About Those Chemical WMDs Saddam Never Had …

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 17, 2014

A Kurd allegedly hit with chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Kobani

A Kurd allegedly hit with chemical weapons by the Islamic State in Kobani

Since the main point of this post is “I Told You So,” I should get it over early. Some of us have maintained that—whatever the political view one takes of the invasion of Iraq—the factual question, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?”, remains a live one. Now the New York Times agrees.

Many things were already known or visible in outline. The Saddam Hussein regime run an elaborate ministry of concealment right down to the end that had outfoxed the inspectors, allowing the regime to maintain its designs and equipment in defiance of a thesaurus of United Nations resolutions. We know, too, from the Duelfer report that the Saddam regime maintained nuclear scientists (what Saddam called his “nuclear mujahideen”) in their specialized teams, maintained the dual-use facilities for chemical and biological weapons, and maintained the delivery systems, namely ballistic missiles, again in defiance of U.N. resolutions limiting their range. From other sources (p. 225) it is clear that Saddam remained within weeks of the production of chemical and biological weapons—and since stockpiles are only produced as-needed (i.e. during a war) this is as much as to say Saddam had chemical and biological weapons.

To this latent capacity—which is destabilizing enough—it can be added that the Saddam regime itself declared holdings, under pressure in 1991, that it never accounted for. There are hints as to where some of them might have gone, and it now seems likely that Operation DESERT FOX did more damage to Saddam’s WMD programs than anyone realized at the time. We also know for sure where some of them went: there is significant evidence of a regime final sweep and chemical weapons from regime stocks were being found at least as late as 2007 in Iraq. They were also used against Western troops by the insurgency composed of Saddamist remnants and Salafi-jihadists the regime had begun importing before its demise.

C.J. Chivers now adds in his report for the Times that American forces found “roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs,” including “more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a former Republican Guard compound.” There were seventeen American service members and seven Iraqi police officers exposed to nerve or sulphur mustard agents after 2003.

Mr. Chivers’ article manages to straddle two horses riding in opposite directions. On the one hand, he maintains that the finding of these chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) “did not support the government’s invasion rationale,” but simultaneously maintains that the Bush administration engaged in a cover-up about CWMD being found in Iraq and its lack of public recognition led to inadequate care for troops. Even all this time later the imperative is that Bush be blamed every which way. Much better were the comments of one of the soldiers hit with mustard, who jokes of being wounded by “that stuff that didn’t exist.” “There were plenty” of chemical weapons, said the soldier.

Mr. Chivers attempts to square this circle by writing that the Bush administration said Saddam “was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program,” which Saddam didn’t have (italics added). Leave aside the evidence of the dual-use facilities and programs that remained right to the end. What did Bush administration officials actually say in the lead-up to the end of the Gulf War?

President Bush, in probably his most important pre-invasion speech, before the United Nations in September 2002 said:

Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents, and … the regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons.”

Colin Powell in his infamous February 2003 address to the U.N. said:

Saddam Hussein has never accounted for vast amounts of chemical weaponry: 550 artillery shells with mustard, 30,000 empty munitions and enough precursors to increase his stockpile to as much as 500 tons of chemical agents.”

In other words, it is very silly to pretend that these “old”—as Chivers insists—stocks of CWMD were no part of the administration’s rationale for finishing with the Saddam Hussein regime.

Reports from the time and the testimony of veterans evince that the threat of a chemical attack on Western troops was taken very seriously. U.S. troops were kitted out with chemical protection suits; this wasn’t done just for the fun of it in the sweltering heat of Kuwait and Iraq. When Saddam began raining down missiles on Kuwait during the invasion, journalists reported the genuine fear that these munitions had been tipped with CWMD. Even Hans Blix, the see-no-evil inspector put in by the Russian and French patrons of the Saddam dictatorship acknowledged that he believed Saddam had maintained WMD stockpiles and programs in violation of the U.N. resolutions. There was no evidence to the contrary and as Blix so insightfully (for once) put it: “Who would attach a presumption of innocence to the regime of Saddam Hussein?”

The Bush administration was notoriously bad at defending itself, especially on the two issues that remain the most controversial: WMD and the Saddam regime’s connections with al-Qaeda. The evidence of the regime’s connections with the Qaeda network is simply overwhelming. Stephen Hayes’ book is a good brief summary; Thomas Joscelyn’s work at The Weekly Standard has been excellent on this; and a simple look at the biography of Abu Musab az-Zarqawi should make plain that the Saddamist-Salafist mutation nurtured by the regime with its al-hamla al-imaniya (the faith campaign), which now comes to us as the Islamic State, was in train all along.

On the WMD, one reason perhaps that the administration held off on broadcasting its findings of WMD stockpiles in Iraq—though some administration supporters like Rick Santorum and Pete Hoekstra tried to—is because it would have broadcast to the Ba’ath-Salafi forces that even more lethal weapons were within their reach. Another reason seems to be (not mutually exclusive with the first): Karl Rove told those who knew about these stocks: “We have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” Rove added: “We don’t want to look back“.

Douglas Feith’s brilliant memoir noted the Bush administration’s penchant for not focussing on the security threat that had been removed—the stated intention of the invasion—and switching to the future and the promotion of democracy, which: a) made the definition of victory much harder to obtain; b) refused to take credit for what the administration actually had done; and c) focussed the critics on this undefended territory, allowing them to mount an all-out attack on the invasion’s legitimacy without reply, so that even when it looked like a success after the Surge, opponents could still say the invasion should never have been launched and grant the administration no credit.

This is not, however, just an academic question about the past. When the Islamic State first attacked the Kurds at Kobani in northern Syria, beginning July 2, it is alleged to have used chemical weapons. The attack is said to have taken place on July 12 with mustard blistering agent in Avdiko, a village in the east of Kobani now under Islamic State control. Photographs show three dead Kurdish fighters physically unharmed but with “burns and white spots … indicat[ing] the use of chemicals”. The chemicals seem to originate from near Raqqa City, but it is “possible that these were transferred to Raqqa from Iraq, following the capture of the Muthanna compound … by IS in June.” Muthanna, just south of Samarra City, contained inter alia 2,500 sarin-filled rockets, 605 one-ton mustard containers with residues, and about 180 tons of sodium cyanide at the time the Islamic State captured it. In short, if the Islamic State is now using chemical weapons they could be Saddam’s.

In either case, The New York Times has put the Iraq debate on a proper factual footing. No longer will the “no WMDs” thesis be credible as a catch-all dismissal of the case for ending the twelve-year-long war Saddam Hussein started. Now the thesis that will have to be defended is: “Those WMDs were not a significant enough threat for action”.


Post has been updated

2 thoughts on “About Those Chemical WMDs Saddam Never Had …

  1. Pingback: A Myth Revisited: “Saddam Hussein Had No Connection To Al-Qaeda” | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: The Islamic State and Chemical Weapons | The Syrian Intifada

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