In the tense countdown to war, with highly charged, passionate debate raging, Tony Blair produced his famous dossier on the imminent threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – justification for the invasion.
On the day the dossier appeared, 24 September 2002, I was among a group of British journalists taken by the Iraqi regime to some of the sites named as production centres for chemical and biological weapons. We reported we had seen nothing overtly suspicious, stressing the caveat that not having scientific knowledge, ours was a superficial judgement.
We were, said Downing Street officials, “naive dupes” who had fallen for the regime’s guile, indeed our newspapers were irresponsible for printing such propaganda. The British government then made public satellite photographs which claimed to show the Iraqis were engaged in secretly reconstructing the Osirak nuclear complex, now renamed al-Tuwaitha.
We have now found out, of course, that the highly alarmist allegations made in the dossier, and a second one produced just before the war, were false.
The Iraq Survey Group’s report is the most high profile of a series of demolitions of the WMD argument made by the British and the American governments. But at the time, vehemence of the British government’s attacks on journalists trying to research claims was startling.
We, the media, had chosen the locations on the September dossier to visit, decided on the basis that they appeared to be the most prolific for producing WMD agents, and the tour had began two hours after we had given our choice to the Iraqi authorities. One of the sites visited was al-Qa’qa, a military complex 30 miles south of Baghdad. According to the No 10 dossier, al-Qa’qa had been dismantled by United Nations inspectors after the 1991 Gulf War, but had since been rebuilt and was producing phosgene, a precursor for nerve agents.
We also went to Amariyah Sera vaccine plant at Abu Ghraib, a suburb of Baghdad, which had, according to the dossier, restarted its use of “storing biological agents, seed stocks and conducting biological warfare associated genetic research” which it had been doing before the first war.
At al-Qa’qa the director-general Sinan Rasim Said showed a letter from UNSCOM dated 13 August 1988 authorising maintenance work. “They did not dismantle anything here. Mr Blair’s report is totally wrong,” he said. This was dismissed by British officials, not even considered worthy of a serious response. Yet, when the UN inspectors returned to Iraq under Hans Blix they could not find any evidence to back up the claims in either of the plants. And the Iraq Survey Group has done the same.
KIM SENGUPTA reports for The Independent.