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Iraq’s WMD Myth


A former senior UN diplomat has revealed to me details of how, just over 10 years ago, the Clinton administration deliberately sabotaged UN weapons inspections in Iraq.

American officials were fearful that Iraq would be officially certified as weapons-free, a development that was seen as a political liability for Bill Clinton. Thus the stage was set for the manufacture of the Iraqi WMD myth as the excuse for George Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

It was March 1997. For six years the UN inspectors had been probing the secrets of Saddam’s weapons programs, in the process destroying huge quantities of chemical munitions and other production facilities. To enforce Saddam’s cooperation, Iraq was subject to crushing sanctions.

Now, Rolf Ekeus, the urbane Swedish diplomat who headed the inspection effort, was ready to announce that his work was almost done. “I was getting close to certifying that Iraq was in compliance with Resolution 687,” he confirmed to me recently.

At the time, he declared that although there were some loose ends to be cleared up, “not much is unknown about Iraq’s retained proscribed weapons capabilities.”

For the Clinton administration, this was a crisis. If Ekeus was allowed to complete his mission, then the suspension of sanctions would follow almost automatically.

Saddam would be off the hook and, more importantly for the Clintonites, the neo-conservative republicans would be howling for the president’s blood.

The only hope was somehow to prevent Ekeus completing his mission.

Enter Madeleine Albright, newly appointed Secretary of State. On March 26, 1997, she strode on to the stage at Georgetown University to deliver what was billed as a major policy address on Iraq. Many in the audience expected that she would extend some sort of olive branch toward the Iraqi regime, but that was far from her mind.

Instead, she was set on making sure that Saddam effectively ended his cooperation with the inspectors. “We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted,” she declared. Sanctions, she stated without equivocation, would remain unless or until Saddam was driven from power.

Ekeus understood immediately what Albright intended. “I knew that Saddam would now feel that there was no point in his cooperating with us, and that was the intent of her speech.”

Sure enough, the following day he got an angry call from Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s deputy prime minister and emissary to the outside world. “He wanted to know why Iraq should work with us any more.”

From then on, the inspectors found their lives increasingly difficult, as Iraqi officials, clearly acting under instructions from Saddam, blocked them at every turn.Ekeus resigned in July 1997, to be replaced by the Australian Richard Butler. Butler was soon embroiled in acrimonious confrontation with the Iraqis. Later the following year, all the inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq and the US mounted a series of bombing raids.

Clinton’s strategy had been successful. Iraq remained under sanctions, while in Washington the neo-conservative faction spun the wildest conjectures as to what evil schemes Saddam, unmolested by inspectors, might be concocting with his weapons scientists.

In fact Saddam had long abandoned all his WMD programs, but as the CIA had no sources of intelligence inside Iraq, no one in the West could prove this.

Finally, following 9/11, the war party in George Bush Jr’s administration was able to make the case for invasion on the grounds that Saddam had refused to comply with UN resolutions on disarmament by refusing to grant access to the weapons inspectors. The Iraq disaster has many fathers.

[Footnote: Ekeus knew from the mid-l990s on that Saddam Hussein had no such weapons of mass destruction. They had all been destroyed years earlier, after the first Gulf war.

Ekeus learned this on the night of August 22, l995, in Amman, from the lips of General Hussein Kamel, who had just defected from Iraq, along with some of his senior military aides. Kamel was Saddam’s son-in-law and had been in overall charge of all programs for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

That night, in three hours of detailed questioning from Ekeus and two technical experts, Kamel was categorical. The UN inspection teams had done a good job. When Saddam was finally persuaded that failure to dispose of the relevant weapons systems would have very serious consequences, he issued the order and Kamel carried it out. As he told Ekeus that night, “All weapons, biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed.” (The UNSCOM record of the session can ne viewed at In similar debriefings that August Kamel said the same thing to teams from the CIA and MI6. His military aides provided a wealth of corroborative details. Then, the following year, Kamel was lured back to Iraq and at once executed. Editors.]

ANDREW COCKBURN is the author of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.



Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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