The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism Home ArticlesLettersArchives
Empire Notes Needs Your Help
More info: How to Help

Empire Notes

"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

Excerpt from Full Spectrum Dominance -- Weapons Inspections 1991-1998

Weapons Inspections 1991-1998

The impression of weapons inspections fostered by the Bush administration and much of the press was one of a Keystone Cops affair, with hapless inspectors seriously making their rounds while gloating Iraqis smuggled everything incriminating out the back, returning it all once the inspectors were gone. In this official version, inspections didn’t work because they required Iraqi cooperation, which was not forthcoming, and finally broke down completely when Iraq “expelled” the inspectors in December 1998—in some variants, this expulsion is what triggered the Desert Fox bombing campaign of that same month.[i]

            The truth is rather different, but one must begin with the recognition that Iraq did indeed do its best to reveal as little as possible of its programs and consistently tried to use partial compliance as a bargaining chip. Inspections started in early June of 1991 and by June 23, Iraqi officials had held up at gunpoint inspectors trying to intercept Iraqi vehicles taking Calutrons (nuclear-related equipment) out of an inspection site. In March 1992 Iraq admitted that it had concealed the existence of 89 ballistic missiles and some chemical weapons, but claimed to have destroyed them unilaterally in the summer of 1991. This unilateral destruction persisted as an issue; toward the end, the main inspection effort was not to find weapons but simply to find documentation so that claims of destruction could be verified. ’

            When UNSCR 715, setting forth modalities for Ongoing Monitoring and Verification, was passed in October 1991, Iraq refused to accept its provisions for more than two years. In fall 1997, Iraq prevented UNSCOM from inspecting several sites on the basis that they were “presidential sites” associated with national sovereignty and the security of the head of state, not with disarmament. In general, as new discoveries were made, Iraq repeatedly amended earlier “Full, Final, and Complete” disclosures. Numerous Security Council resolutions were passed requiring Iraq, under threat of force, to start complying.

            This partial lack of cooperation did not, however, make it impossible for inspectors to do their job. Inspectors had broad powers not only to visit sites but to take soil and atmospheric samples and access surveillance photos and other information accumulated by other nations’ intelligence agencies, including those of the United States. Of the three kinds of WMD, nuclear weapons programs are easiest to detect because of the radiation involved; chemical weapons are next, because the chemicals involved can often be detected from area sampling. Biological agents can easily be hidden in someone’s freezer, but facilities to weaponize biological agents are much harder to hide—and effective weaponization is very difficult.

             So, for example, in July 1995 Iraq was compelled to admit the existence of an offensive biological weapons program. This admission is often misrepresented as being a consequence of the defection of Hussein Kamel, Hussein’s son-in-law and minister of industry and minerals, not of inspections, but this defection occurred in August 1995, so could hardly have caused an event that happened a month earlier.

            According to the March 1999 Amorim report[ii] prepared for the Security Council, the achievements of UNSCOM and the IAEA included, but were not limited to, removal of all “weapon usable nuclear material” by February 1994; destruction of all or nearly all imported missiles, missile launchers, chemical and biological warheads; destruction of over 88,000 chemical munitions, nearly 5,000 tons of chemical weapon agents and precursor chemicals; and destruction of al-Hakam, the main biological weapons production complex, along with much biological growth media and equipment. Although there were some unresolved issues regarding some weapons of minor destructive capacity, like 550 mustard-gas-filled artillery shells that Iraq claimed were lost after the Gulf War, the report concluded: “Although important elements still have to be resolved, the bulk of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes has been eliminated.”

            Indeed, according to former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, speaking in the fall of 2002, “the primary problem at this point is one of accounting. Iraq has destroyed 90–95 percent of its weapons of mass destruction. Okay. We have to remember that this missing 5-10 percent doesn’t necessarily constitute a threat. It doesn’t even constitute a weapons program.”[iii] As of the termination of inspections, according to Ritter, “Iraq presented a WMD-based threat to no one.”[iv]

            So despite incomplete Iraqi cooperation, UNSCOM inspectors did the lion’s share of what they had to do, with mostly technical issues remaining to be resolved. Next, we must consider the actual reasons that weapons inspections broke down.

            From the beginning, the United States tried to make sure that there was no road map pointing to a clear end of “containment.” U.S. policy has often been conceptualized as “moving goalposts,” but, in fact, there never were any goalposts. The refusal to specify what actions would be sufficient to merit lifting of sanctions, combined with an “all stick and no carrot” approach in which there were no rewards for partial Iraqi compliance, gave Iraq no incentive to comply fully with disarmament requirements.

            The general belief implicit in the American public dialogue has always been that had the government of Iraq simply complied, sanctions would have been lifted—a remarkable belief considering the repeated public statements by U.S. government officials to the contrary. For example, on May 20, 1991, seven weeks after passage of UNSCR 687, James Baker said, “We are not interested in seeing a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.”[v] In 1994, Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The U.S. does not believe that Iraq’s compliance with Paragraph 22 of Resolution 687 is enough to justify lifting the embargo.”[vi] Perhaps most damaging because of its timing was then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s statement on March 26, 1997, that “we do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions … And the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.”

            The inspections regime started to break down in 1997 and 1998, as Iraq grew tired of the lack of progress on sanctions (the breakdown is covered at greater length in Milan Rai’s excellent book War Plan Iraq).

            A crisis was narrowly averted in February 1998 when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan flew to Baghdad to obtain an agreement on inspecting so-called “presidential sites,” something the Iraqis had been trying to prevent.

             In August, frustrated with the lack of progress on sanctions (in particular, by its inability to sell oil), Iraq decided to stop cooperating with inspections until its concerns were addressed, although it allowed monitoring to continue. Shortly thereafter, Kofi Annan undertook a comprehensive review of the sanctions, in which he considered partly shifting the burden of proof onto the inspectors and also setting some kind of reasonable timetable for ending the sanctions.[vii]

            Then, on October 30, the Security Council sent a letter that undermined these attempted reforms; in particular, the council, “omitted the guarantee that Iraq would be released from sanctions on a certain date.”[viii] On October 31, likely assuming that the sanctions would continue forever, Iraq decided to halt all UNSCOM operations in Iraq.

            This breakdown of cooperation is usually claimed by official U.S. sources to be entirely Iraq’s fault. The Financial Times, on the other hand, clearly stated at the time that “Mr. Saddam’s [sic] decision to cripple UNSCOM was triggered by the U.S. refusal explicitly to commit itself to lifting the oil embargo if Iraq complied with disarmament requirements.”[ix]

[i] The Desert Fox bombing campaign, carried out by U.S. and U.K. forces, involved more than 400 cruise missiles and numerous conventional bombs. It is covered in some detail later in the book.

[ii] S/1999/356, Celso Amorim, March 30,1999, on the Web at

[iii] War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want you to Know, William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter, New York: Context Books, 2002, p. 29.

[iv] “The Case for Iraq’s Qualitative Disarmament,” Scott Ritter, Arms Control Today June 2000,

[v] The Institute for Public Accuracy has a useful compilation of quotes at

[vi] Warren Christopher, New York Times, April 29, 1994, cited in “Neighbors, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran After the Gulf Wars,” Dilip Hiro, New York: Rutledge, 2001, p. 76.

[vii] The Greatest Threat, Richard Butler, New York: Public Affairs 2000, p. 176.

[viii] Op. cit., p. 185. This story is developed in more detail in War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War on Iraq, Milan Rai, London: Verso 2002, pp. 47–54.

[ix] Financial Times, November 2, 1998, cited in Rai, p. 48.

Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies. He can be reached at
Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond"Report from Baghdad -- Hospital Closings and U.S. War Crimes "Report from Baghdad -- Winning Hearts and Minds"Report from Fallujah -- Destroying a Town in Order to "Save" it"Report from Baghdad -- Opening the Gates of Hell"War on Terrorism" Makes Us All Less Safe Bush -- Is the Tide Turning?Perle and FrumIntelligence Failure Kerry vs. Dean SOU 2004: Myth and Reality