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Countdown to war

Published : Jan 17, 2003 00:00 IST

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U.N. weapons inspectors walk through Abu-Graib Chemical College in Baghdad on December 24.-DUSAN VRANIC/ AP

U.N. weapons inspectors walk through Abu-Graib Chemical College in Baghdad on December 24.-DUSAN VRANIC/ AP

The predictable U.S. response to Iraq's declaration on its weapons programme confirms that the timing of military action is the only element to be finalised in its blueprint for war.

THINGS could not have been otherwise, since the stringent discipline of a disarmament regime that the United States has chosen to force upon Iraq is little else than the preliminary manoeuvre of a plan to remap the political geography of the region.

Shortly before the chief of the weapons inspections in Iraq, Hans Blix, was due to deliver a preliminary assessment to the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Negroponte, announced that the declaration submitted by Iraq comprised yet another "material breach" of U.N. resolutions. The United Kingdom followed in breathless accompaniment, dismissing the Iraqi declaration as all but worthless but staying clear of the term "material breach". Blix, for his part, offered the preliminary assessment that the Iraqi declaration of over 11,000 pages, detailing all relevant facts about its programmes for the production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), contained little that was not known.

Iraq's response, though relatively subdued on account of the indifference of the global media, seemed to stand the test of logic: there was nothing new in the declaration since WMD programme had been suspended following the Gulf war of 1991 and the existing stocks and facilities either neutralised or dismantled by the virtually uninterrupted inspections carried out until 1998. But with the U.S. pitching in aggressively and Secretary of State Colin Powell himself declaring Iraq to be in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions, the countdown to war seemed to have accelerated significantly.

Powell was careful not to jump to the inference that the Iraqi declaration constituted a trigger for war. He was also at pains to emphasise that the U.S. believed that the weapons inspections under the aegis of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic) should continue. These needed however, to get more aggressive, with a doubling of the number of inspectors and perhaps a higher priority placed on interviewing scientists known to have played a prominent part in Iraqi WMD programmes.

Jack Straw, the U.K. Foreign Secretary, weighed in with observations that Iraq's options for avoiding a devastating military strike were rapidly closing. One trigger had been sprung and Iraq's fingers were now uneasily placed over the second, said Straw. Specifically, he warned that evidence of large-scale Iraqi purchases of uranium from Africa had been glossed over in its declaration. There was also no mention of stocks of the lethal nerve agent VX, which had been allegedly detected on certain missile fragments in Iraq and not been fully accounted for.

Iraq responded with insouciance, fielding one of its most polished and articulate spokesmen in a deliberate effort to neutralise the U.S.-led propaganda blitz. There may be some doubt about the official status of Amir al-Saadi, a senior Iraqi chemical engineer who is sometimes identified with the honorific of "doctor" and just as often as "general". He has been, in recent months, the negotiator that Iraq has fielded in most of the disarmament talks mandated by the U.N. resolutions that brought the 1991 Gulf war to a close. He is believed to have the unqualified confidence of the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein. And there has been little doubt that when the Western news media have chosen to give him a fair exposure, his impact has been enormous.

Saadi was upfront and candid about the reservations voiced in particular by the U.K. Yes, he said, there had been an effort by Iraq to buy uranium from Africa, specifically a few shipments of uranium "yellow cake" had been contracted from the Republic of Niger. But these had been fully accounted for. As for the alleged stocks of VX held by Iraq, the matter had long been dealt with. It was, Saadi pointed out, not merely a "story" but a "scandal" which the world community should know all about.

The VX story as recounted by Saadi and corroborated by an impartial analysis of the record is intriguing and an ominous reminder of the manner in which the U.N. mandate for disarmament has been abused by the U.S. and the conniving experts it has placed on the job in earlier years. In 1998, Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who was chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (Unscom) Unmovic's predecessor body issued the startling finding that missile fragments discovered in the course of inspections in Iraq revealed traces of VX. The findings were absolutely unambiguous, said Butler, and indicated that Iraq had made significant progress towards acquiring weapons-grade stocks of the lethal agent. Iraq insisted that the supposed findings of a U.S. military laboratory had been doctored. Obliged to offer them a semblance of a fair hearing, Unscom then sent the missile fragments for tests at French and Swiss laboratories, both of which returned negative findings within the space of a month. There were naturally a few probing questions posed by members of the U.N. Security Council, who were nominally overseeing Unscom operations. But the U.S. managed to stonewall and deflect all critical scrutiny.

Later, as Saadi recounts and as any examination of the record would confirm Butler insisted on bringing in samples of VX into Iraq, ostensibly to "calibrate" the levels of the agent found on the missile fragments. This was clearly an extraordinary procedure. The "calibration" of the levels of any agent is a quantitative procedure, which could only follow the qualitative determination of its presence. When the presence of VX agent itself was in doubt, as Saadi said, there was no obvious rationale for Unscom to bring stocks of the material into Iraq in a supposed effort at quantitative calibration. Unscom inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq in December 1998, following a carelessly choreographed drama scripted by the U.S. administration and enacted by Butler. A few months later, U.N. weapons inspectors insisted on returning to Baghdad to smuggle out furtively the VX stocks that had been brought in. Not content with this, they also chose to destroy all the equipment and stocks in the laboratory concerned. The whole shameful sequence of events, as Saadi put it, only pointed to the obvious intent of Unscom to plant the VX material at some strategic location and pin the blame for developing the agent on Iraq. This record of abuse of the U.N. mandate on disarmament is not much spoken of, except in Iraq. Saadi's detailed briefing and his invitation to the U.S. to send the best operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to verify that Iraqi disarmament was indeed complete, got little coverage in the Western media. But the U.N. Security Council members are reasonably well apprised of this background and has been showing less reserve in recent times about expressing its unhappiness over the U.S.' rush to war.

Compounding this was the ill-will generated by the U.S. decision to edit the Iraqi weapons declaration before transmitting it to the membership of the U.N. Security Council. Though the other five permanent members (P-5) had access to the unedited version, there was broad agreement among them right from the time the weapons declaration was received at U.N. headquarters, that the job of editing and reproducing the document for the rest of the Council would be entrusted to the U.S. It finally transpired that the U.S. chose to edit out close to 8,000 pages of the 11,000-page declaration, enraging the other members of the Council. Two of them, Norway and Syria, boycotted subsequent sessions of the council, which debated the Iraq issue.

And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself felt compelled to express his reservations about the manner in which the Iraq declaration was handled. This confronts the U.S. with a potential conundrum as it raises the pitch of its coercive diplomacy on Iraq. Powell has dismissed the Iraqi weapons declaration as a "catalogue of recycled information and flagrant omissions", but the U.S. has given the Security Council no opportunity to make its own judgment on the issue. In fact, the suspicion is strong among the Council members that the supposed "omissions" whether flagrant or otherwise could have been engineered by the U.S. to build its case for war. Indeed, if the U.S. were to go back to the Council with the request for a mandate to do all that is necessary to ensure that U.N. resolutions are honoured, it is likely to be confronted with some tough questions about the manner in which it has sought to coerce and control the entire process. As the envoy from one of the rotating members of the Council put it: "The questions being asked are valid. What did the U.S. take out? And if weapons inspectors are supposed to be checking against the dossier's content, how can any future claim be verified? In effect the U.S. is saying `trust us', and there are many who just will not."

Around Christmas time, Unmovic began its interviews with scientists suspected of involvement in the Iraqi WMD programme. The U.S. and the U.K. believe that the inspectors should fully utilise provisions of Security Council Resolution 1441, which empower them to take scientists out of the country if necessary for interviews. The U.S. has indicated that it would be willing to consider offering political asylum to the scientists concerned, along with their families, to induce a measure of candour in their part. Unmovic believes that its professional mandate would be vitiated if it were to get mixed up in the asylum procedures of sovereign nations. And observers with some understanding of the realities of the Arab world, point out that families in Iraq typically are extended clans. Mohammad Al-Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who bears the principal responsibility for overseeing the nuclear side of the Iraqi disarmament process, has expressed his preference for conducting his interviews within the country to begin with. The "practical arrangements" for taking people out of Iraq were being studied, he said, but he insisted on having credible assurances that the personal safety of the individuals concerned would not be endangered.

Although Unmovic has routinely been interviewing scientists at facilities that its teams have been visiting, the Christmas interviews are of a qualitatively different dimension. The approach here is more inquisitorial and confrontational, and the individuals isolated from their daily milieus are expected to be more susceptible to pressure in the circumstances. But the first few rounds of interviews were by all accounts fairly vapid in terms of the new ground they revealed.

Apart from the U.S. and the U.K, the other P-5 nations remain deeply dubious about the rush to war. Russian and French government sources said that they were in the process of studying the Iraqi declaration. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov insisted, however, that Iraqi actions had been sufficient indications of compliance in good faith with U.N. demands. "Any action outside the framework of resolution 1441 can do nothing but complicate the regional security situation," said Ivanov, who went on to deprecate the note of "hysteria" that had crept into the U.S.'s approach towards the Iraq issue.

The French, meanwhile, hastened to clarify that its silence on the U.S.' hasty dismissal of the Iraqi dossier should not be read as an endorsement. "We have said that there are zones of shadow in the declaration," said a French diplomatic spokesperson. But this only meant that the Unmovic teams should continue their work and determine how far these reflected deliberate omissions and how far they were authentic evidence of absence of WMD.

China seemed in large measure to be taking the same attitude, demanding that it be given adequate time to study the Iraqi declaration. Hasty conclusions were unwarranted, said the Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, till the Unmovic teams determined the actual nature of facts on the ground.

There was one country, though, that could not hide its unwholesome anxiety to get the military action going. Trapped in an election campaign rife with dirty tricks and allegations of underhand deals, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came out with a thoroughly astounding Christmas surprise.

Iraq's stocks of WMD, he said, had been clandestinely transported to Syria for safe-keeping during the period of weapons inspections. And this was not the only instance of Iraqi perfidy that Sharon had unearthed. It turned out that his security forces had just caught out a Palestinian terrorist cell that had been trained by Iraq to shoot down civilian aircraft as they took off from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport. And Iraqi scientists were already working with the Palestinian Authority and the Libyan government at developing WMD.

Sharon's fantasies were roundly condemned by not merely the Arab states in the neighbourhood, but also by the opposition Labour Party. But they highlight how the war camp essentially is made up of two factions. There is on one side, the Israeli expansionists who believe that peace and security for the Jewish state cannot be found without a "permanent solution" to the Palestinian problem, which would expel the entire recalcitrant population out of the West Bank and Gaza strip. And there is, on the other, the U.S. right-wing, a newly minted amalgam of Bible-belt conservatives and Zionist ideologues who have risen to unparalleled power in the current administration.

As the columnist Charles Krauthammer, one of the luminaries of the latter camp, recently remarked: "There is one thing that I think everybody has overlooked we are going to have retroactive evidence. Even though I would like us to be able to have a smoking gun, I don't know how close we are going to come to producing it when the President decides that it is time." The question according to Krauthammer was not one of unearthing the evidence that could serve as casus belli, but of preserving "American credibility". "Our attitude to the Arab world," he explained, "has always been that we could be the `offshore balancer' of last resort. We would police and we would patrol offshore. This hands-off, offshore policy, I think is over. Iraq will be the first act in the play of an America coming ashore in Arabia. It is not just about weapons of mass destruction of American credibility. It's about reforming the Arab world."

Evidence of Iraq's supposed stocks of WMD, in other words, is immaterial. What matters is the time that President George Bush would determine as appropriate for military action. The current betting is that January 27, when Blix is scheduled to provide his first definitive assessment of Unmovic's progress to the U.N. Security Council, could be a crucial threshold. The U.S. President is slated to deliver his "State of the Union" address to Congress within the same time-frame. And the two could converge in a circumstance of great convenience for the U.S.

It is also relevant that Israel is scheduled to go to the polls on January 28 in elections that are widely expected to bring the right-wing Likud to power, in alliance with chauvinist and avowedly racist parties committed to the "transfer" of the Palestinian population. The chief of Israeli military intelligence, who undoubtedly has privileged access to this information, recently testified before a panel of the Israeli Knesset, that early-February could be the decisive moment when military strikes on Iraq begin. Between now and then, Iraq would have a few more opportunities to deny the U.S. a credible cause for war. When military action begins, it will quite patently be a joint venture of the U.S. and Israel, with the U.K. in a laughably subordinate role. What further new directions the U.S.' war of terror against the poor and the disadvantage would then take, can only be grimly surmised at this stage.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 17, 2003.)

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