The Search for Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: Inspection, Verification and Non-proliferation

Weapons of mass destruction. This is probably the most vilified and misunderstood term in recent international affairs. The US and UK governments committed their countries to war in Iraq on the basis that WMDs were advanced enough to pose a threat, not just in the region but also beyond – only to discover that only ‘WMD-related programme activities’ had been ascertained. Political controversy persists over the lack of discovery of nuclear, chemical or biological stockpiles in Iraq. The current crises over nuclear weapons programmes in Iran and North Korea make this book a timely reminder of the difficulties faced in assessing the precise extent of such programmes.

The Search for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction by Graham Pearson, former director-general of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down, is the seminal work on Iraq’s WMDs. Focusing on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons (CBW), it sets out to debunk the assumptions made about what WMDs Saddam did and did not have, from before the Iran-Iraq War up until the post-2003 war period.

In fully describing the inspections during the 1990s under the UNSCOM inspectorate following the 1991 Gulf War, in the pre-war period under UNMOVIC and finally the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), he has provided a vital, complete background to the WMD controversy. This controversy Pearson does not avoid, in saying that the UN Security Council’s Permanent Members lacked unanimity in applying pressure to Iraq during the crucial 2002 inspection period. This led to the onus being placed on UNSCOM and the IAEA to provide a continuing record of Iraq, which had flouted Security Council resolutions (which are all listed) since 1991. And he states that military action or the threat of it was needed on several occasions to force Iraq to step back and comply, such as allowing access to presidential sites.

Pearson describes the subtleties of WMD acquisition, the complexities of inspection procedures and the many agencies involved. What emerges is that Iraq had a ‘start-up capability’. The main point of the book – which will be the main reason it will be consulted – is that actual stockpiles of CBW were not found in Iraq because it kept open the option of being able to launch an attack at a time of its choosing rather than in retaliation. An aggressor state such as Saddam’s Iraq would also embed a CBW capability within its legitimate industries and will choose chemicals and bioagents not traditionally regarded as retaliatory in war. Therefore, the final assessment by the ISG – that Iraq was pursuing ‘WMD-related programme activities’ – does not sound so hollow and unconvincing as originally reported.

Pearson describes the opposition faced by inspectors from an unco-operative, rather than a permissive, regime. Each example of obstruction, intimidation and access denial is listed. Long tables and lists provide masses of detail on inspections and materials found, and serve as vital reference sources.

Of interest are the criteria for selection of inspectors for each round of inspections – there were only a few countries with enough CBW experience to provide experienced personnel – and the different sets of circumstances affecting the inspectors that prevailed after the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and the period leading up to the 2003 invasion. A picture of constant deception and concealment emerges, as well as all possible methods and techniques, some having been abandoned in the West, used to try to develop WMD.

The 1980s is the decade when Iraq actually had stockpiles of weapons. Pearson explains how the Iran-Iraq War – when chemical weapons were actually used and are catalogued in meticulous detail – led to the establishment of the Chemical Weapons Convention as well as setting the scene for future inspections. Other regimes to prevent proliferation of precursor materials and equipment, such as the Australia Group, and an import-export mechanism, made it possible to monitor supply to Iraq of dual-use items. Indeed, it had ‘become apparent that Iraq received assistance from companies and individuals from several other countries’.

Inspection, verification (that weapons have been destroyed and accounted for) and non-proliferation (that measures are in place to prevent their future acquisition or development) are vital to create a ‘web of reassurance’ that a country is not developing or concealing CBWs. International weapons inspections are proven to achieve effective results – in revealing fully a programme of ‘concealment, denial and masking of proscribed weapons and related capabilities’ – particularly about Iraq’s VX nerve agent project. Not providing disclosure becomes the big sticking point up until the end of inspections before the US-led invasion in 2003.

Details of programmes are revealed – UNSCOM found that Iraq possessed the capability and knowledge base to produce biological agents quickly and in volume – and that by the time the teams had to leave in 1998 after a long campaign of Iraqi obstruction, the bulk of its proscribed programmes had been eliminated.

The last round of 731 inspections by UNMOVIC of 411 sites – from military camps to presidential residences and private houses, including eighty-eight newly inspected sites – is the high point of the book. UNMOVIC had more resources than previous teams (more detail on the technologies used would have been welcome). Some 1,000 tons of chemical agents were unaccounted for – ‘but one must not jump to the conclusion that they exist’. After taking over 200 chemical and 100 biological samples, finding some empty 122mm chemical munitions and a laboratory quantity of thiodigylcol, a mustard precursor, UNMOVIC suspended its inspections following the UN decision to withdraw its entire staff from Iraq. It is revealing that, in November 2003 and February 2004 full reports about the ISG’s findings were not made available to UNMOVIC. Nor had the ISG requested information from UNMOVIC.

So, why were there no stockpiles? Chapter 9 has the answer: Iraq wanted to have CBWs as tactical, rather than strategic assets – to maintain a ‘restart capability’. This would explain maintaining large numbers of scientists. There had been activity that would allow, according to the final ISG report, ‘future production at some time’. Inspections by the IAEA and the UN, backed by military and economic pressure, had deterred Saddam from rearming. Most important, Pearson regards the political and media focus on finding WMD stockpiles as misplaced – as it fails to recognize Iraq’s desire to produce such weapons at a time of its own choosing. This would also reduce the chances of detection.

This book will be highly valued for its analysis of how future WMD assessments should be made based on the Iraq experience. Ongoing monitoring and verification is the prime basis on which compliance can be maintained – monthly access to sensitive sites and no-notice inspections. UNMOVIC, in particular, attained detailed knowledge of Iraqis involved in proscribed activities, and is therefore the main instrument for assessing past and future capability. It also achieved practical solutions in defining material as dual-use – an all-important factor in assessing a nation’s CBW activities – and finding the ‘appropriate balance between non-proliferation goals and legitimate commerce’. Pearson rebukes the US for claiming that the Biological Weapons Convention cannot be verified; UNSCOM proved otherwise. But UNMOVIC did not have sufficient time.

The only criticisms are that details about Iraq’s CBW programmes do not appear until later in the book, but this is so comprehensive as to be well worth the wait. Some detail about the inspectors’ experiences would have further humanized the account.

Although the book is best suited for specialists, it is also ideal for researchers, journalists and anyone seeking background on, and better understanding of, the Iraq WMD controversy, as well as consultants such as myself. We are often asked to explain the facts about WMD to the media and others, who may have a simplistic view of weapons proliferation.

Andy Oppenheimer
Consultant in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons for Jane’s Information Group

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