What We Knew in December, 2003

 

December 17: Saddam's weapons
Hans Blix doubts whether WMD's will ever be found in Iraq.

In a HARDtalk interview on 17 December, Tim Sebastian spoke to the former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, to ask him whether he believed wespons of mass destruction would ever be found in Iraq.

Asked about Saddam Hussein's capture, Mr. Blix said: "I felt like congratulating the Americans "he was a brutal dictator with an awful lot of blood on his hands."

However, he said that David Kay's findings for the Iraqi Survey Group last October were largely unsubstantiated innuendo.

But he said he thought that any information the former dictator provided would only indicate when Iraq got rid of its WMD. Blix said he remained certain that none would be found in Iraq.

Quality of intelligence

"My gut feeling in January of this year was probably that they still had them."

"It was only when I saw the poor quality of the intelligence that I began to be more doubtful."

Blix said that if evidence could be found that Iraq was pursuing a weapons programme this would be a "serious violation" of UN resolutions.

However, he said, "it would not support the British and Americans saying there are stores and stocks of WMD."

He said that although he did not question the good faith of Tony Blair and George Bush in the run up to war, "those that analysed the material for them were not sufficiently critically thinking."

 

(View interview here.)

 

December 28: Bush's man rejects Blair weapon claim

Tony Blair was at the centre of an embarrassing row last night after the most senior US official in Baghdad bluntly rejected the Prime Minister's assertion that secret weapons laboratories had been discovered in Iraq.

In a Christmas message to British troops, Blair claimed there was 'massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories'. The Iraq Survey Group (ISG) had unearthed compelling evidence that showed Saddam Hussein had attempted to 'conceal weapons', the Prime Minister said. But in an interview yesterday, Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's top official in Baghdad, flatly dismissed the claim as untrue - without realising its source was Blair.

It was, he suggested, a 'red herring', probably put about by someone opposed to military action in Iraq who wanted to undermine the coalition.

'I don't know where those words come from but that is not what [ISG chief] David Kay has said,' he told ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby programme. 'It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me.

With the Government's policy on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in apparent disarray last night, insurgents inside Iraq yesterday launched another major attack, this time in the southern city of Karbala.

Four Bulgarian and two Thai soldiers were killed and 37 coalition troops were injured after Iraq's increasingly well-organised resistance attacked, using mortars, machine guns and a car bomb. At least seven Iraqi civilians were killed and up to 135 were injured in the attacks.

'It was a coordinated, massive attack planned for a big scale and intended to do much harm,' said Major General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, head of the Polish-led multinational force responsible for security around Karbala. 'Four car bombs were used, grenade launchers and guns. In all cases, the suicide drivers were shot dead before they could strike their targets.'

Yesterday's offensive in Karbala marks the end of a disastrous Christmas week for coalition forces in Iraq following Saddam Hussein's capture a fortnight ago.

Last week guerrillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad; lobbed mortars at the 'Green Zone', the coalition's riverside HQ; hit the Turkish, Iranian and German embassies; and killed four US soldiers in Bequba, north of Baghdad, using their favourite weapon: the remotely detonated roadside bomb.

A massive anti-insurgent offensive by US forces in Baghdad appears to have made little difference.

With confusion apparently growing between London and Washington over WMD, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said he would be pressing Ministers when Parliament returned in the New Year on what precisely the Government knew. 'It is high time the Prime Minister cleared this matter up once and for all,' he said.

Blair made his remarks in a pre-Christmas interview with BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service, heard by the 10,000 British troops stationed in southern Iraq.

In recent days, senior Whitehall officials have raised the extraordinary possibility that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction after all - but believed he did after being misled by his own advisors.

 

December 28: Attacks Force Retreat From Wide-Ranging Plans for Iraq

(3 page article.)

BAGHDAD, Dec. 27 -- The United States has backed away from several of its more ambitious initiatives to transform Iraq's economy, political system and security forces as attacks on U.S. troops have escalated and the timetable for ending the civil occupation has accelerated.

Plans to privatize state-owned businesses -- a key part of a larger Bush administration goal to replace the socialist economy of deposed president Saddam Hussein with a free-market system -- have been dropped over the past few months. So too has a demand that Iraqis write a constitution before a transfer of sovereignty.

With the administration's plans tempered by time and threat, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and his deputies are now focused on forging compromises with Iraqi leaders and combating a persistent insurgency in order to meet a July 1 deadline to transfer sovereignty to a provisional government.

"There's no question that many of the big-picture items have been pushed down the list or erased completely," said a senior U.S. official involved in Iraq's reconstruction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Right now, everyone's attention is focused [on] doing what we need to do to hand over sovereignty by next summer."

The new approach, U.S. diplomats said, calls into question the prospects for initiatives touted by conservative strategists to fashion Iraq into a secular, pluralistic, market-driven nation. While the diplomats maintain those goals are still attainable, the senior official said, "ideology has become subordinate to the schedule."

"The Americans are coming to understand that they cannot change everything they want to change in Iraq," said Adel Abdel-Mehdi, a senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim political party that is cooperating with the U.S. occupation authority. "They need to let the Iraqi people decide the big issues."

Bremer's plan for Iraqis to write a constitution before he departed had been intended to prevent extremists from dominating the drafting process. U.S. officials acknowledge that risk exists, but said it had been outweighed by the need to end the civil occupation by the summer. The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq will go on longer, military officials have said.

With goodwill toward Americans ebbing fast, Bremer and his lieutenants have also concluded that it does not make sense to cause new social disruptions or antagonize Iraqis allied with the United States. Selling off state-owned factories would lead to thousands of layoffs, which could prompt labor unrest in a country where 60 percent of the population is already unemployed.

 

December 30: Iraq Arms Hunt May Hinder Other U.S. Aims
AP Enterprise: Fruitless Weapons Search in Iraq Could Hurt Efforts to Curb N. Korea, Other Nations

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq Dec. 30 In nine months, not a single item has been found in Iraq from a long and classified intelligence list of weapons of mass destruction which guided the work of dozens of elite teams from Special Forces, the military, the CIA and the Pentagon during the most secretive, expensive and fruitless weapons hunt in history.

For U.S. allies, arms control experts and some involved in the hunt, the lack of evidence in a war premised on the threat of proliferation will have far reaching consequences in the coming year for the United States in its efforts to curb Iran, North Korea, Syria and others.

While some argue the Iraq war helped push open the doors of closed regimes such as Libya and Iran, others say it has only strengthened convictions that negotiations, U.N. inspections and sanctions work.

A look at new details of Iraq's clandestine efforts and its behavior during the 13 years when it was supposed to disarm could serve as a lesson for future moves against any potential proliferator.

The American-led effort has shed new light on Iraqi expertise, some of which was unknown to U.N. inspectors and hasn't been made public before.

In one case, Iraqis used front companies to import German and Russian-made missile parts between 1999-2002, the period when they banned U.N. inspectors from the country. They later lied to inspectors and said some of the parts were acquired inside Iraq.

"We didn't accept the sanctions then," Dr. Modher Sadeq-Saba al-Tamimi, Iraq's top missile designer, told The Associated Press. "From 1999-2002 we bought German and Russian parts," for the al-Samoud missiles which were later destroyed by returning U.N. inspectors because several tests flights showed a capability to go beyond a 93-mile U.N. limit.

The purchases, often done through a web of middlemen and front companies, were investigated by the U.N. but such Iraqi imports wouldn't be considered a violation. American investigators are still sifting through documents.

Modher is free and has shared his work with British military personnel. Ever ambitious and talented, he told AP in two separate interviews that he and his teams dreamed up ingenious designs for long-range missiles which he hoped to work on once sanctions were lifted.

That information, which also wouldn't be considered a violation by U.N. inspectors, constitutes the bulk of what the America-led search has learned in the missile area.

The teams have closed their chemical and nuclear files and David Kay, the man currently leading the search, is considering stepping down, those involved in the hunt told AP on condition of anonymity.

The remaining hope for the operation is in the biological area, a field U.N. inspectors were all suspicious of. Kay's teams have found no evidence Iraq had smallpox but has continued questioning Iraqi biologists and were pursuing information about anthrax and aflatoxin.

Of the handful of Iraqi weapons scientists remaining in U.S. custody, two are missile experts, and seven worked on past biological programs, according to Iraqi officials now working for the American occupation.

All continue to claim that Iraq hasn't worked on weapons of mass destruction for years.

Modher said he gave his word to Saddam that the al-Samoud missiles were designed to conform with U.N. regulations and his staff signed official letters forswearing proscribed activities.

On Feb. 20, one month before the U.S. attacked, Modher met with Saddam, his sons and five other men responsible for Iraq's air defenses to discuss the coming war. "We talked about the preparations." Modher had designed anti-aircraft missiles "but they were never fired because nobody fought," he said.

There was no mention in the meeting of other defense systems, such as chemical or biological weapons, Modher recalled.

To date, Congress has approved $700 million for the weapons hunt, according to Congressional staff, a figure higher than previously reported. The U.N. effort during the 1990s cost an estimated $60 million a year, which was paid by several countries and the United Nations.

The Bush administration began planning its own hunt six months before it went to war, military officers said.

Working in secret, the Pentagon set up the first U.S. teams designed to search for, identify and destroy chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The mission, which military planners expected to be brief, was a failure and in June the Pentagon announced a larger operation with investigative capabilities to be led by Kay and Gen. Keith Dayton.

By August the operation, known as the Iraq Survey Group, was underway. Its most notable determination to date has been that two mobile trailers found in April and May were not biological laboratories as senior administration officials had claimed. In a BBC interview Kay called the trailers "a fiasco."

His first order of business was to throw out a U.S. intelligence list which inaccurately identified locations of chemical weapons, stores of highly enriched uranium and laboratories for anthrax and smallpox. He told team members that working off lists had been a mistake.

Instead, he ran the hunt as an investigation, the way the United Nations had done when he briefly worked for them in Iraq in 1991. Under Kay's direction, hundreds of Iraqis were interviewed, some were detained, no one has been charged. University science professors said ISG staff still come by once a week to poke around and ask questions.

At first, some ISG members identified themselves as journalists or academics interested in working on joint research projects, according to university staff and administrators. Dr. Modher said the ISG team that interviewed him in November said the meeting would be about privatizing his missile factory.

The CIA declined to comment on ISG activities or methods. It wouldn't release spending figures for the operation and Kay turned down a request for an interview. His interim report remains classified.

By contrast, the U.N. teams were required to file public reports every three months. Their major findings and expenses, later by Iraqi oil proceeds, were public as well.

Since the war was launched, American allies and U.N. Security Council members have talked of bolstering the work of U.N. inspectors and have used negotiations with Iran and North Korea as a way of reducing the threats those country could pose.

The United States tried a different route, pushing to rebuke both Iran and North Korea's nuclear activities in the Security Council but found no support for the moves.

"As long as the United States has a pre-emptive policy on the books, no one will pass sanctions against Iran or North Korea," said Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. inspector who will head a new nonproliferation center based in Stockholm.

That may be true, said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, but he said the sudden attention paid to the issue of weapons of mass destruction is a tribute to the war.

"I don't believe the Iranians feel more confident that they can get away with a nuclear program today than they did a year ago," Kristol said.

EDITORS: Dafna Linzer has spent the past year covering the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq reporting from Baghdad, the United Nations and Washington.