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When in Doubt, Lie Your Head Off


Last week the Washington Post commented on claims made about Iraq’s supposed possession of nuclear weapons. “Bush evoked the mushroom cloud on Oct 7 [2002], and on Nov 12 General Tommy Franks, [then] chief of US Central Command, said inaction might bring “the sight of the first mushroom cloud on one of the major population centers on this planet.”

There were other claims made at all levels of government, notably from Vice-president Cheney who stated unequivocally, and contrary to detailed evidence presented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that there was a nuclear threat in being. The IAEA’s assessment that that there was no such thing has been confirmed beyond doubt. But the declaration by Franks that an Iraqi nuclear weapon could result in “the first mushroom cloud on one of the major populations centers of this planet” is not only astonishing but grotesquely ignorant. Has Franks never heard of Nagasaki or Hiroshima? The first man-made mushroom cloud on Earth was created by a US atomic bomb test in New Mexico. The second and third nuclear mushroom clouds on our planet were made by US bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. For Franks to say that an Iraqi nuclear weapon (this phantasm which existed only in his mind and those of his political masters) would create the first mushroom cloud over “one of the major populations centers of this planet” is preposterous. But his commander-in-chief, Bush, embraced a slavishly supportive British government paper on the same lines, which leads to another quotation.

This is from The Guardian (London) concerning the “weapons of mass destruction” alleged by Bush and Blair to be possessed by Iraq. The report was that “The Hutton inquiry heard last week that the language surrounding the claim [by Blair] that Iraq forces could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so was hardened as drafts of the dossier were revised. The strongest language, claiming that the weapons could be “ready” within 45 minutes, was used in the foreword — signed by Tony Blair.”

The document’s words were “Iraq’s military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place. The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so.” I have for some time been intrigued by “forty-five minutes” because anyone with knowledge of the process involved in preparing a missile, mating it with a warhead (be that nuclear, high explosive, chemical or biological), and performing calculations in firing procedures knows that to claim it can be done in three-quarters of an hour is ludicrous. Technical operations involved in delivery by tube artillery are almost as extensive. The mating process of shell to cartridge is much simpler than a rocket operation, but one does not treat a carrier shell filled with a chemical or biological agent as one would a celebratory firework, for they pose just as much danger to the firer as to the target if handled casually or out of fixed, and time-consuming, procedural sequence. (It was obvious, in spite of claims at the time, that Iraq had no air force and that the drone aircraft supposed to deliver such weapons didn’t exist.)

The head of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, said on August 26 it was his committee’s assessment of the 45 minute threat that was included in the “dodgy dossier” produced by Britain’s prime minister to justify his support for the Bush war on Iraq. Associated Press reported that “Scarlett acknowledged that the 45-minute warning came from a single, uncorroborated source in Iraq, but said: “It was an established and reliable line of reporting, and it was quoting a senior Iraqi military officer”.” How very interesting. It will make a lot of people wonder whether Britain’s Intelligence services make it a habit to rely on single-source information specifically to bolster a politician’s case for going to war, even from a paid high-level informant. This was not a tidbit of dross or trivia : it wasn’t a staff list of the Iraqi high command, with dietary preferences. It wasn’t an indication of Sadam Hussein’s brand of toothpaste or the ferry schedule on the Tigris river. It was an enormously sensitive report indicating that a country against whom war was about to be waged could deliver a devastating nuclear/chemical/biological riposte against invading troops — and even further afield — within 45 minutes of decision to do so. And it wasn’t queried or indepently checked? There was no detailed technical evaluation of the claim? There was no attempt made to obtain confirmation from US Intelligence?

The Iraqis were supposed to have Scud rockets which are similar to early US nuclear missiles about which I know a bit because for two years I was a reconnaissance and survey officer in a nuclear missile regiment in Germany, and commanded a troop of Honest Johns. These were basic, short range (32 km), solid fuel rockets with a simple guidance system, in that one pressed a button and hoped they would land somewhere on the planet, preferably in the centre of an enormous concentration of Warsaw Pact tanks. The wonderful irony in this was that one of my soldiers, Gunner John Brown, the ‘Number Three’ on a launcher, who would actually press the nuclear button, was the great grandson of the trumpeter who sounded the Charge of the Light Brigade.

His operation was part of a less complicated process than that required by the Scud system allegedly held by Iraq, and the al-Samoud missile which, as noted in an analysis by Dr Robert Schmucker of Schmucker Technology in Munich, is also a liquid-fuelled missile. There is a considerable difference between rockets driven by solid and liquid fuels. The main one (without going into boring technicalities) is that arming and firing the first is quicker than arming and firing the second. The sequence for the old Honest John was simple but lengthy in spite of it being a solid-fuel device. It took us about four hours (depending on distances involved) but perhaps that might be thought an unfair comparison against Blair’s 45 minutes, so I draw on a paper by Tim McCarthy of the Center for Non-proliferation Studies for Scud time-frames. The al-Hussein (Iraq’s name for the Scud) would require, in conditions of an “error-free cycle of order-launch-egress” some three hours to be fired. Dr McCarthy’s breakdown is:

1. Order communications and movement: 20 minutes;

2. Fuelling/warhead mating: 120 minutes;

3. Drive to launch site–20 minutes;

4. Launch and egress–30 minutes.

(This is based on fuelling and mating being effected at the same time, which is a hazardous and unwise concurrency.)

From a practical standpoint I can say from experience that this estimate is extremely optimistic. Mind you, much depended on Iraq having had Scuds in the first place. Which it didn’t. Dr Schmucker also observes that “Most of the data for this missile are established from UNSCOM inspections and information provided by Iraq through the associated missile experts”, and the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies notes that “During their time in Iraq, UNMOVIC inspectors destroyed 72 Al Samoud-2 missiles that violated the 150km-range limit, as well as certain equipment for the production of solid rocket motors.” These observations are complemented by a little-known US Defense Department briefing on November 14, 1997. (UNSCOM and UNMOVIC were the UN inspection teams, respectively from the Special Commission and the Verification and Inspection Commission, that operated in Iraq.)

This was an informative presentation on “Iraq’s Chemical & Biological Weapons Capability”, during which a reporter observed “He [Saddam Hussein] had certain SCUD warheads which were weaponized for delivery of BW [biological warfare] agents, but I think I’m right in saying that UNSCOM found those, accounted for them and destroyed them. That’s correct, isn’t it?” The anonymous briefer’s answer was: “That’s correct. The . . . question about UNSCOM destroying the weapons, the SCUD warheads designed for delivery of BW is a correct statement . . . [but] [W]e have evidence, documentary evidence, that leads to our belief that some number of missiles may be missing and have not been discovered, and attendant warheads is a possibility.”

Irrespective of the caveats (“may”, and “a possibility”), and the fact that there were no missiles “missing” and no “attendant warheads”, and the evidence presented by experts concerning the time it would take to operate a missile system (if one existed), we should note one of the most fascinating statements made by a US president in recent years. This concerns the non-existence of UN inspectors in Iraq, the experts of UNSCOM and UNMOVIC.

On July 14 the President of the United States of America said “The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”

Note the word “program”. The fundamental justification for war by Bush was that Saddam Hussein had nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, period. Not that there was “a program”, or that there might at some unspecified time be the possibility that he could perhaps develop or maybe acquire such weapons. The world was told by Washington that Iraq was in actual possession of weapons and that they had to be found and destroyed because they were a menace to all humanity. This was why Iraq was bombed and invaded.

But the really amazing phrase is “he wouldn’t let them in.” So anyone who mentions the UN inspection teams that operated in Iraq, is imagining things. According to the President of the United States, in a public speech, Iraq refused to permit UN weapons’ inspectors to enter the country. We all must have dreamed that the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission was created by adoption of a Security Council resolution and went to Iraq on 27 November 2002, where it carried out its duties until 17 March 2003 when “The Secretary-General today informed the Security Council that, based on information which he had received from the United Kingdom and United States authorities regarding the continued safety and security of United Nations personnel, he had authorized the withdrawal of all remaining United Nations system personnel from Iraq.” (SG/SM/8640 SC/7693 IK/330 of 17 Mar 03.)

The convolutions of Bush and Blair pass all understanding. From non-existent nuclear bombs via fatuous assertions of threat-time to the final chocolate-topped denial of truth, they have deceived us all and demonstrated that their automatic reaction when in doubt is to lie their heads off.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website:

He can be reached at:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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