Responding to Colin Powell

If one believes everything Colin Powell said to the Security Council yesterday, one’s first response ought to be that there’s no reason to fight a war, since U.S. surveillance capabilities are so awesome that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) can easily be found. And one’s first question should be why has the United States for over two months withheld this apparently so damaging evidence from those weapons inspectors, who could have verified conjectures and destroyed WMD stocks and production facilities.

If indeed the evidence presented is of the character claimed by Powell, then the United States has chosen to sabotage UN Security Council Resolution 1441, clause 10 of which “Requests all Member States to give full support to UNMOVIC and the IAEA in the discharge of their mandates, including by providing any information related to prohibited programmes.”

The actual evidence may not even warrant that conclusion. What Powell served up to the Council was a sorry mess of fuzzy aerial photographs of buildings, a cute “organizational chart” of supposed al-Qaeda operations in Iraq, a couple of tape recordings that are capable of multiple interpretations and, as before, a large number of undated reports by unnamed Iraqi defectors.

Given the history of U.S. government use of disinformation to drum up support for war, from relatively subtle measures like doctoring satellite photos to convince the Saudi government that Iraq was massing troops for an invasion of Saudi Arabia in 1990 to incredibly crude ones like the continuing claims by officials from George W. Bush on down that Iraq “expelled” weapons inspectors in 1998 (as covered in the press at the time, the inspectors were withdrawn at the behest of the United States), a skeptic need not actually accept any of the evidence as presented. Even so, it’s useful to go through it.

Evidence about Iraq and al-Qaeda

The weakest part of the whole presentation, and the most important, was the claims trying to link Iraq with al-Qaeda operations. In the past, the link depended on the claims about one man, Mohammed Atta, meeting with Iraqi intelligence in Prague (we’ve since found out that he was almost certainly in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting); now it depends on one man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zarqawi is apparently a high-level operative of an Islamist group called Ansar al-Islam, which is operating in northern Iraq (currently an autonomous region with a provisional Kurdish government that is aligned with the United States). Although there is no evident link between this organization and the Government of Iraq (GOI), Powell claims that the GOI has a high-level agent in Ansar, who “offered al-Qaida safe haven”–although apparently few if any accepted the offer, since the supposed presence is in the part of Iraq not controlled by the GOI. The full extent of the connection between al-Zarqawi himself and the GOI is apparently that he got medical care in a hospital in Baghdad, hardly an indication of high-level Iraqi complicity in terrorist attacks against American targets.

There is no attempt to link Ansar itself to the 9/11 attacks. In fact, while apparently the mere presence of al-Zarqawi, a subordinate in Ansar, in Iraq is sufficient reason for war, the head of Ansar, known as Mullah Krekar, is living unmolested in Norway, and the United States has not even made an extradition request. Krekar denies any connection of Ansar with al-Qaeda.

Powell also claims that one al-Qaeda detainee has told them that Iraq provided information about biological and chemical weapons to al-Qaeda members. Given the condition al-Qaeda detainees are being held in and the obvious incentives for them to tell a story the U.S. government wants to hear, this is very far from being actual evidence. The claim also flies in the face of common sense. Saddam Hussein has always been seen by al-Qaeda as an enemy and has himself seen Islamists as the biggest internal threat to his rule. To give them the ability to make chemical or biological weapons, weapons he sees as essential to the survival of his regime (many analysts think the primary reason the United States didn’t implement “regime change” in 1991 was the threat that the GOI would use its stocks of chemical weapons in self-defense), potentially destabilizes his own rule.

Evidence about Iraq’s WMD

The heart of the presentation, however, was claims about Iraq’s violation of UNSCR 1441 and about its attempts to acquire WMD. This included evidence like a photograph of a shed and a truck next to a bunker, followed by a claim that such a configuration of truck and shed (the truck is apparently a “decontamination” truck) is an infallible indicator that the bunker has chemical weapons in it, and even a photograph of what an Iraqi UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) “would look like.”

Powell claimed that Iraq was reviving attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon, telling us that two out of three elements were in hand. The third element, fissile material, is and has always been the stumbling block. According to Powell, “we have more than a decade of proof that he [Hussein] remains determined to acquire nuclear weapons,” but no acknowledgment that in more than a decade he has been entirely unable to do so.

Nor was there acknowledgment of the assessment that Mohammed el-Baradei, chief of the IAEA team charged with Iraq’s nuclear disarmament, delivered to the Council:

“No evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities S has been detected to dateS Nor have the inspections thus far revealed signs of new nuclear facilities or direct support to any nuclear activity. The IAEA expects to be able, within the next few months, barring exceptional circumstances and provided there is sustained proactive cooperation by Iraq, to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons programme.”

He also resurrected claims that Iraq’s attempts to acquire certain aluminum tubes show that it is trying to make centrifuges for production of fissile material, disputing the IAEA’s conclusion that those tubes are better suited to conventional artillery.

Most of the other “evidence” was unsourced or from one of the legion of defectors that has always conveniently cropped up when the United States has needed them.

The most compelling evidence was audio recordings of two conversations apparently showing Iraqi attempts to conceal evidence from inspectors. It’s not possible to know whether the tapes are real, whether they are recent or from the previous inspection regime, or what exactly they are referring to. Forgetting all of these caveats, it’s quite likely that the Iraqis are trying to hide not actual WMD but minor things that didn’t make it into the December 7 declaration (for example, the empty chemical munitions that were recently discovered) and are trying to eliminate those discrepancies surreptitiously instead of letting the inspectors find them.

In the whole presentation, there was no acknowledgment of the true state of affairs regarding chemical and biological weapons, as concluded by the UNSCOM inspectors in 1998 and confirmed by UNMOVIC more recently. That is simply this:

There are records of how much in the way of chemical agents, biological growth medium, and other components Iraq imported from Western firms (particularly American and German ones). There is evidence of how much inspectors destroyed. There are Iraqi claims about how much was used in the war with Iran and how much was unilaterally destroyed by them. Iraq is unable to produce sufficient evidence for the inspectors to match up those different numbers. So there is some discrepancy in terms of chemical munitions–for example, Iraq claims 550 mustard-filled shells were lost after the Gulf War, but it can’t prove this. There is discrepancy in terms of biological growth medium and if you take this discrepancy and make the entirely unrealistic stipulation that Iraq’s fermenters were constantly and continually used for all these past years, you can get high numbers for the amounts of biological agents like anthrax that Iraq theoretically might have.

These discrepancies are enough that inspectors could not close the book on chemical or biological weapons (although they essentially did on nuclear weapons). They presumably owe at least in part to the fact that Iraq, after undergoing eight years of war with Iran, the most devastating air bombardment in history in the Gulf War, and twelve years of crippling sanctions, doesn’t have all of its records nicely intact.

Is there an Iraqi threat?

It is undoubtedly true that in the past Iraq went to considerable lengths to avoid cooperating with inspections. It’s possible that that is happening again–some of Powell’s evidence might be real.

But missing from the entire presentation was any serious talk about a threat posed by Iraq, either to the United States or even to any country in the region. Mere possession of WMD, even if established, is not exactly evidence of aggressive intent. And in fact Iraq has been the recipient of aggression frequently since the Gulf War (bombings by the U.S. and U.K., periodic invasions in the north by Turkey, virtual Kuwaiti annexation of Iraqi land in the south), but has not itself seriously threatened any.

The evidence about Iraq’s intent to attack seems to run something like this–Saddam “gassed his own people” in 1988, therefore there is an imminent threat that he will attack us in 2003. The imminent threat is not, however, so severe as to keep us from having a full year of warmongering and bellicose rhetoric before we actually attack.

This conveniently ignores the central fact about Hussein’s record of aggression. Without exception, his worse crimes were committed with full U.S. support, both material and diplomatic. The war on Iran, the massacre of Kurds in the Anfal campaign of the late 1980’s, even the bloody suppression in 1991 of the “Iraqi intifada” all involved explicit measures of support from the United States–providing military intelligence, approving export of chemical and biological agents, providing “agricultural” credits, disarming rebels, and much more. The invasion of Kuwait was done in the deliberately fostered belief that the United States would not mind. Without U.S. support, Hussein knows well that he can only be a threat to his internal political enemies.

Powell did not deal with these facts, but essentially admitted the lack of any evidence of a real Iraqi threat when he fell back on the “pre-emption” argument–“should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons at a time and a place and in a manner of his choosing, at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond?” Of course, in the absence of concrete evidence, any country can make this argument against any other, which is why “pre-emption” is clearly not consistent with international law.

What if Iraq isn’t cooperating?

If Iraq is not cooperating fully with inspections right now, it’s important to understand why. The first round of weapons inspections started to fall apart in 1998 for one reason–the United States refused to commit to lifting the sanctions once Iraq was disarmed. This refusal was an abrogation of its own commitment under UNSCR 687.

This time, it’s even worse. The United States is steadily bombing Iraq, in an escalating pattern that is no longer even vaguely linked to enforcement of the illegal “no-fly zones” but is clearly part of the suppression of air defense with which U.S. wars begin. It is building a massive military presence in the Gulf. And it is declaring openly, to all with the ears to hear it, that it will go to war with Iraq no matter what Iraq does, whether the Security Council is with it or against it.

In fact, at least one columnist, Bill Keller (“What to Expect when you’re Inspecting,” New York Times, November 16, 2002) has pointed out that inspections are a wonderful prelude to war because they “can significantly diminish Saddam’s arsenal,” thus making it easier for the United States to fight without fear of retaliation and because “inspections immobilize Iraq while we deploy.”

So Iraq is in the bizarre position of being called on to disarm while being attacked by another country, and then being reviled by the “international community” for partial compliance.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the United States will obtain a Security Council resolution authorizing war. And if it does, its main argument will be that it must go to war with Iraq to uphold international law. It’s important to understand ahead of time just how obscene that argument is. It’s not just because the United States has systematically undermined international law with regard to Iraq, by refusing to acknowledge the basis (disarmament) for lifting the sanctions, by committing repeated acts of illegal aggression against Iraq (like the Desert Fox bombing), and by deliberately making the sanctions bite Iraqi society as hard as possible for purely political reasons (see “Economic sanctions as a weapon of mass destruction,” Joy Gordon, Harper’s, November 2002). It’s not just because the United States enforces a double standard, in which itself and favored allies are exempt from legal requirements while states it decided to target are not.

It’s because this war is a violation of the ultimate international law. It is a “crime against peace,” a war of aggression. It was decided on long ago in the White House, and the only reason other countries may vote in support of it is the repeated statements that the war will happen whether they want it or not. It is the United States holding not just Iraq but the entire world hostage.

RAHUL MAHAJAN is a member of the Nowar Collective ( He is author of “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism” (April 2002, Monthly Review Press) and the forthcoming “The U.S. War on Iraq: Myths, Facts, and Lies.” He can be reached at