.

The US vice-president, Dick Cheney, on the eve of war, said Iraq has "reconstituted nuclear weapons". Tony Blair wrote that it was "beyond doubt" that "Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons". The US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, said of the chemical weapons: "We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad." But when it comes to the intelligence information on which these sweeping judgments were based, the picture gets a little murkier.

The CIA’s public judgment on biological weapons was that Iraq had "some" biological agents and was "capable" of quickly producing and weaponising others; on chemical weapons, that it "probably" stocked a few hundred metric tons of chemical weapons agents. A closer look reveals that these judgments relied upon the UN inspectors’ view that Iraq had far more capability to produce chemical and biological weapons than it ever accounted for, and some solid information - including declassified communications intercepts - that Iraqi officials were trying to hide something from the UN inspectors.

It looks as if Cheney is guilty of gross exaggeration. Blair’s claim, on the other hand, remains unproven, while Rumsfeld is looking pretty silly, unless you believe his convenient theory that Iraq destroyed the weapons just before the war started.

The glaring fact is that while the arguments rage, we don’t yet know if the intelligence was wrong. There are still US military teams combing through hundreds of sites in Iraq. But it does seem evident that the urgency of the threat was hyped. And this is where the focus of our attention ought to be. Couldn’t Washington and London have waited several more months if the threat was not so urgent? Wouldn’t that extra time have made it possible to obtain broad international support if force became necessary?

But there is a bigger problem than all this - with far more dangerous consequences. One reason we still don’t know what happened to Iraq’s WMD capability is that many of the key suspect sites were looted after Saddam fell. If the casus belli for war was the threat of weapons of mass destruction, why didn’t the war plan place a top priority on securing those crucial sites? More ominously, is it possible that the war we launched to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction actually provoked the spread of such weapons? Is the equipment and the material we are struggling to find already on the market to terrorist groups and international criminals? If so, that will have been the biggest failure of the war.

There still has been no satisfactory explanation from the Pentagon of why there were not sufficient numbers of troops deployed to secure the WMD sites from possible looting. Is it true that the planners expected key Iraqi military and police units to defect to the allied cause and then prevent the insecurity and chaos that remains the single biggest blunder of the post-Saddam planning?

Whatever the planning mistakes, the refusal to ask for help from the experts - the UN inspectors - in trying to track down Iraq’s weapons programmes is beyond comprehension.

These are crucial questions, not just for historical and accountability reasons. George Bush and Tony Blair are right that the biggest threat the world faces in the coming years is from weapons of mass destruction. To meet that threat, nations will have to work together to deny key technologies to dangerous countries and then unite to confront real threats when they emerge. The credibility of that effort has been damaged by the exaggerated claims about Iraq, especially the dubious charge that Saddam was working in concert with al-Qaeda.

You don’t have to look far to see a country that really does sponsor international terrorism and that has an active programme to allow it to build nuclear weapons, a programme years ahead of Iraq’s - its neighbour, Iran. And when the time comes to confront the mullahs in Iran, will the world believe us when we say there is a "clear and present danger"? It would be a terrible irony if, after having relieved the world of Saddam, we succeeded in the process in damaging our own credibility.

James P Rubin was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and is now a visiting professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.


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