By Peter Morgan
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 267

The Alternative Dossier 3: An Inspector Calls

This article is over 21 years, 7 months old
'Saddam Hussein is a threat that has to be dealt with. He has twice before started wars of aggression. Over 1 million people died in them. When the weapons inspectors were evicted from Iraq in 1998 there were still enough chemical and biological weapons remaining to devastate the entire Gulf region.' Tony Blair, 10 September 2002
Issue 267

Blair and Jack Straw have repeatedly said that Unscom inspectors were evicted by the Iraqi regime in December 1998. In fact the US withdrew them. The government’s dossier admits the inspectors were withdrawn, although it does also say they were ‘effectively eject[ed]’ (part 2,14), implying they were kicked out by Iraq. It took just a few hours from the removal of the inspectors to the start of the bombing by the US and Britain:

On 7 November 1998, 15 weapons inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq leaving just a skeleton staff behind.

On 15 November 1998 the US aborted airstrikes on Iraq as the regime promised cooperation with Unscom inspectors.

On 16 December 1998 the remaining inspectors finally left.

On 17 December 1998 the US and Britain launched Operation Desert Fox.

But were inspectors neutral, simply there to find weapons and render them useless, or was there some other agenda going on? In fact the US used Unscom to collect information to try and destabilise the Iraqi regime. This is a view supported by two people who should know–Rolf Ekeus who was the executive chairman of Unscom from 1991 to 1997, and Scott Ritter who was the chief weapons inspector of Unscom from 1991 to 1998.

Ekeus gave a interview on a Swedish radio programme in July of this year where he stated that the US and other members of the UN Security Council routinely attempted to influence Unscom and succeeded in using it as a tool for their own political interests. Scott Ritter confirms that the CIA infiltrated Unscom from 1992 in order to track internal Iraqi communications. In his new book, ‘War on Iraq’, Ritter explains how the CIA operated:

‘There was certainly a lot of CIA involvement, a lot of which was legitimate. But the question becomes: who’s calling the shots? It’s one thing to build a team that incorporates CIA elements, which I did all the time–every one of my teams had CIA members in it. I needed them. They’re good… As long as all of the activities inside Iraq are consistent with the UN mandate–looking for weapons of mass destruction–you don’t have a problem. The second you start allowing inspections to be used to gather intelligence information unrelated to the mandate, you’ve discredited the entire inspection regime. Several programmes–most importantly a signals intelligence programme I designed and ran from 1996 to 1998–were allowed to be taken over by the CIA for the sole purpose of spying on Saddam.’

The US government admitted in 1999 that it used Unscom to spy on Iraq. According to a report in the Washington Post (8 January 1999), ‘The United States for nearly three years intermittently monitored the coded radio communications of President Saddam Hussein’s innermost security forces using equipment secretly installed in Iraq by the UN weapons inspectors, according to US and UN officials. In 1996 and 1997, the Iraqi communications were captured by off-the-shelf commercial equipment carried by inspectors from the organisation known as Unscom, then hand-delivered to analysis centres in Britain, Israel and the United States for interpretation, officials said.’ The US used this information to try and destabilise the Iraqi regime, and CIA operatives also provided assistance to elite guards who were plotting to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The US prepares for war

The final report by Unscom inspectors was delivered on 15 December 1998, just before the weapons inspectors were withdrawn. The US deliberately attempted to make the report highly critical. The Washington Post reported on 16 December that Clinton officials played ‘a direct role in shaping [Unscom executive chairman] Butler’s texts during multiple conversations with him’. It was this report that served as the pretext for Operation Desert Fox.

Prior to that bombing, Iraq consistently allowed inspections and surveillance to take place. Iraq agreed to long term monitoring of its facilities in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 715 in November 1993. Video cameras and chemical and temperature sensors were installed at over 250 sites in Iraq from 1994. Iraq did fail to fully cooperate with the inspectorate bodies–in particular it objected to overflights by U-2 surveillance planes and concealed the extent of past production of chemical weapons. Despite this Unscom recorded in a number of reports how there was compliance with most of its work for over seven years of intrusive inspections:

‘Iraq has sustained a good level of cooperation in the operation of the monitoring system.’

(Report by Rolf Ekens, Unscom’s executive chairman, 11 October 1996)

‘To be fair it is necessary to record that, during this period, and placed in the overall context of the Commission’s work, the majority of these inspections were conducted in Iraq without let or hindrance. Progress has also been recorded… in particular with respect to accounting for Iraq’s proscribed long-range missiles and the destruction of chemical weapons related equipment and materials.’

(Annex 1, para 33, Unscom report to the UN, 6 October 1997)

‘In statistical terms, the majority of the inspections of facilities and sites under the ongoing monitoring system were carried out with Iraq’s cooperation.’

(Report by Richard Butler, Unscom’s executive chairman, 15 December 1998, one day before the final inspectors were withdrawn)

Non-cooperation was recorded in only five out of 427 inspections in the round before inspectors were withdrawn. Many of the weapons inspectors recorded the extensive disarmament of Iraq. Ritter argued two years ago that ‘it was possible as early as 1997 to determine that, from a qualitative standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq no longer possessed any meaningful quantities of chemical or biological agents, if it possessed any at all, and the industrial means to produce these agents had either been eliminated or were subject to stringent monitoring. The same was true of Iraq’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.’ (Arms Control Today, June 2000)

Ekeus also gives some idea about how the inspections took place: ‘Unscom’s monitoring operations, which were extensive, formed a highly effective system and did not really lead to any confrontations with Iraq. Monitoring had a routine character. You went to a facility you had been to many, many times before. The facility was known in detail. The production records were available, the inspectors had a detailed list of machines and machine tools, they knew the personnel, and they came and checked off that everything was normal. They looked upon the input and the output, they looked at the raw materials brought in as to how they had been disposed, and if they saw some new engineers or some engineers missing, for instance, they would inquire.’, (Arms Control Today March 2000)

Given the history of weapons inspectors, and the fact that they were working for the CIA and sending information to Israel and the US, it’s little wonder that Iraq was reluctant to readmit them.

Sources: UNSCOM reports from

UN reports from

‘Thanks to the hard work of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom), US targeters know a lot more about the Iraqi regime today than they did during the Gulf War in 1991’

The Washington Post

The information that the CIA obtained while part of the Unscom inspection team proved very useful for the US military during Operation Desert Fox as this edited report from the Washington Post explains.

When US bombs and missiles fell on Iraq on the evening of 16 December, one of their principal targets was Saddam Hussein’s sleeping quarters on the outskirts of Baghdad. But that was only one of the sites on the military’s list of places to bomb in the sprawling Radwaniyah complex adjacent to the now vacant Saddam International Airport. The targeting list was stunning in its specificity. Bombs were dropped on separate buildings that house secret units of the infamous Special Security Organisation (SSO) and the Special Republican Guards (SRG), including the barracks of the 5th Battalion of the 1st Brigade, the 8th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, the 3rd Artillery Battalion, and the 1st Armoured Battalion of the 4th Brigade.

Thanks to the hard work of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom), US targeters know a lot more about the Iraqi regime today than they did during the Gulf War in 1991. The United States and Britain now have a diagrammatic understanding of the Iraqi government structure, as well as of the intelligence, security and transport organisations that protect the Iraqi leadership. The same mission folders that Unscom put together to inspect specific buildings and offices in its search for concealed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) became the basis for the targeting folders that missile launchers and pilots used in December.

It is clear from the target list, and from extensive communications with almost a dozen officers and analysts knowledgeable about Desert Fox planning, that the US-British bombing campaign was more than a reflexive reaction to Saddam Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with Unscom’s inspectors. The official rationale for Desert Fox may remain the ‘degrading’ of Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and the ‘diminishing’ of the Iraqi threat to its neighbours. But careful study of the target list tells another story.

Thirty five of the 100 targets were selected because of their role in Iraq’s air defence system, an essential first step in any air war, because damage to those sites paves the way for other forces and minimises casualties all around. Only 13 targets on the list are facilities associated with chemical and biological weapons or ballistic missiles, and three are southern Republican Guard bases that might be involved in a repeat invasion of Kuwait.

The heart of the Desert Fox list (49 of the 100 targets) is the Iraqi regime itself: a half-dozen palace strongholds and their supporting cast of secret police, guard and transport organisations. Some sites, such as Radwaniyah, had been bombed in 1991. Other sites, particularly ‘special’ barracks and units in and around downtown Baghdad and the outlying palaces, were bombed for the first time.

National security insiders, blessed with their unprecedented intelligence bonanza from Unscom, convinced themselves that bombing Saddam Hussein’s internal apparatus would drive the Iraqi leader around the bend. ‘We’ve penetrated your security, we’re inside your brain,’ is the way one senior administration official described the message that the US was sending Saddam Hussein.

Without the target list, such a view seems like sheer bravado. With the target list, a host of new questions arises: Is the administration’s view of Saddam Hussein’s hold on power in line with reality? And what is the feasibility, not to mention the legality, of what amounts to an aerial assassination strategy?

Unscom provides data for bombing

The origins of the Desert Fox target list go back to October [1998], when high level discussions in Washington led to the conclusion that military action was not only inevitable, but that it might actually achieve something. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Central Command (Centcom), headquartered in Tampa, began to articulate the military mission of ‘degrading’ and ‘diminishing’ Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. General Anthony Zinni, the Centcom commander, insisted that the US only bomb Iraqi sites that had been identified with a high degree of certainty, according to officers involved in the process.

Given the Unscom data flowing in, there was no end of choices. Seven broad target categories were created, including two–‘WMD security’ and ‘command and control’–that would accommodate the new intelligence reports and cover an effort to shake the Iraqi regime to its core. By November, a plan was in place. WMD targets themselves were small in number, given Zinni’s directive. The main emphasis would be on Iraq’s short-range missile programme… All of the suspected facilities–Ibn al Haytham, Karama, Al Kindi in Mosul, Shahiyat, Taji and Zaafaraniyah–were under Unscom camera monitoring. In fact, Unscom had catalogued specific pieces of irreplaceable equipment that, if destroyed, would set back any conversion effort.

Some have criticised the Desert Fox campaign for not going after suspected production sites of biological or chemical agents. The common refrain is that the US avoided such targets because of the potential for collateral damage, but this is not true. The targeters could not identify actual weapons sites with enough specificity to comply with Zinni’s directive. At a Pentagon briefing on 7 January, Zinni said the ease with which chemical and biological agents can be manufactured, particularly for terrorist type use, made bombing of potential dual-use facilities (such as pharmaceutical plants) futile. ‘There isn’t going to be anything militarily’ to eliminate or significantly degrade those capabilities, he said, ‘if they’re that easy to…establish.’

How could a 70-hour bombing campaign possibly generate an outcome that the utter defeat of the Iraqi army and tens of thousand of air strikes over 43 days failed to deliver? The answer is again in the target list–and in the administration’s belief that ever more accurate bombs and unprecedented target data can have far-reaching reverberations. Desert Fox’s most significant departure from Desert Storm is its targeting of offices associated with Saddam Hussein’s entourage and advisers, the Iraqi intelligence and Ba’ath party organisations, and the security and transport apparatus that is so essential for Saddam’s survival. Many of these top-level targets were hit in 1991 (General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls them ‘highly visible symbols of the regime’), but the 1998 campaign locked in on sites not even known eight years ago. The SSO computer centre as well as intelligence archives were targeted. In 1991, only two installations associated with the protection of Saddam Hussein were hit. In Desert Fox, this group made up 20 percent of the total of all targets. The Natural History Museum in Baghdad was hit in an attack on the adjacent State Radio and Television Establishment.

More than a dozen eavesdropping and jamming units, telephone exchanges, and radio and television transmitters were attacked. Part of the goal of disrupting telephone and television service was to impede military communications and undermine Iraqi propaganda efforts. But attacking secret police archives and intelligence stations also has the purpose of disrupting Baghdad’s ability to monitor the internal situation.

Desert Fox pleased many active and retired officers who played a role in the 1991 air war. These Desert Storm insiders say they feel vindicated by the administration’s decision to target the Iraqi leadership. They felt they were unable to pursue Saddam Hussein in earnest in 1991, and argue that the US and the world is still paying the price for Washington’s hesitation at the time.

But there is also disquiet. ‘A good concept, but too little, too late,’ said one senior officer. Not only was Desert Fox constrained by time, breadth and the sheer physical destruction possible with 1,000 weapons, but a host of other priorities–to minimise civilian deaths, prevent US casualties and deflect political fallout–undercut the overall goal.

To administration officials, the plight of the Iraqi people is the only hot-button issue that could undermine their ‘topple’ strategy. Saddam Hussein and his cronies have built installations and institutions to insulate themselves and their lives from Iraqi society at large. Saddam’s guardians have been showered by extra pay and treatment. To inflict further harm on this privileged inner circle, CIA analysts added the Tikrit food warehouse and a distribution manifold on the Gulf coast south of the Basra refinery to the bombing list–part of an ‘economic strangulation’ plan to disrupt the illicit cash and rations pipeline.

Two pitiful targets to achieve that goal? More than anything else, it is the very precision and economy of Desert Fox that ultimately undermined its true purpose. ‘The Iraqis are professional cruise missile recipients,’ one recently retired four-star general observed in December as bulldozers and labourers arrived at bombed sites on the Monday after Desert Fox ended. With almost half the population unemployed, rebuilding is as close as anything to a national jobs programme in Iraq.

Centcom estimates that it will take Iraq from one to two months to restore the smuggling operation from the Basra refinery. And then it will undoubtedly be bombed again.

Source: ‘The Washington Post’ Sunday 17 January 1999


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