We knew in advance that Secretary of State Colin Powell did not have the infamous ‘smoking gun, we knew that Powell would not provide solid proof that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, but we did expect that Powell would present convincing evidence to the UN Assembly.
In reality, Powell’s presentation, although professionally delivered, highlighted the fact that America’s claims are ‘long on volume but short on fact’.
The eagerly awaited presentation was a mishmash of hearsay, dubious communications intercepts, mysterious sources and secondhand reports from defectors and detainees. The latter would no doubt say that the moon was made of Feta cheese, if that would help their case.
Powell kicked off with audio intercept of a conversation between a Republican Guard and an officer in the field where the guard asks his subordinate to clear out the scrap before destroying the message. We were later treated to another snippet on similar lines relating to nerve gas.
Given that we know that the Bush administration is determined to effect regime change, and is willing to go it alone if necessary, we can hardly be expected to take these intercepts at face value.
Anybody who lives in the Arab world would have his suspicions about the first recording. It does not sound like an authentic exchange between two Arabs of differing status. Where was the elaborate greeting ritual, and how did the junior soldier dare to omit calling his superior by a respectful title, instead of just answering ‘na’am, or ‘ok’. He even came across as surly.
Amer Al Sa’adi, Saddam Hussein’s chief scientific advisor, derided the presentation as being “a typical American show complete with stunts and special effects.
The Secretary of State condemned the high level committee set up by Iraq to monitor the inspectors. In light of the fact that several UNSCOM weapons inspectors admitted to being American spies, why wouldn’t Iraq be cautious about allowing foreigners to run around its country unfettered, especially on the brink of a possible war?
“Orders were issued to Iraq’s security organizations to hide all correspondence with the Organisation of Military Industrialization,” said Powell. He said that Hussein’s son had ordered the removal of illicit weapons from the Iraqi president’s palaces. He talked about material, which has been concealed in scientists home, as well as items in cars, which drive perpetually around the countryside.
Amer Al-Saadi, countered by saying that Hans Blix had jumped the gun talking about the document found in the scientist’s home. He said that the document was not classified, as Blix had first supposed, and that a copy of this research document had been given to a representative of the IAEA Gary Dillon after a conference on laser technology on September 26, 1984. In any case, the academic paper was authored by the scientist in whose house it was found, he said.
Powell said that he found satellite imagery hard to interpret. Don’t we all? A photograph of a munitions facility in Al-Taji, taken before the latest inspections, showed decontamination vehicles driving around what he Secretary said were four active chemical munitions bunkers.
Just before inspections began, Powell said, the vehicles were nowhere to be seen, and the bunkers had been cleaned out. We are left to wonder why the satellite didn’t later capture the current locations of these vans, and how every trace of chemicals could have been so completely eliminated from those bunkers.
The inspectors have such sophisticated state-of-the-art testing equipment that for Iraq to have removed every single trace of illicit materials, we must surely regard its technical expertise with awe.
America and Britain have shown us numerous satellite photographs before in relation to Iraq. On many of these occasions, Iraq immediately took reporters to the sites photographed, and each and every time they found nothing, except such innocuous items as baby milk and sugar.
The misinterpretation of satellite imagery triggered the US bombing of a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in the Sudan, depriving the population from essential medicines.
Shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Colin Powell produced satellite photographs, which he said proved that Iraqi troops and tanks were amassing on the border with Saudi. The Russians double checked this claim and pronounced it spurious. Once the war was over, Powell admitted his ‘mistake’.
U2 spy planes
Powell accused Baghdad with refusing to allow the inspectors’ request for American U2 spy planes to patrol the Iraqi skies. Baghdad is under threat of war. Which country in its right mind would agree to its enemies’ planes circling overhead at a time like this?
However, Al Sa’adi said that the Iraqi government did not object to the U2 flights, in principle, but couldn’t be held responsible for their safety as long as British and American planes were dropping bombs over the so-called Iraqi no-fly zones. He said that he wanted the flyovers to cease prior to any U2 flights because he was concerned that the US could shoot down one of their own airplanes and blame it on Iraq as a pretext for war. He said that there was already a precedent for this kind of behavior on the part of the US, citing an incident involving the sinking of a ship during the war in Vietnam.
Al Qaeda connection
As the editor of the Arabic daily Al Quds, Abdel Bari Atwan says, ‘the link with Al Qaeda is very weak. The Secretary said these links (between Al Qaeda and Iraq) started in 95, so why didn’t Saddam pass his nerve gases to Al Qaeda then? If Al Qaeda had been handed these devastating weapons from Saddam Hussein they would have used these on September 11 and not aircraft.”
Bari Atwan said that Osama bin Laden once offered his services to the Saudi government to eliminate Saddam Hussein and was very angry at being turned down. Given their widely differing ideologies – Saddam Hussein a secular leader and Osama bin Laden an extremist Wahhabi, who has called Hussein ‘an apostate’ it is hardly unlikely that they would now be working together.
As for Abu Musab Zarqawi, an alleged Al Qaeda affiliate, he is based in Powell’s own words in North Western Iraq. This is Kurdish territory protected by the United States and crawling with US special services and CIA personnel. Why doesn’t America go after him instead of blaming Saddam Hussein? It didn’t shirk from assassinating ‘terrorists’ in Yemen recently by bombing their vehicle.
He said that Zarqawi spent some time in a Baghdad hospital and was soon followed by Al Qaeda militants who are allowed to come and go as they please. Couldn’t we say the same thing about London, Paris, Milan, and yes, even Washington?
Powell’s linkage of the Iraqi regime with Al Qaeda was blatantly disingenuous, designed to sway public opinion in favor of military action.
Iraq’s UN ambassador said that just a few days ago the CIA reported that there are no verifiable significant links between the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda. The British intelligence community concurs.
Another psychological ploy used by Powell was his focus on Iraq’s anthrax. He stressed that one teaspoon of dry anthrax could cause havoc as it did in Washington when the Senate had been closed down for weeks. He didn’t say in so many words that the anthrax attacks in the U.S. had anything to do with Iraq, but the implication was there, again, for the benefit of a public weaned on sound bites.
Al Sa’adi said that Iraq’s weapons teams had never perfected the science of drying anthrax and they had only ever had liquid quantities, which could not be weaponized. He said that Iraq had destroyed its VX gas but could not prove this. He added that in any case, even if they still had it would have expired by now and no longer be lethal.
The Secretary cast suspicion upon a consignment of aluminum tubes imported into Iraq. These are the same tubes that IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei had investigated at length and which he declared, during his earlier presentation to the Assembly, as having been used to manufacture short-range ballistic missiles, not fissionable material.
The once dove turned hawk, didn’t shrink from vilifying Saddam Hussein on a personal level citing ‘his contempt for the truth’ and ‘his utter contempt for human life’. He knew that the unsubstantiated claim that Hussein’s weapons scientists had experimented on death row prisoners would evoke horror and serve to further demonize the Iraqi leader.
We heard again the old refrain of how Hussein used mustard and nerve gas against the Kurds. Powell neglected to mention that the Kurds were at that time attempting to overthrow the Baghdad regime.
The Iraqi ambassador to the UN claimed that the CIA had verified years ago that Iraq didn’t have that a chemicals with the same chemical fingerprints as those used against the Kurds in Halabja.
The Secretary talked about how chemical weapons had been used on another nation (Iran), but failed to say, that at that time Hussein had been the blue-eyed boy of Washington. America supplied Iraq not only with weapons but also with technical know-how during the Iran/Iraq War.
Al Sa’adi was dismissive of Powell’s claim that Iraq had pronounced many Iraqi scientists as ‘deceased’ while they were still walking around. He challenged Powell to produce these individuals if, as he says, they were still alive, and called the American contention ‘ridiculous’ in these days of DNA testing.
As for Iraq’s refusal to allow scientists to be interviewed by the inspectors without a minder, Al Sa’adi reiterated that it has always been up to the scientists to agree to be interviewed privately. On Thursday, during a press conference, Al Sa’adi announced that various scientists have now shown their willingness to submit to private interviews and an interview was ongoing as the conference progressed.
So which side do we believe? Both sides have a vested interest and so we should leave the final analysis in the hands of Blix and ElBaradei. After all, they are the UN appointed experts. There are two questions that bother me in the meantime. Why did the US come up with this so-called ‘evidence’ at the eleventh hour? And why is the Bush administration in such an indecent hurry to hurl the entire Gulf region into turmoil?
The patience of the self-style ‘Patient Man’ George W Bush appears to be running out but not because the inspections aren’t succeeding. The American President wants to launch a preemptive attack before the mercury rises; the home grown, grass-roots anti-war movement gets out of control, and before the greenback and the markets sink to even greater lows.
What Powell failed to mention was the horrendous human tragedy that would be suffered by the Iraqi people if he gets his wish. Aid agencies envisage over half-a-million displaced persons, as well as food shortages and high civilian death tolls.
“When we confront a regime that harbours ambitions for regional domination… unless we act we are confronting an even more frightening future,” warned Powell. Detractors of American hegemony in the region and beyond may well be thinking the very same thing about his own.
LINDA HEARD is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org