The Progress of the Pretext (15 May 2003)

Glen Rangwala
Lecturer in politics at University of Cambridge
UK (email:

In his first press conference after the launching of the invasion, General Tommy Franks, the war's commander, declared: "There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction." As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put it on 10 April 2003, "weapons of mass destruction" were the very reason for the war: "That is what this war was about and it is about. And we have high confidence it will be found." Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was more ebullient: not only did Saddam Hussein have prohibited weapons, but the US knew where they were. He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "we know where they [the weapons] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

Two months after the invasion began, the only reliable signs of illicit weapons in Iraq are the cluster bombs that have been dropped from US jets.

With so much personal credibility staked on finding these weapons in Iraq, their discovery has been a high priority since the start of the conflict. Hans Blix said when the invasion began, "If they don't find something then you have sent 250,000 men to wage war in order to find nothing." Even before the first missiles struck Baghdad, special operations teams were raiding four sites in western Iraq that were considered to be likely stores of weapons. But the anticipated propaganda victory was not to be had: the searches revealed no prohibited items.

There has been no sign of the biologically armed "missile brigade" Colin Powell had claimed to the Security Council was stationed outside Baghdad in the palm tree groves. The Republican Guard commanders whose voices Powell played, allegedly talking about the concealment of nerve agents, have not showed up. The scientists whom Powell told us were being prevented from talking due to fear of Saddam Hussein have not now divulged any secrets. The supposed "poison camp" near Khurmal, with its network of tunnels and elaborate chemical infrastructure, has been found to have no such facilities. As for the "nearly two dozen" al-Qa'ida "affiliates" that Powell showed photographs of, claiming that they were based in Baghdad, they seem to have vanished into thin air.

Every new discovery by the invading armies of a vat or vial inside Iraq has led to trumpeting about how the "smoking gun" may have now been found. As Iraq has several petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries still functioning in the country, the feverish headlines have been frequent. In each case, the results of tests have been quietly released after a few days: always negative.

Three days into the war, US forces claimed to have come across a "huge" chemical weapons factory near Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. It turned out to be a cement factory that had been disused for a number of years. Next, claims were being made about the presence in Nasiriya of chemical protection suits, gas masks and antidotes. According to UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, these items "show categorically that Iraqi troops are prepared" to use "weapons of mass destruction". When told that the suits were of the same type that Iraq had in the 1980s during the war with Iran, Hoon relented; now the find was "obviously not conclusive". Indeed, the suits may well have been twenty year-old leftovers. US officials confirmed that there was no indication they were freshly worn or issued.

Similar false alarms were raised over vials of white powder found in the Qa Qaa factory complex on 4th April, which turned out to be common explosives, and over fourteen barrels of chemicals at Hindiya in central Iraq which US officials claimed on 7th April contained nerve agents - in reality insecticide. Given that the barrels were found at an agricultural warehouse, the contents should not have been particularly surprising.

In early May, journalists were told that two trailers found at Mosul and near Baghdad were mobile biological weapons laboratories. The first had, we are told, been stolen by a "thief" and handed over to Kurdish militia members before being passed onto US forces. The other went supposedly unnoticed in a US occupied compound for weeks before it was investigated. Quite apart from the high possibility that the vehicles had been tampered with on these chains of custody, the information presented by the Pentagon about these vehicles was far from conclusive.

Colin Powell had produced drawings of what he claimed the mobile labs would look like. These sketches showed metal-sided vehicles, as would be required to contain pathogens in case any valves or fittings leaked, as they almost always do. By contrast, the photograph of these trailers released by the Pentagon showed vehicles whose sides were sheets of canvas that was simply pinned down. If such vehicles had been used for containing anthrax fermenters, a downwind footprint of anthrax contamination would have been detected fairly readily.

One ex-UN inspector has told me that the design of the vehicles matches that of the mobile regenerators that Iraq used to produce the oxidizers for surface to air missiles. Iraq had admitted having these vehicles from at least 1993. Iraqi fixed missile sites were under constant bombardment by the US, and the answer they devised was to produce mobile regeneration capabilities to use the oxidizer stores viable during the ongoing conflict. As no dangerous chemicals or biological agents were in use, small-scale leakage was neither detectable nor problematic. This explanation would also explain why no protective clothing or biocontainment systems were discovered with the trailers, and why no pathogens were found in them either.

With the pretext for war looking increasingly difficult to substantiate, the US has adopted two strategies. They have begun to pull their weapons inspections teams - in the 75th Exploitation Task Force - out of Iraq. Members of this team, speaking to the Washington Post, admitted that their work had not been productive, and said that they no longer knew if Iraq had any prohibited weapons. In replacement, they are to bring a new team - the "Iraq Survey Group" - into the country, which lacks the chemical and biological specialists that the Task Force 75 had, but which is "more expert in document exploitation and intelligence", according to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

The second strategy is to downgrade expectations of what they will find in Iraq. Condoleezza Rice has now said that she believes that Iraq's weapons programmes were "in bits and pieces", comprising of precursor chemicals and dual-use facilities, that could be used to assemble at short notice chemical and biological weapons. However, precursors for chemical weapons are found in household chemicals, and "dual-use facilities" are found throughout Iraq in legitimate industries: and the display of neither will reveal anything about the existence of Iraq's prohibited programmes. This may not stop the present US administration from trying to make such claims.

As a result, many - including the Russian foreign minister - have speculated that if the evidence is not there, it would have to be invented. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said US military commanders alone would be responsible for identifying and destroying any prohibited weapons that are found. The US military have also attempted to poach UN staff to emasculate the UN inspections bodies. This would give the US administration free rein to exaggerate or falsify any material that might retrospectively legitimise the military campaign.

In taking this course of action, the US is clearly in violation of the very Security Council resolutions that it claimed justified the war. Under Security Council Resolution 687 that ended the 1991 Gulf War, the destruction of all chemical, biological and nuclear material and missiles must take place under the supervision of UN inspectors. These were obligations imposed on Iraq, not the regime of Saddam Hussein, and are binding on any successor government. As the US has become the occupying power, the Security Council obligations transfer to it. By failing to freeze any sites that are found, and allowing UN inspectors in as soon as safety allows, the US has committed exactly the same breach that it accused Iraq of.

The UN has confirmed its role in verifying any claims that Iraq has retained prohibited weapons. Kofi Annan said on 24th March that "UNMOVIC still has the responsibility for the disarmament of Iraq…they will be expected to go back to Iraq and inspect." Mohamed El-Baradei, the head of the IAEA, added that only international inspections could provide credible information on Iraq's weapons, and that the IAEA were "the sole organization with legal powers - derived from both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and successive Security Council resolutions - to verify Iraq's nuclear disarmament".

Without independent verification from UN inspections teams that Iraq did retain prohibited weapons, the US and UK will be judged as having a launched a war on the basis of deceit. In the face of no evidence of Iraq's prohibited weapons, and with no use of those weapons by Iraq, the flag of disarmament under which this war has been fought has fallen away.

Important Link: Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq - CASI had lead the campaign against sanctions in the UK.