While the Bush administration is beset by questions about the accuracy of intelligence information the President cited in building a case for war against Iraq, the White House hawks have still not fully explained how Iraq became a target of the administration shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The administration has maintained that Iraq had ties to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organization and that the country posed an imminent threat to the United States because of its enormous stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, which was used as the reasons to justify the war. But the Iraq/al-Qaeda link has been disputed due to a lack of evidence and the weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found.
The hawks continuously point to 9-11 when discussing the war, however, Bush and his cronies, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were already engaged in an eight month long mini-war with Iraq prior to 9-11, while Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network was putting the finishing touches on its plan to attack the U.S.
When terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, the Bush administration quickly set its sights on dismantling al-Qaeda and the Taliban government in Afghanistan that protected them. But the administration also targeted Iraq and the public is still wondering why.
A look back at the first 240 days of Bush’s presidency will answer that question and show that the hawks in the administration had begun to lay the groundwork for what would become "Operation Iraqi Freedom" long before weapons of mass destruction became the excuse for waging a war.
As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said in a recent interview with Vanity Fair magazine, the administration’s claims that Iraq possessed WMD and posed an imminent threat to the U.S. was used simply to justify a preemptive strike and build public support for war. Iraq was not an immediate threat to the U.S., Wolfowitz said.
Indeed, months before 9-11, Wolfowitz said in an interview with CNN that "wars might happen tomorrow in North Korea and Iraq," but Wolfowitz made it clear that North Korea was more of a threat to the U.S. than Iraq given the U.S. defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"We face enormous conventional threats from North Korea," Wolfowitz said during the July 28, 2001 CNN interview.
A week before Wolfowitz’s interview with CNN, Bush said Saddam Hussein remained a menace and a threat to U.S. and international security a decade after the Gulf War. National Security Adviser Rice, in an interview with CNN’s "Late Edition" July 29, 2001, said Bush "has reserved the right to respond when that threat becomes one that he wishes no longer to tolerate."
"I can be certain of this and the world can be certain of this: Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen for the administration." The administration will look into using "military force (against Iraq) in a more resolute manner and not just a manner of tit-for-tat with them every day," she said.
During Bush’s presidential campaign he promised he would take a tougher stance against Saddam Hussein than his predecessor President Clinton did.
Bush made good on his promise hours after he was sworn into office in January 2001. Before 9-11, U.S. and British aircraft would regularly patrol southern and northern Iraq to prevent Iraqi forces from attacking Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south and to provide early warning of Iraqi troop movements toward Kuwait. Iraq considered the no-fly zones illegal and vowed to shoot down any American or British pilot caught patrolling the airspace, which Iraqi military forces attempted to do on several occasions. U.S. and British military aircraft would respond by dropping bombs over northern Iraq, killing dozens of civilians.
From Bush’s first hours as President in January 2001 up until September of that year, the administration stepped up its bombing campaigns in Iraq and increased the rhetoric that Iraq’s former President, Saddam Hussein, grip on power would soon come to an end.
But it wouldn’t be an easy task for the administration. Intelligence agencies said they lacked firm evidence that Iraq was rebuilding its chemical and biological weapons arsenal.
"It’s the lack of knowledge," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said during a Defense Department briefing on Jan. 23, 2001. "I don’t think our knowledge of the activities inside those facilities is any greater than it was before" United Nations weapons inspectors were kicked out of Iraq in 1998. "We don’t know what’s going on in those facilities.”
But despite Quigley’s Pentagon briefing saying there was no evidence to support claims Iraq had WMD, the Bush administration said Iraq had rebuilt a series of factories suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons and that military force would be used, if necessary, to disarm Iraq. The administration offered no evidence to back up its allegations, but it would mark the first time the administration laid the groundwork for what would eventually turn into a war.
On Jan. 24, 2001, the International Atomic Energy Agency contradicted claims by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that Iraq may be pursuing a banned weapons program.
The IAEA praised Iraq for cooperating with a January 2001 inspection just as Iraq prepared to sit down with the U.N. to determine whether broader monitoring of its nuclear and other weapons programs could resume, and as the Bush administration made clear it will take a hard line on Iraq.
China, France and Russia, pressed for sanctions against Iraq to be suspended. But days before the <U.N.-Iraq> meeting in February 2001, U.S. and British military aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq bombed some sites near Baghdad putting the talks in jeopardy.
China, Russia and France sharply criticized the U.S. and British patrols of the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq and bitterly condemned the bombings, saying it was done deliberately to endanger the talks between Iraq and the U.N. to lift sanctions.
The sanctions were never eased and for the next seven months, the U.S. and the British intensified the bombing campaigns over Iraq, targeting the country’s air defense systems. On Aug. 25, 2001, U.S. and British warplanes attacked a mobile-radar in southern Iraq, and on Aug. 28, 2001 they hit an Iraqi aircraft command and control facility.
The last assault, prior to "Operation Iraqi Freedom," by U.S. and British military was Sept. 4, 2001, a week before terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz suggested that the U.S. launch a preemptive strike against Iraq. Two years later, the Bush administration is being accused of cooking intelligence information to justify the war.
JASON LEOPOLD can be reached at: email@example.com