Weapons of Mass Destruction: Where's the Proof?
October 9, 2002

Maria Tomchick

The Bush administration is still groping for reasons to launch a war that will make sense to the American public. Tony Blair's "dossier" won't do the job.

The dossier, entitled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction," is full of qualifiers: "if," "probably," "possibly," "might be," "could," "suspected," and "may be." The hard evidence is lacking.

Two things stands out. First of all, a surprising amount of the data in the report is from the pre-Gulf War era--over 12 years ago. A lot has happened since then. Bombing during the Gulf War destroyed much of Iraq's infrastructure, including its missile sites. Since 1998, US and British warplanes have been flying bombing sorties over Iraq, selectively bombing suspected military targets for over four years. Yet no one in the US press has asked the key question: if the US and Britain have been bombing Iraq since 1998, how could Iraq rebuild its missile sites, chemical weapons plants, and nuclear capability without them becoming targets of US bombs? Neither the Bush administration nor the Blair dossier answers this question.

The second thing that stands out in the dossier is that, when it mentions the UNSCOM weapons inspections from 1991 to 1998, it reminds us of how effective they were. Particularly in the early years, from 1991-1995, UNSCOM was busy: they dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program, destroyed most (if not all) of its chemical munitions, and exposed its highly secret--albeit tiny and fledgling--bioweapons program (which, the Blair report admits, was probably destroyed by Iraq in secret to prevent its exposure). By 1996, UNSCOM was running out of work and was relegated to poring through boring Iraqi government documents--a testament to its own success. The Blair report reads like an outright endorsement for inspections.

Unsurprisingly, the dossier contains no new information other than vague assertions that Iraq has reconstituted its weapons of mass destruction at a handful of sites around the country. It does, however, make some statements that have been seized upon by the Bush administration and the US press as arguments for why Iraq is a danger to the US. Those include:

Iraq purchased uranium from Africa. There is only one source for enriched uranium in Africa: South Africa. Currently all of South Africa's weapons grade material is under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the same UN commission that oversaw the dismantling of Iraq's nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s and has been monitoring every since. As recently as earlier this year, Iraq was continuing to make regular reports to the IAEA on the status of its former nuclear facilities.

There are other sources for uranium in Africa. The Congo, Niger, Botswana, and Gabon all mine uranium oxide. But that ore must be refined before it can be used in a nuclear weapon. In spite of reports about special aluminum tubes, Iraq has not been able to get its hands on any equipment to refine its own ore, because the sanctions have prevented it. Even if Iraq could get the equipment, it would take between five and eight years for them to make enough material to fit in one nuclear warhead.

The Blair report doesn't specify when Iraq bought uranium from Africa for its weapons. The former apartheid government of South Africa--an ally of the Reagen administration--sold enriched uranium to Iraq in 1989. If this is what the Blair report is referring to, then it's misleading. That material was destroyed by UNSCOM.

Iraq's missile technology. Iraq has no long-range missiles, although the Blair report shows a grainy satellite photo of a suspected missile site under construction. Iraq's missile sites were bombed in 1991 during the Gulf War and again in 1998, and have been targeted by US and British planes regularly since then. So why haven't they bombed the suspected site shown in the Blair report?

During the 1990s, UNSCOM dismantled 48 of Iraq's remaining SCUD missiles, 14 warheads, 6 mobile launchers, 28 fixed launch pads, 32 suspected launch pads under construction, and huge amounts of support equipment. Conservative political analysts and pentagon spokespeople estimate that, if Iraq has any SCUDs left, they number less than 10. And remember how accurate those SCUDs were during the Gulf War?

Mobile bioweapons labs. Clearly the Blair government is relying on our ignorance of how Third World countries operate. In the US and Europe, we're used to electricity at the flick of a switch, clean water from the kitchen faucet, high-speed rail, and well-paved superhighways traveled by giant, refrigerated trucks.

In Iraq, it's another story. Electricity is a function of where you live--if it's inside Baghdad, you might have it most of the time. Clean water is elusive; contaminated water still kills thousands of people every year, particularly among the very young and the very old. After the Gulf War, a decade of sanctions, and four years of US and British bombing, there are few well-paved roads.

Bio-weapons laboratories need a constant supply of electricity, sterile water, refrigeration, heat, nutrients, glassware, special air filters, sophisticated equipment, hundreds (if not thousands) of trained personnel, and buildings constructed with rooms that have multiple doors and barriers to the outside to maintain adequate bio-containment. Nobody slings around glass slides and petri dishes full of anthrax cultures in the back of a truck that's trying to dodge potholes on a dirt track while US fighter bombers are screaming overhead. It's simply nonsense.

Iraq's chemical weapons.When the Blair report was released and passed around to the members of the UN Security Council, they read it, scratched their heads, and exclaimed: "this contains nothing new!" And then they threw it away. Why? Because the only real threat it describes is Iraq's chemical weapons capacity, which is still modest compared to many nations around the world.

Without a missile system, Iraq's aging canisters of sarin gas can only be used within Iraq itself, inside artillery shells and sprayers. Short-range chemical weapons are highly risky to deploy; they can only be used when the weather conditions are just right--or else gas can drift back onto Iraqi troops or a nearby civilian population.

If anything, Iraq's short-range chemical weapons capability is a very, very good argument against going to war and invading Iraq.

In spite of the Blair report, there's proof that Iraq is not restocking its chemical weapons. Within 2 hours of the Blair dossier being released to the press, British journalists from The Guardian and The Independent were able to inspect two sites of their own choosing from the report. The Iraqi government gave them full, unfettered access.

The first site was al-Qa'qa, which the Blair report claims is making phosgene for chemical weapons. The journalists found that al-Qa'qa is a plant for making explosives for Iraq's conventional weapons. Phosgene is produced as a by-product of making explosives, but the liquid phosgene was being pumped into tanks for storage and much of it was actually leaking from a pipe all over the ground. There's no money to repair the broken pipe.

The second site was the Amariyah Sera and Vaccine Institute, supposedly a bioweapons storage facility, according to the Blair report. Journalists described it as follows: "The entrance to the Amariyah plant, a smaller scale operation with a staff of 140, has no military guards, as might have been expected of a place storing biological weapons. It is rundown, its laboratories near empty, and the staff, in dirty white lab gowns, looked bored. Rubbish was piled high outside, especially empty bottles."

No chemical weapons and no bioweapons in sight--only leaky pipes and empty vaccine bottles.

The "Presidential Palaces.". Both the Blair dossier and the Bush administration cite the "Presidential Palaces" as possible locations for weapons of mass destruction. From all this posturing, you'd think that no one outside of Iraq has ever been inside one of these sites. UNSCOM, however, visited the Presidential sites on March 25 through April 4, 1998. The sites contained no weaponry; they were mostly composed of housing for Republican Guardsmen and their families and government office buildings. Hans Blix, the current head of the new weapons inspection team, has said that he doesn't expect to find any weapons or labs on these sites; instead, he'll be looking for classified government documents with information on weapons programs, and not the weaponry itself.

Links to Al Qaeda. The Blair report's biggest omission is its lack of any evidence that Iraq supports terrorist groups. Al Qaeda is not mentioned at all, but that's not surprising, given that even the Bush administration can't produce details of a link. In fact, Iraq has fewer ties to groups on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations than either Syria or Iran. And one of the groups supposedly linked to Iraq is the National Council of Resistance of Iran--a group that's supported by several members of Congress. The NCRI recently held a press conference two blocks from the White House.

As for high-level Al Qaeda operatives residing in Iraq, US intelligence sources agree that these men are hiding in northern areas of Iraq not under Saddam's control (remember the northern "no-fly" zone, set up to prevent Saddam's troops from fighting Iraqi Kurds?). The assertion by Condoleeza Rice that senior Al Qaeda members have visited Baghdad refers to only one guy: Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who passed through Baghdad two months ago, and who had no contact with the Iraqi government or military.

The Bush administration's push for war is not based on fact. Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice's reliance on the Blair report to make the case for war is either a measure of how mediocre our own intelligence services are or, more likely, an indication of how divided the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies are over the wisdom of this war. If it's the former, then we can expect war without reason or resolution, regardless of what the UN or Congress decides. But if it's the latter, then there's still hope that the hawks can be stopped by either a vote in Congress against granting Bush the war powers he craves or a vote against the US's draft resolution in the UN Security Council.

We can, and should, lobby for both. Call your Senators and Representatives.

Some of the many sources for this article:

"Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction; The Assessment of the British Government," from the BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk, it can also be found at http://www.pm.gov.uk, www.fco.gov.uk, and http://www.mod.uk; "S Africa denies Iraq nuclear link," Alistair Leithead, BBC news online, 9/26/02; "African gangs offer route to uranium," James Astill and Rory Carroll, The Guardian, 9/25/02; "Blair's dossier assessed," Paul Reynolds, BBC news online, 9/24/02; "Iraq Faces Obstacles in Making Nuclear Weapon," John J. Fialka and Greg Jaffe, Wall Street Journal, 9/10/02, A10; "Iraq takes journalists on tour to expose Blair 'lies'," Kim Sengupta, The Independent, 9/25/02; "Suspect plants open their doors; Iraqis arrange tour of factories named in report," Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, 9/25/02; "Iraqi palaces are stumbling blocks for inspectors," David Usborne, The Independent (London), 9/27/02; "Swede Inspector: Iraq Arms Experts Probably Spied," Reuters, 10/4/02; and "More passion than proof against Iraq?" Calvin Howard, Associated Press, reprinted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 9/28/02, A4