HAWKS and warmongers may think that searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is now pointless because the war is over, or that bits of indications that Iraq possessed them are enough to justify the war and end the search.
But they do not reckon with the unease of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that drives them to try and salvage something of their electoral credibility, for all their slick presumptions at home and cavalier strutting abroad. For Bush at least, an ambitious re-election bid looms for next year.
Already, some Democratic Party hopefuls have begun to close in on the Bush White House, nibbling at the edges. Since Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD was made to serve as a central pretext for the war, the truth or lie in that claim will affect Bush’s re-election prospects.
Another 2,100 US personnel are due to arrive in Iraq to join some 600 already there, to scour the country for WMD material and intelligence information. Coupled with Washington’s continued insistence that Iraq possessed WMD, the searchers are set to discover something to vindicate the war by the time the re-election campaign begins.
At the same time, the US is keeping away UN inspection teams with the expertise, experience and vital credibility for verifying any WMD finds. The unilateral US search, coming on the heels of the unilateral US war, has already discredited the mode of detection before anything substantial has been uncovered.
The more independent and professional officials within government and the intelligence agencies are concerned that the way Iraqi affairs are handled is ineffectual or even counter-productive. The neo-conservative bent in tackling terrorism and Saddam Hussein, and then in confusing between them, has been dominated by ideology rather than pragmatism for at least two years.
This has produced some convenient if untenable excuses for not finding any Iraqi WMDs; for example, it has been said that Saddam had hidden them so well before the war that when the war came, even he had problems extricating them. All throughout, the deliberate build-up of public expectations of Iraqi WMDs was relentless, particularly since the invasion began on March 20.
Just four days into the war, Secretary of State Colin Powell alleged that Iraqi leaders had authorised a chemical weapons attack against Shiite Muslims in the south of the country. Upon closer analysis, Powell based his claim on Iraq being known to have done it before, so he might do so again.
Unnamed US officials further claimed that Iraq had drawn a “red line” of 50 miles radius around Baghdad, to unleash terrible chemical weapons on US and British troops once they crossed it on their way into the city. But no such Iraqi weapons had been used or found.
Meanwhile, the more likely reasons why there are no Iraqi WMDs are deliberately ignored. As former UN arms inspectors and defecting senior Iraqi military officials have noted, Saddam had destroyed all WMDs some time before the war even began.
More recently, captive Iraqi leaders including former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Ali confirmed that Iraq had scrapped all its WMDs. Again Washington rejected this as the standard line that did not conform to their preset conclusions – that Saddam still had WMDs enough to justify the US war against Iraq.
Thus the US campaign to configure Iraqi WMDs, if not to dislodge them, continued unabated.
In late March, US forces claimed to have stumbled on a huge chemical weapons plant near Najaf, south of Baghdad. It later turned out to be an abandoned plant containing pesticide, with no weapons.
On April 4, US soldiers discovered a few chemicals, none of them lethal, in part of the Latifiyah Explosives and Ammunition Plant in Qa Qaa. Ten days later, 11 buried containers were found in the vicinity of Karbala, but no WMDs or WMD-grade material.
Several days after that, US forces claimed to have unearthed a WMD precursor in highly unusual circumstances. News reporting on it was restricted in very contrived ways, with all the information on the supposed chemical agent and even the scientist involved remaining vague and unidentified.
A dozen 55-gallon drums were also found at that time near Bayji, north of Baghdad. The substance reportedly found in them was no more than some remains of rocket fuel.
A trailer was also found in late April, containing some laboratory equipment but no lethal chemicals or WMDs. Pressed to produce a “smoking gun” to convict, some officials have concluded that since the vehicle did not appear to them to be anything other than a mobile WMD lab as Colin Powell had already referred to, it must be part of Iraq’s thus-proven WMD programme.
On previous occasions, fertiliser and even baby milk powder were mistaken for lethal chemicals. Civilian installations including a baby milk factory were bombed.
Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix has warned that captive Iraqis may be tempted to invent stories of WMDs in return for favours as reward. This has not deterred US officials who now prefer to interrogate junior Iraqi personnel, who may also be more forthcoming in the face of reward offers.
There have meanwhile been reports of warehouses being razed and petri dishes being ordered destroyed in the final days of Saddam’s Iraq, such that anything that can be linked to or interpreted as WMDs would not exist as justification for the war. This policy in itself does not mean that Iraq possessed WMDs: proof of destruction is not destruction of proof.
While Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that Iraqi WMDs may be hard to find, he has been more insistent than most that they will eventually be found. This has led observers to expect that US officials will soon find something incriminating against Iraq, whether or not it is a WMD or Iraqi.
Bush and some Pentagon officials have steadily eased off the prospect of discovering Iraqi WMDs. Even since before the war began, Powell has on at least two occasions conceded that there may not be any Iraqi WMDs, just stored technical knowledge for producing WMDs.
The other pretext for the US invasion of Iraq, that Saddam hosted terrorist bases on Iraqi soil, has not worked out any better for Washington. A camp that was bombed in March turned out to be a base for an anti-Saddam faction, while two further attempts to “uncover” more such bases in April failed to be convincing.
Although Bush and Blair can live without the discovery of Iraqi WMDs, their electoral mandate might not be able to. Of the Americans and Britons who supported the war, many did so on the basis of Saddam’s lethal WMD stockpile and UN approval for the war.
Bush would face heated domestic and international opinion if the US went to war, defied international law and wrecked a country just to retrieve some diskettes with WMD know-how. Blair was already facing mounting criticism at home when vocal Labour Party MPs began to berate him in Parliament in March.
Discovery of any “smoking gun” now is also going to be analysed in minute detail to determine its authenticity. Both the US and Britain will also face immense pressure to permit UN inspectors to conduct an independent analysis.
And yet, any Iraqi WMDs that are discovered now will be redundant, however genuine the discovery.
This is simply because any such weapons were not known to the US or Britain when they decided to attack Iraq without the necessary evidence. The Iraqi WMD discovery would merely be a stroke of luck, or else these weapons would have been discovered earlier.
And since neither the US nor Britain knew of the existence of these WMDs before the war, the war itself was clearly not justified. Any Iraqi WMDs discovered after the event cannot serve as justification for a military decision taken in the absence of knowledge about them.
However, there is also the possibility that any WMDs discovered in Iraq may not be Iraqi. US officials have produced faked evidence for them before, so they might do so again now when the political stakes are so high.
That prospect alone is enough to justify recalling UN arms inspectors to any claim of an Iraqi WMD find. In the interest of greater credibility, UN inspectors should be in Iraq even now to anticipate any discoveries.