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Bush’s First Strike

Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda

Khidhir Hamza, with Jeff Stein
Scribner, 352 pp., $26.00

1.

George W. Bush described the strikes on Iraq on February 16 as a “routine mission.” They were anything but. They struck targets outside the no-fly zones, and in so doing exceeded the authorizing mandate of UN resolutions, as the French government and many Arab states indignantly pointed out. They were also directed, it now turns out, at a new fiber-optic radar control system, which had been supplied by Milosevic’s Serbian regime. This system was reportedly installed by Chinese technicians, whose very presence is in direct violation of the UN sanctions against military resupply of the Iraqi regime.

Concerned to avoid the debacle of the strike against the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, the President ordered that the raids be staged on the Chinese technicians’ day off. The ammunition chosen by the US for the raid was far from routine—AGM- 130 guided missiles, the latest generation of precision weapons. Precision, however, is a relative term. The Washington Post reports that many of the weapons fell short. So the US was taking more chances than the word “routine” implies. It was not just sending a message to Saddam; it was also firing a shot across the bow of a rival superpower.

The raids had another purpose as well. The President said, “And we’re going to watch very carefully as to whether or not he [Saddam] develops weapons of mass destruction. And if we catch him doing so, we’ll take the appropriate action.”1 In saying this, the President was sticking to an old script. As a candidate, he told Jim Lehrer: “If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape or form, I’ll deal with that in a way that he won’t like.”2

Since Iraq’s nuclear weapons program is more than twenty years old and UN inspectors have long since found credible evidence of a developed “chemical and biological capability,” it’s not clear why the President keeps pretending that Saddam does not already possess weapons of mass destruction. Weeks before the February 16 strikes, reports appeared in the British press, based on information supplied by Iraqi defectors, that Saddam has two operational atomic bombs in his arsenal.3 The administration neither confirms nor denies these reports in public, but in recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA director George Tenet conceded that since the Desert Fox air strikes of 1998, Iraq had rebuilt “key portions” of its chemical weapons capability.4 If the CIA is correct, the President is misleading the public: Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are not just something Bush may “catch them developing.” Some, at least, are already in his arsenal: deadly nerve agents like VX and sarin, biological agents like anthrax and botulin, together with the missiles to deliver them against its neighbors, especially Israel and Iran.5

What makes Saddam dangerous is not that he has the weapons. Other countries do too. What’s dangerous is that he has actually used them. Saddam used mustard gas on at least nine occasions between 1983 and 1988, during his war with Iran. He used mustard gas and nerve agents to kill five thousand Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988 and sent Scud missiles crashing into Tel Aviv in 1991. It seems a trifle disingenuous for Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak to deny that Saddam constitutes a “threat to the world.”6 It seems equally ridiculous to claim that the new administration’s policy is driven by a family grudge, with Bush fils seeking to avenge Bush père‘s failure to “take out” Saddam in 1991.7 Certainly, Saddam delights in teasing the Bush dynasty—the Iraqi press calls George W. “son of the snake”—and Saddam is adept at portraying his own humiliating defeat at Bush père‘s hands in 1991 as a moral victory.8

But the real challenges to the President and his administration are strictly political. Even after being evicted from Kuwait, Saddam continues to refer to Kuwait as the nineteenth province of Iraq. Only American air power and a carrier group in the Gulf stands between him and Kuwait’s oil fields and Kuwait’s position at the head of the Gulf. With the collapse of the Middle East peace talks, Saddam is using surging oil revenues to buy the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that will put him in the forefront of the Arab rejectionists who want to drive America from the region and throw Israel into the sea. Right after the strikes on February 16, he went on television, vowing to create new legions to liberate Palestine. This may be bombast, but it lays bare his larger regional ambitions to leadership of the Arab masses in their battle against the “Zionist enemy.”

Saddam has been in power for more than twenty years, and American policy toward him has never been consistent. After spending the 1980s building up Saddam’s Iraq as a counterweight to Iran, US policy abruptly reversed course with his invasion of Kuwait and has since tried to cut him down to size. The policy is called “containment,” but the question is, containment of what? If containment means weakening his military and economic infrastructure, bombing and sanctions have done that. But it’s not clear that we can justify permanently weakening Iraq. If containment means checking Saddam’s influence among the Arab masses, it has failed. If containment means preventing Saddam from harming the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south—this is the ostensible purpose of the no-fly zones—the flights have provided some protection for the Kurds but they did not prevent Saddam from marching into Irbil in 1996, and the flights have not prevented him from inflicting terrible repression against the Shiites. And if containment means stopping him from making weapons of mass destruction, the evidence, at least from the President’s remarks, is that the policy actually consists of pretending that they don’t yet constitute a threat. As long as he can pretend that weapons of mass destruction aren’t yet a threat, the President doesn’t need to do anything about them.

This make-believe containment is not working, and there is some evidence that the rest of the containment strategy is also falling apart. General economic sanctions have perversely strengthened the regime, unifying the country and the whole region, in fear and rage, around the very man who holds them hostage. According to the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, “‘Iraq has become for sanctions regimes what Somalia was for peacekeeping missions’—a humanitarian and security debacle.”9 When they were implemented after 1991, sanctions caused a catastrophic rise in infant mortality and deepening poverty among most of the population. The UN offered an oil-for-food program to mitigate these effects, but the Iraqi regime stalled until 1996 before agreeing. Since 1996, Saddam has won the propaganda war in the Arab world, pretending that the sanctions are starving his people, when in fact Saddam himself has frustrated attempts to assist them.10 From June to December 2000, for example, Saddam could have spent $7.8 billion he received from UN-approved oil sales on food and medicine for his people. Instead he spent only $4.2 billion.11

In any event, even President Bush recently acknowledged that the sanctions regime has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.12 He should know. His vice-president, Dick Cheney, used to be CEO of Halliburton, the largest US oil services company. Halliburton never did business directly with Iraq, but two European companies in which it owned controlling stakes did do more than $23 million worth of business with Iraq’s oil industry.13 Saddam’s smugglers evade sanctions by selling oil—worth more than $1 billion a year—through Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran—with the money going directly to Saddam Hussein and his associates, circumventing the UN oil-for-food program. Baghdad Airport is now open to limited international flights. In a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, the editor, David Ignatius, writes that during the last two months several dozen previously unknown companies in Europe and Asia have been selling Iraqi crude oil to trading companies that in turn sell it to major US refiners including Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco.14

Recognizing that the sanctions are dead is one thing. Explicitly lifting them is another. Henry Kissinger recently argued at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting that if the US acquiesces in lifting sanctions, this would be seen as an “American defeat” in the Middle East.15 Changing policy will not be easy, but replacing “dumb” sanctions that hurt the general population with “smart” ones that affect the elite seems the most promising strategy. During his Middle East visit Colin Powell was evidently preparing the ground for such a change in policy. Targeted sanctions would be directed at particular officials, and their families, in the ruling political, military, scientific, and technological elite; they would prevent such leaders from traveling, impound their overseas assets, stop them from buying sinister technologies abroad. The techniques for such targeting exist. Banks routinely run sophisticated computer programs that trace and block transactions by named individuals and accounts. Still, a policy of targeted sanctions requires coordination and the sharing of intelligence among state and banking authorities across the world, and apart from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) in the US Treasury, the central banking systems of Western governments lack the capacity, so far, to administer a targeted system for freezing and seizing Iraqi assets.

The other potentially effective means of containment is control of export licensing, aimed at preventing Western companies from supplying Iraq with the equipment and material Saddam needs to menace other countries, among them uranium, the devices that set off nuclear weapons, fermenters and “growth media,” which are needed to make biological weapons, and machined steel for artillery systems. Iraq’s dependence on foreign technology remains Saddam Hussein’s most vulnerable point, and a concerted intelligence effort linked to export controls could capitalize on this weakness. When UN weapons inspectors were trying to assess his concealed capacity, the most valuable information came from invoices from his American and European suppliers. For example, by discovering how much biological growth material—approximately forty tons—that Saddam had purchased from foreign pharmaceutical firms, the weapons inspectors were able to deduce the approximate size of the biological weapons program—using anthrax, botulin, camel pox, gangrene, and brucella—that he was concealing.16

The collusion of European and American pharmaceutical companies, precision equipment manufacturers, and weapons suppliers in the development of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is the great scandal of the story of Saddam’s rearming. The willingness of foreign scientists, hungry for money, to aid the development of weapons of mass destruction is genuinely astonishing. One essential aspect of a containment strategy, over the long term, should be the creation of a new convention in international law—this has long been advocated by Matthew Meselson of Harvard and Julian Robinson of Sussex University—to make it a criminal offense, subject to universal jurisdiction, for any scientist, businessman, or technician to render substantial assistance to the development, production, acquisition, or use of those biological or chemical weapons already banned by international treaty.17

  1. 1

    In the President’s Words on the Bombing: ‘It’s a Routine Mission,’” The New York Times, February 17, 2001, p. A4.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Nicholas Lemann, “The Iraq Factor,” The New Yorker, January 22, 2001.

  3. 3

    Defector: Iraq Has Nuclear Bombs,” Jerusalem Post, January 29, 2001; “Saddam Has Made Two Atomic Bombs, Says Iraqi Defector,” Sunday Telegraph (London), January 28, 2001.

  4. 4

    Statement by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” February 7, 2001.

  5. 5

    Anthony Cordesman, “Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq,” CSIS, September 20, 1999, pp. 8–10.

  6. 6

    The Washington Post, February 18, 2001.

  7. 7

    Michael Byers, “Ready for a Rematch,” London Review of Books, February 8, 2001.

  8. 8

    Saddam’s Resurrection: Iraqi Leader a Force Again After a Decade as a Pariah,” The Calgary Herald, February 3, 2001.

  9. 9

    Watson Institute, Briefings, Summer/ Fall 2000, p. 2.

  10. 10

    Jon Lee Anderson, “Letter from Baghdad: The Unvanquished,” The New Yorker, December 11, 2000.

  11. 11

    Thomas L. Friedman, “Saddam Has Won the Propaganda War, So Change Tactics,” International Herald Tribune, February 7, 2001.

  12. 12

    First Act for Bush, Declaring Leadership,” The New York Times, February 17, 2001, p. A4.

  13. 13

    US Oil Groups Find a Discreet Way of Doing Business with Iraq,” Financial Times, November 3, 2000.

  14. 14

    International Herald Tribune, February 19, 2001, p. 8.

  15. 15

    See his comment at the forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, broadcast by C-Span on February 21.

  16. 16

    Briefing by Rod Barton, UNSCOM biological weapons inspector, Belfer Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, January 30, 2001.

  17. 17

    Matthew Meselson, “The Problem of Biological Weapons,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 52, No. 5 (1999), p. 57; see also M.F. Perutz, “The Threat of Biological Weapons,” The New York Review, April 13, 2000.

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