Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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July 29, 2003

US Fast Gathering Evidence of Iraqi WMD; “Proof” Seen As Critical for Further Regional Actions by US Bush Administration

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS staff. By late July 2003, all indications were that the US Bush Administration had gathered substantial evidence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related programs and were growing closer to publicizing the evidence unearthed by former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) chief nuclear weapons inspector David Kay.

GIS sources confirmed that Coalition forces were in possession of a sizable number of key documents related to the Iraqi WMD programs, but stressed that it would take more time for the captured documentation to be translated, read, and fully understood. It was not expected that the fruits of this labor would be made public in the near future, but with increasing political pressure on the governments of US Pres. Bush, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard to prove that evidence of Iraqi WMD had not been exaggerated or falsified, it was possible that the timetable for the public release of such material might be shortened.

In a July 15, 2003, interview with the US news company NBC’s nightly news anchor Tom Brokaw, David Kay alluded to this situation, explaining: “Documents and the exploitation of those documents is one of the keys … I’ve already seen enough to convince me, but that’s not the standard. I’ve got to have enough evidence to convince everyone of that.” Kay also made reference to the timetable for the release of such evidence: “I think in six months from now, we’ll have a considerable amount of evidence, and we’ll be starting to reveal that evidence…This is a tough country to work in. They hid a lot. I think we’ll probably still be finding stuff well beyond six months. I think we will have a substantial body of evidence before six months.” Kay also said that the information pertained to Iraqi development in the fields of biological, chemical, nuclear, and missile technology, but that evidence related to Iraq’s biological warfare (BW) program might be made public.

GIS sources also noted the exhumation of mass graves in the Nuqaba area as relating to the ongoing search for Iraqi WMD. GIS sources reported that Iraqi locals had provided information to the effect that Iraqi Government agents in full chemical-protection suits had dumped bodies into the pits at some point during the 1990s. There was a distinct possibility that the bodies had been victims of chemical or biological testing by the Iraqi Government. Reports in the late 1990s had indicated that the Saddam Hussein Administration had tested chemical and biological agents on prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in 1994 and 1995. Adding to suspicions was the fact that records of prisoners at Abu Ghraib from the dates in question had been removed from the prison’s files when UNSCOM weapons inspectors visited the prison in an effort to confirm the reports.

In addition, reports in the Iraqi media from early July 2003, appeared to substantiate an April 2003 report from the US news company NBC that chemical materiel had been found in the Euphrates River. The initial report, on April 4, 2003, cited a briefing from an unnamed US Marine official, which stated that US Marines had found high concentrations of cyanide and mustard agents in the Euphrates River near the Iraqi town of Nassiriya. According to the NBC News report, the agents had been found while US Marines were conducting “routine tests conducted to ensure the water being used is safe”. At that time, neither US Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar nor US military officials would confirm the NBC News report. Notably, the Iraqi daily Al-Da’wa had, on July 12, 2003, reported that “large quantities” of chemical and bacteriological materials had been dumped into the al-Bad’a and Euphrates Rivers near Nassiriya by supporters of the deposed Saddam Hussein Government. 

GIS sources could not confirm the dumping of bacteriological agents, but maintained that high concentrations of cyanide and mustard agent had been found in the Euphrates near Nassiriyah. The materials had been sent for testing and the assumption within the US intelligence community was that ammunition thrown into the river by Iraqi forces had leaked. Aside from the more publicized WMD-capable ballistic missiles, the Saddam Hussein Government had also maintained a sizable range of chemical munitions, and it was believed these could have been the source of the chemical emissions.

The presence of mustard agent or bacteriological matériel would be particularly indicative of the presence of some form of WMD. [Cyanide is also a common industrial byproduct, traces of which are common in rivers, and its presence, dependent on concentration, could potentially prove less substantial.] The reports that the Euphrates or al-Bad’a had been utilized in relation to the concealment or production of Iraqi WMD were consistent with an October 2, 2002, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report entitled: Iraq Believed Using Riverine Barges, Vessels, for WMD Storage, Development and Possible Launch. The Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report stated:

GIS sources and analysts believe that the Iraqi Government has for some time been using barges and other riverine craft for the storage of materials used in its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, including nuclear, biological and chemical raw materials, laboratories and technical facilities. It is believed also that Iraq has worked on the utilization of barges as mobile launch platforms for medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). It is believed that all of the navigable areas of the Tigris-Euphrates river systems would have been considered as launch points or discreet storage and/or laboratory sites… GIS is aware that at least one Iraqi naval officer was high on the list of authors of the employment doctrine for Iraqi chemical and biological weapons.

Increasingly, it appeared that finding WMD in Iraq would prove critical to the US Bush Administration’s handling of Syria and Iran. Though the US had assembled a large coalition of nations in the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” for Operation Iraqi Freedom, any attempts to gain international backing for military action against Damascus or Tehran could be anticipated to be far more difficult, particularly if “proof” of Iraqi WMD had still not been found. While the tactical limitations of the current US military stance continued to be an obstacle to any such moves, the political and diplomatic fronts had, by late July 2003, proved to be equally restrictive.

The political constraints had been apparent since April 2003 when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney privately advocated the expansion of US military action to include Syria under the umbrella of a “hot pursuit” doctrine. Then, US National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and chief political advisor to the President, Karl Rove, vetoed any such strike because of its political ramifications with Presidential elections coming up in November 2004. Democrats, the US opposition party, had already “warned” the US public that Pres. Bush might use the “war on terror” for his own political ends to gain re-election. The reflexive response from some wings of the Administration had been an apparent reluctance to wage military action against any perceived threat until Pres. Bush’s second term, regardless of the circumstances.

New diplomatic constraints, aside from more obvious difficulties also present during the run-up to the Iraq War, had only more recently materialized in the wake of Coalition’s failure to discover — or, perhaps more aptly, publicize — evidence of Iraqi WMD programs. Lead US weapons inspector Kay made mention of this in his July 15, 2003, interview: “What worries me is that I know if we can’t explain the WMD program of Iraq, we lose credibility with regard to other states like Iran, Syria, North Korea. I also know I have to worry about where did what was here go? It would be the ultimate national tragedy if in a war to end proliferation, we actually allowed to escape to other states and rogue groups.” Kay did not elaborate, but the last reference appeared to refer to the movement of Iraqi WMD to Syria in August-September 2002, which GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs exclusively reported on in an October 28, 2002, report entitled Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens:

Highly-authoritative, experienced GIS sources have reported that the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces have moved substantial caches of chemical weapons and related materials to safe-havens across the border into Syria, to avoid any chance of discovery by United Nations (UN) inspectors. Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli [al-Qamishli], in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

As July 2003 came to a close, US Pres. Bush continued to place pressure on Damascus, along with Tehran, for support for US-designated terrorist groups and the pursuit of WMD. In a July 22, 2003, joint press briefing with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Pres Bush stated: “Today, Syria and Iran continue to harbor and assist terrorists. This behavior is completely unacceptable and states that support terror will be held accountable.” Additionally, the US Congress had scheduled a September 16, 2003, hearing for the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia to discuss the acquisition and development of WMD by the Syrian Government. The US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John R. Bolton, was scheduled to speak at the hearing.

Yet, there still existed strong opposition to Pres. Bush’s apparent desire to focus on threats from Damascus and Tehran within the Administration, particularly from elements of the CIA and State Department. In fact, on July 22, 2003, the CIA objected to an outline of Sec. Bolton’s planned remarks to the subcommittee hearing, citing a classified portion of the statement in which Sec. Bolton was to have warned the hearing that Syria’s development of chemical and biological weapons had progressed to the point that they posed a threat to stability in the Middle East.”

Whatever the US Bush Administration’s final deliberations on handling Syria and Iran, it was apparent that a post-action proving of the case for the war in Iraq would prove critical to any potential further action against the Syrian Government of Pres. Bashar al-Asad or the Iranian Government of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i.