About Those Chemical WMDs Saddam Never Had …

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 17, 2014

A Kurd allegedly hit with chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Kobani

A Kurd allegedly hit with chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Kobani

Since the main point of this post is “I Told You So,” I should get it over early. Some of us have maintained that—whatever the political view one takes of the invasion of Iraq—the factual question, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”, remains a live one. Now the New York Times agrees.

Many things were already known or visible in outline. The Saddam Hussein regime run an elaborate ministry of concealment right down to the end that had outfoxed the inspectors, allowing the regime to maintain its designs and equipment in defiance of a thesaurus of United Nations resolutions. We know, too, from the Duelfer report that the Saddam regime maintained nuclear scientists (what Saddam called his “nuclear mujahideen”) in their specialized teams, maintained the dual-use facilities for chemical and biological weapons, and maintained the delivery systems, namely ballistic missiles, again in defiance of U.N. resolutions limiting their range. From other sources (p. 225) it is clear that Saddam remained within weeks of the production of chemical and biological weapons—and since stockpiles are only produced as-needed (i.e. during a war) this is as much as to say Saddam had chemical and biological weapons.

To this latent capacity—which is destabilizing enough—it can be added that the Saddam regime itself declared holdings, under pressure in 1991, that it never accounted for. There are hints as to where some of them might have gone, and it now seems likely that Operation DESERT FOX did more damage to Saddam’s WMD programs than anyone realized at the time. We also know for sure where some of them went: there is significant evidence of a regime final sweep and chemical weapons from regime stocks were being found at least as late as 2007 in Iraq. They were also used against Western troops by the insurgency composed of Saddamist remnants and Salafi-jihadists the regime had begun importing before its demise.

C.J. Chivers now adds in his report for the Times that American forces found “roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs,” including “more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a former Republican Guard compound.” There were seventeen American service members and seven Iraqi police officers exposed to nerve or sulphur mustard agents after 2003.

Mr. Chivers’ article manages to straddle two horses riding in opposite directions. On the one hand, he maintains that the finding of these chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) “did not support the government’s invasion rationale,” but simultaneously maintains that the Bush administration engaged in a cover-up about CWMD being found in Iraq and its lack of public recognition led to inadequate care for troops. Even all this time later the imperative is that Bush be blamed every which way. Much better were the comments of one of the soldiers hit with mustard, who jokes of being wounded by “that stuff that didn’t exist.” “There were plenty” of chemical weapons, said the soldier.

Mr. Chivers attempts to square this circle by writing that the Bush administration said Saddam “was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program,” which Saddam didn’t have (italics added). Leave aside the evidence of the dual-use facilities and programs that remained right to the end. What did Bush administration officials actually say in the lead-up to the end of the Gulf War?

President Bush, in probably his most important pre-invasion speech, before the United Nations in September 2002 said:

Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents, and … the regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons.”

Colin Powell in his infamous February 2003 address to the U.N. said:

Saddam Hussein has never accounted for vast amounts of chemical weaponry: 550 artillery shells with mustard, 30,000 empty munitions and enough precursors to increase his stockpile to as much as 500 tons of chemical agents.”

In other words, it is very silly to pretend that these “old”—as Chivers insists—stocks of CWMD were no part of the administration’s rationale for finishing with the Saddam Hussein regime.

Reports from the time and the testimony of veterans evince that the threat of a chemical attack on Western troops was taken very seriously. U.S. troops were kitted out with chemical protection suits; this wasn’t done just for the fun of it in the sweltering heat of Kuwait and Iraq. When Saddam began raining down missiles on Kuwait during the invasion, journalists reported the genuine fear that these munitions had been tipped with CWMD. Even Hans Blix, the see-no-evil inspector put in by the Russian and French patrons of the Saddam dictatorship acknowledged that he believed Saddam had maintained WMD stockpiles and programs in violation of the U.N. resolutions. There was no evidence to the contrary and as Blix so insightfully (for once) put it: “Who would attach a presumption of innocence to the regime of Saddam Hussein?”

The Bush administration was notoriously bad at defending itself, especially on the two issues that remain the most controversial: WMD and the Saddam regime’s connections with al-Qaeda. The evidence of the regime’s connections with the Qaeda network is simply overwhelming. Stephen Hayes’ book is a good brief summary; Thomas Joscelyn’s work at The Weekly Standard has been excellent on this; and a simple look at the biography of Abu Musab az-Zarqawi should make plain that the Saddamist-Salafist mutation nurtured by the regime with its al-hamla al-imaniya (the faith campaign), which now comes to us as the Islamic State, was in train all along.

On the WMD, one reason perhaps that the administration held off on broadcasting its findings of WMD stockpiles in Iraq—though some administration supporters like Rick Santorum and Pete Hoekstra tried to—is because it would have broadcast to the Ba’ath-Salafi forces that even more lethal weapons were within their reach. Another reason seems to be (not mutually exclusive with the first): Karl Rove told those who knew about these stocks: “We have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” Rove added: “We don’t want to look back“.

Douglas Feith’s brilliant memoir noted the Bush administration’s penchant for not focussing on the security threat that had been removed—the stated intention of the invasion—and switching to the future and the promotion of democracy, which: a) made the definition of victory much harder to obtain; b) refused to take credit for what the administration actually had done; and c) focussed the critics on this undefended territory, allowing them to mount an all-out attack on the invasion’s legitimacy without reply, so that even when it looked like a success after the Surge, opponents could still say the invasion should never have been launched and grant the administration no credit.

This is not, however, just an academic question about the past. When the Islamic State first attacked the Kurds at Kobani in northern Syria, beginning July 2, it is alleged to have used chemical weapons. The attack is said to have taken place on July 12 with mustard blistering agent in Avdiko, a village in the east of Kobani now under Islamic State control. Photographs show three dead Kurdish fighters physically unharmed but with “burns and white spots … indicat[ing] the use of chemicals”. The chemicals seem to originate from near Raqqa City, but it is “possible that these were transferred to Raqqa from Iraq, following the capture of the Muthanna compound … by IS in June.” Muthanna, just south of Samarra City, contained inter alia 2,500 sarin-filled rockets, 605 one-ton mustard containers with residues, and about 180 tons of sodium cyanide at the time the Islamic State captured it. In short, if the Islamic State is now using chemical weapons they could be Saddam’s.

In either case, The New York Times has put the Iraq debate on a proper factual footing. No longer will the “no WMDs” thesis be credible as a catch-all dismissal of the case for ending the twelve-year-long war Saddam Hussein started. Now the thesis that will have to be defended is: “Those WMDs were not a significant enough threat for action”.


Post has been updated

7 thoughts on “About Those Chemical WMDs Saddam Never Had …

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  3. ELC

    First of all, good work. I’m adding the link to http://operationiraqifreedomfaq.blogspot.com/2004/10/perspective-on-operation-iraqi-freedom.html.
    However, although you do imply the notion, you omit explicit acknowledgment that the Iraq Survey Group heavily qualified its account in the Transmittal Message, Scope Note, and various sections with caveats about the Saddam regime’s expertise at hiding proscribed items and activities, much loss of evidence, “sanitized” suspect areas, and other practical limitations to the post hoc investigation. In other words, what ISG found is only a floor, and while ISG offered a best guess about the fate of not-found items, including stocks, it can’t be a reliable assessment. It’s usually also overlooked that ISG plainly corroborated that Iraq breached the UNSCR 687 disarmament mandates, which established casus belli.
    * See http://operationiraqifreedomfaq.blogspot.com/2013/03/10-year-anniversary-start-Operation-Iraqi-Freedom-thoughts.html#duelferreport
    As far as I know and related to ISG’s heavily qualified account, ISG doesn’t include analysis of Operation Desert Fox’s impact on stocks and other items.
    I recommend that your reference to Hans Blix should include prominent citation of the 06MAR03 UNMOVIC report summarizing the UNSCR 1441 inspections, which by procedure, triggered the enforcement decision with Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Clusters document iterates the UNSCOM-established fact of Iraq’s UNSCR 687-proscribed armament and the burden of proof on Iraq (“The onus is clearly on Iraq”) to disarm as mandated, and reported that Saddam did not disarm as mandated by UNSCRs 687 and 1441. In fact, UNMOVIC found no effective progress towards the mandated compliance from the UNSCR 1205 inspections that triggered ODF in 1998.
    * Cite http://www.un.org/depts/unmovic/new/documents/cluster_document.pdf
    I unpacked Secretary of State Powell’s February 5, 2003 speech at the UNSC. I found that, contrary to the prevailing narrative, Powell’s speech actually holds up well knowing what we know now. On the main points of the case presentation against Saddam, Powell was correct nearly across the board. In fact, most of Powell’s speech merely restated the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) and record of Saddam’s noncompliance.
    * See http://operationiraqifreedomfaq.blogspot.com/2016/05/powell-unsc.html
    Bush administration latter emphasis on the nation-building piece per Public Law 105-338 pursuant to UNSCR 1483 was an imbalanced presentation rather than a “switch” since the humanitarian component per UNSCR 688 was a principal focus from the start of the US-led Gulf War ceasefire enforcement. That said, I agree with you that the decision not to *doggedly* clarify the disarmament component per UNSCR 687 was a political error with compounding damage.
    * See http://operationiraqifreedomfaq.blogspot.com/#whatOIFabout

  4. ELC

    Add: Yes, CJ Chivers’s (mis)characterization of the UNSCR 687, 1441-mandated disarmament process is blatantly revisionist.
    President Bush’s policy statements, including his March 18, 2003 report to Congress on the determination to use force per Public Law 107-243, are consistent and clear that the WMD-related basis for the US-led enforcement with Iraq uphld – as it always had since 1991 – the UNSCR 687 standard, which was “enhanced” by UNSCR 1441.
    Appositely understood, Chivers’s reporting on Operation Avarice is just one more corroboration, added to UNMOVIC’s OIF-triggering confirmation and ISG’s corroboration, of Saddam’s breach of UNSCR 687 that, by procedure, established casus belli.

  5. Eric


    This is a refreshingly good summation for an issue that’s routinely radically misrepresented in the politics by politicians and pundits who should know better.

    Some nitpicks and comments on your post:

    Comment: The “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) for disarmament per UNSCR 687 was well established and plainly stated for more than a decade before Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441) in 2002-2003. As you point out, CJ Chivers’s mischaracterization of the WMD-related element of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s casus belli contradicts Bush administration statements, including the President’s 18MAR03 formal notice to Congress explaining the determination to use, Public Law 107-243 (the 2002 AUMF), and UNSCR 1441.

    The 2002 presidential policy and Congressional and UN mandates regarding Saddam’s WMD were not novel. They merely iterated and updated the longstanding Gulf War ceasefire standard. The main theme of President Bush’s 12SEP02 speech at the UN General Assembly was enforcement of Iraq’s conclusive full compliance with the UNSCR 660-series mandates. In that regard, nearly all main points of Secretary Powell’s “infamous” 05FEB03 speech at the UN Security Council are substantiated. Much of Powell’s UNSC speech merely referred to Iraq’s mandated obligations and the UNSCOM/UNMOVIC-established fact record.

    Chivers’s mischaracterization of the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) betrays either an astounding ignorance of the longstanding, well established, plainly stated UNSCR 687 disarmament mandates or a brazen, even contemptuous deception of his audience.

    Nitpick: I didn’t see anything in the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report indicating that “it now seems likely that Operation DESERT FOX did more damage to Saddam’s WMD programs than anyone realized at the time” (Orton). If anything, the bare mention of the ODF bombing campaign in the ISG report leaves the impression that ISG considered the impact of ODF to be negligible.

    Comment: An important yet obscured aspect of the ISG report is that ISG’s non-findings are heavily qualified in the Transmittal Message, Scope Note, and various sections with caveats about destruction of evidence, “sanitization” of suspect sites, and other practical limitations that hindered the ex post investigation. In many instances where ISG cited a lack of evidence, it meant the evidence required for a definite determination was missing or lost, not that absence of evidence was evidence of absence. In fact, ISG lists much “fragmentary and circumstantial” evidence, especially in the BW section, indicating that the Saddam regime was engaged in significantly more WMD-related activity than ISG could definitely determine. As such, ISG’s findings should be read as a floor, not a complete account. Yet in the politics, ISG’s heavily qualified non-findings are typically portrayed as unequivocal and dispositive; meanwhile, most of the ISG findings of WMD-related violations have been buried.

    Comment: UNMOVIC’s final UNSCR 1441 report, which President Bush cited in his determination to use force, is dispositive regarding Iraq’s failure to disarm as mandated and shows why Hans Blix believed in Saddam’s WMD. It’s alarming stuff. UNMOVIC’s findings included “information that conflicts with the information in the [Iraqi WMD] declaration” that indicated hidden WMD stockpile. At minimum, UNMOVIC found Iraq made no significant disarmament progress from the UNSCOM inspections that had triggered ODF, which confirmed Iraq’s “continued violations of its obligations” (UNSCR 1441) for casus belli. ISG subsequently confirmed that Saddam “never intended” to comply and disarm as mandated.

    Comment: I agree Bush officials were markedly poor at clarifying the WMD-related justification for OIF in the politics. Besides UNMOVIC’s clear confirmation of Iraq’s “material breach” (UNSCR 1441) for casus belli, the ISG report is rife with UNSCR 687 WMD violations. ISG found the sanctions were breaking after the 1996 introduction of the corrupted Oil For Food program and de facto neutralized by 2000-2001 with “concomitant expansion” of WMD-related activity. In other words, the Saddam regime was practically uncontained with the intent and practice of reconstituting its WMD program and proscribed conventional armament. (ISG found that France was selling anti-aircraft technology to Saddam while the US and UK were presumably still enforcing the UNSCR 688 no-fly zones!) Iraq was far past the ‘red line’ for ceasefire breach.

    Nitpick: However, you’re wrong to say “the future and the promotion of democracy” were a switch from “the stated intention of the invasion”. From the outset of the Gulf War ceasefire, long before the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-338) whose promotion of democracy was “expected” in the 2002 AUMF, the UNSCR 688 humanitarian mandates were a primary focus alongside the UNSCR 687 disarmament mandates for the UNSCR 678-authorized ceasefire enforcers in the US and UK. The confusion stems from that the UNSCR 688 humanitarian mandates were not a primary focus for the US and UK’s colleagues on the UN Security Council; hence, the lower stature of UNSCR 688 in the UN’s UNSCR 660-series compliance enforcement, including UNSCR 1441, as distinct from the US and UK.

    Comment: The significant change from prior compliance enforcement for Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441) wasn’t the human rights focus. Rather, it was the raised threat value assigned to the UNSCR 687 terrorism-related mandates after the 9/11 attacks. However, the concern over Saddam’s WMD-terrorism combination was longstanding. In fact, President Clinton featured the threat of Saddam’s WMD-terrorism combination in his 17FEB98 speech at the Pentagon. In the WMD-terrorism context, although ISG didn’t find a large-scale military-level BW/CW capability on-line, ISG did find a covert terrorism-level BW/CW capability on-line in the IIS along with, as you point out, the ready “dual use” means (including obviously suspect “BW agent simulants” capability) to convert to large-scale production in short order.

    The more one learns the controlling law, policy, and precedent and determinative facts, the more it becomes plain that the OIF decision was correct, and that the Iraq issue has been radically misrepresented in the politics by politicians and pundits who should know better. The actual why of OIF is straightforward. Bush and Blair and the US and UK were right on Iraq.

    Good post.

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