Chemical Warheads in Iraq - A ‘Less Than Trivial’ Find?
The chemical warheads found in Baghdad may be breaches of Iraq's disarmament duties, but they may be 'less than trivial', according to one US weapons expert.
"Whether they are of recent origin or not, we do not believe they justify war. The Government has not presented any evidence that Iraq intends to use whatever weapons it does possess, and the success of the inspectors in finding the warheads merely reinforces the case for allowing the inspectors to continue their work in peace."
UNMOVIC inspectors have found eleven empty 122mm chemical warheads and 'one warhead that requires further evaluation' at the Ukhaider ammunition dump 75 miles south of Baghdad.' (Telegraph, UK, 17 January 2003, p. 8) 'They were in excellent condition and were similar to ones imported by Iraq during the late 1980s,' said a UN spokesperson. (Telegraph, 17 January 2003, p. 1) Hiro Ueki, the UN spokesperson, said, 'It is probably not a smoking gun.' (Financial Times, 17 January 2003, p. 1)
'US sources said the information that led to the find had not come from intelligence provided by the CIA'. (Telegraph, 17 January 2003, p. 8)
On the other hand, 'Weapons experts said the fact that the warheads were in excellent condition in bunkers built in the late 1990s meant they were likely to have been handled recently.' (Financial Times, 17 January 2003, p. 1) ' "They were in very good condition, so they were not just lying around said Terence Taylor, a former UN weapons inspector now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Financial Times, 17 January 2003, p. 10)
Warheads 'likely to be for the 122mm Saqr-30 multi-barrelled rocket launcher', Egyptian- built system with range of up to 20miles, designed with French assistance and based on Warsaw Pact BM-21 multi-barrelled rocket launcher known as the Katyusha. (Telegraph, 17 January 2003, p. 8)
'Scott Ritter, an opponent of military action, said the key question was whether Iraq had attempted to conceal the warheads of whether it had simply overlooked them.' (The Guardian, UK, 17 January 2003, p. 5)
‘Charles Heyman, the editor of Jane's World Armies, said that given the state of the Iraqi armed forces, the official response from Baghad that the missile warheads had been forgotten was entirely credible. In the reports on stocks of chemical weapons that it was forced to compile at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq reported that it had 2,500 122mm Saqr-30 warheads filled with sarin which were buried under the rubble of a building destroyed by the allies' bombing raids.’ (Telegraph, 17 January 2003, p. 8)
‘Matthew Meelson, a weapons expert at Harvard's International Security Programme, said that the US had in the past lost track of chemical and biological weapons from abandoned programmes and that warheads had turned up from time to time. "If these canisters are new and show signs of recent machine-shop work, then that is one thing, but if not, it's less than trivial," he said. "It would be unfortunate if they go to war over bad book-keeping".’ (The Guardian, 17 January 2003, p. 5)
Two factual questions remain:
1) Were the warheads declared in the December declaration?
2) Was that one warhead being investigated ever filled with chemical weapons material?
1) There are conflicting reports. They probably were not declared. It is not yet clear whether this was omission or deception. Either way, it would constitute a violation of Resolution 1441 - but this is not by itself grounds for a finding of 'material breach' by the Security Council. (Please see ARROW Anti-War Briefing 25: Material Breach: The Mysterious Phrase That Could Trigger War for more details.)
2) Loren Thompson, a Pentagon consultant at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, said that if no traces of chemical weapons are found by UN tests and no chemical agents are found nearby, there would be no conclusive evidence of an active chemical weapons programme.’ "This is not the proverbial smoking gun. A real smoking gun would be an armed weapon," Mr Thompson said. On the other hand, the good condition they are in "doesn't draw one to think they are old weapons that were simply overlooked." (Guardian, 17 January 2003, p. 5)
Either way, the inspectors must be allowed to work in peace. There is no evidence that Iraq poses a serious and imminent threat to its neighbours or to the West.
‘In the White House there was a sense of near-jubilation as aides realised immediately that the empty warheads, plus another one that the inspectors said required "further evaluation", represented the political equivalent of manna from heaven... it suddenly seemed that the crucial evidence might have arrived at the perfect moment.’ (Telegraph, 17 January 2003, p. 8)
This ‘crucial’ evidence may be a ‘less than trivial’ bookkeeping error of the kind that the US itself has made many times. It is not a justification for war.
Some opponents to war on Iraq say that if weapons of mass destruction are found, they will change their minds. We disagree. We oppose war even if weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq.
The Right Approach
British Vice-Admiral Sir James Jungius KBE observed recently in a letter to The Times (1 Jan. 2003, p. 25) that ‘Tony Blair had failed to produce evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: This inevitably leads to the suspicion that no such evidence exists.’
‘Even if the weapons do exist, where is the evidence of intent to use them? War is too important and unpleasant a business to be undertaken on the basis of a hunch, however good that hunch may be.’
Former Tory Cabinet Minister Douglas Hogg recently (12 Jan.) revealed on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend that a majority of Conservative MPs have very serious reservations about a war on Iraq.
He added, ‘The real question is not whether he’s [Saddam Hussein] got weapons of mass destruction, but rather whether - if he has got those weapons - he is a grave and imminent threat to the rest of us.’
‘There are lots of other countries in the world that do have weapons of mass destruction, or are likely to acquire them, but we don't necessarily conclude that they are a grave and imminent threat sufficient to justify war.’
‘So even if he had these things, unless he's a grave and imminent threat there isn’t a moral basis for war, because the doctrine of self-defence isn't properly invoked.’
FT journalist James Blitz asks, ‘if UN inspectors do find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, should that trigger war? Or will it be the first sign that the UN is actually getting somewhere in its bid to close down Iraq’s weapons arsenal and should therefore continue its work?' (FT, 9 Jan. 2003, p. 5) We say yes. ‘Worried Whitehall officials ask: even if evidence is found, and Saddam Hussein is discovered to have lied, is it not better to keep the UN inspectors - the best deterrence against the use or development of such weapons - on the ground?’ (Guardian, 6 Jan. 2003, p. 14) We say yes.
Milan Rai is author of War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War (Verso, 2002) and a member of Active Resistance to the Roots of War (Arrow). He is also co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which has worked for the lifting of UN sanctions in Iraq.