Iraq under Inspection

Iraq under Inspection

Theme: This article analyses the implications of UN Security Council resolution 1441, the Iraqui declaration on its weapons of mass destruction, and the progress made by the inspection team.

Summary: The Bush Administration has subjected its plan to strip Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction to a twin compromise, part domestic, part international. This led to the adoption of resolution 1441. The weapons inspection provided for in that resolution is unlikely to achieve anything unless it finds Iraqui defectors prepared to risk sharing their knowledge or is given classified information from the intelligence services. This poses a delicate problem for the US, as it might reveal priority targets in the event of an attack. The other evidence provided to the Security Council, Iraq’s declaration on its prohibited weapons, lacks all credibility. That leaves nothing but the report the inspectors are due to make on 27 January.

Analysis: Washington makes no secret of its belief that Iraqui weapons of mass destruction cannot be eliminated without the removal of Saddam. Seven years of inspections in the teeth of Iraqui resistance, breach of 16 UN Security Council resolutions and almost as many false declarations on Iraq’s illegal arsenal have led the US to deny Saddam the benefit of the doubt, if he ever had it.

From a purely legal standpoint, Washington points out that the 1991 cease-fire was conditional on compliance with resolution 687, the first of the 16 resolutions calling on the Iraqui regime to hand over its most lethal weapons. Since then the position is, technically, that of a cease-fire in which fighting may resume upon breach by the defeated party of the conditions under which hostilities were first broken off. But the Americans have not followed this argument through to its logical conclusion, nor have they employed it in their discussions on the suitable modus operandi for disarming Iraq. Clearly they would have liked a new UN Security Council resolution authorising the war as punishment for reiterated non-compliance but, politically, that was a non-starter.

The path trodden so far, that of seeking UN backing, is a consequence of a dual compromise, part domestic, part international. On the domestic front, the hawks viewed the legal route as a dead-end and, in the hypersensitive atmosphere created by 11-S, refused to subject US security requirements to the compromises and interest of the international community. In fact, they regretted that in 1991 keeping the anti-Saddam coalition together became an end in itself which in part prevented the logic of war from reaching its ultimate consequences, the overthrow of Saddam. They saw that as an error that had been successfully avoided in Afghanistan – to the notable detriment of the Atlantic Alliance, kept strictly on the sidelines – and one that should not be consented to now. But the president inclined to the position taken by Powell and their ally Blair, viewing as prohibitive the high cost of a war that the greater part of world opinion would hold ilegitimate.

The search for defensible legal grounds thus led to the second compromise, before the international community, beginning a long-drawn-out negotiation with the permanent members of the Security Council, with the United States and Britain on one side and France and Russia on the other, the latter side enjoying the more or less tacit support of China. It was taken for granted that the purpose of a new resolution would be to restart the inspection process halted abruptly by Baghdad at the end of 1998. But what the Americans and British would have preferred was a once-and-for-all resolution leaving no loophole open to the Baas regime in Iraq and authorising war in the event of either obstruction to the work of the inspectors or a damning inspection report. The French and the Russians wanted to dust off and impose the terms of earlier resolutions and rule out any threat of war, the mere mention of which should be subject to a second resolution to be debated only after receipt of the report by the directors of the UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Throughout the weeks of debate Iraq kept up a delaying strategy aimed at exploiting the differences between the five permanent members and the widespread opposition to any unilateral move. It accepted inspections one day, but rejected them the next, bowing to international pressure only in extremis. Its last-ditch rally was over the unconditional nature of its compliance, which Iraq conceded only when all other avenues had been closed off, but attacked immediately thereafter with quibbles designed to sap its very essence.

The compromise wording agreed to by the permanent members of the Security Council was eventually forthcoming the day after mid-term elections had given the Republicans an absolute majority in both houses, thereby strengthening Bush’s domestic position. Resolution 1441 imposed on Iraq an inspection procedure that was harsher than anything that had gone before; it demanded total cooperation from the Iraqui authorities and left nothing outside its remit. To remove the last shred of ambiguity, the text of the resolution repeated monotonously almost identical phrases, such as the one stressing that Iraq’s declaration on all its weapons development programmes should be “accurate, full and complete”.  However, it made not the slightest mention of what consequences would follow if Iraq obstructed the UNMOVIC experts or if it attempted to hide prohibited arms or the means of producing them. That matter was reserved for a second debate in the Security Council. 

That postponement was not the only compromise reached. Despite its harsh words, the resolution respected a number of taboos, with the result that ambiguity remained. As Saddam’s negotiators were forced further and further into a corner and abandoned one after another their angry opposition to resolution 1441, they never failed to make the rejoinder that acceptance could in no way jeopardise the sovereignty and dignity of the Iraqui people. This was apparently overlooked by the diplomats who drafted the resolution of the international body. Perhaps they dismissed it as part of the empty rhetoric designed to save face, on a par with Saddam’s gesture of having his docile Iraqui parliament unanimously reject resolution 1441, only to accept it himself immediately afterwards as a dramatic manifestation of his supreme good will.

Yet that claim of sovereignty and national dignity, which in any other international context would be the most normal, obvious thing in the world, in the peculiar circumstances Iraq now finds itself in represents not just a constraint on what was supposed to have been accepted unconditionally, but a flagrant contradiction. It is as if the convicted man says to the judge that he fully accepts the sentence handed down to him but under no circumstances will it affect either his good name or his hallowed freedom. Draconian weapons inspections signify, willy-nilly, a frontal attack on Iraqui sovereignty and can only be justified by the unworthiness of a regime in breach of all the canons of human rights, one that invades its neighbours, tramples on its international undertakings, practises all forms of illegal warfare, countenances and fosters various forms of terrorism, tortures, lies, cheats and, in exaggeratedly Hobbesian pose, is prepared to go to whatever lengths its fellow nations will allow.

To have gone the whole hog and eliminated all ambiguity from the text of resolution 1441 would have meant telling Saddam that his intolerable behaviour left the international community no option but to radically reduce the sovereign powers of his country. But such is not the customary language of international diplomacy. The taboo was too strong. Only individuals such as Saddam are permitted to cross that line; his grudging acceptance of the resolution was rife with insults aimed at America and Britain.

There is also considerable ambiguity and confusion in the terms employed in instrumenting the Security Council resolution. Iraq was given a week to make its response. But to talk at all of acceptance was inappropriate. In reality, provisions agreed upon under chapter 7 of the UN charter (as is the case with those imposed on Iraq although not those imposed on Israel with which they are frequently compared), are obligatory for all members of the international organisation; their rejection constitutes a flagrant breach of the solemn commitments entered into by signing the United Nations founding charter. Strictly speaking, there can be no option as to accepting or rejecting those demands, just as the judge cannot allow the condemned man to determine whether or not he will submit to punishment. All that requires to be known is whether he submits to punishment or punishment must be forcibly imposed. The problem with the United Nations system and with international law in general, one that casts serious doubts on its status as law per se, is the absence of means to impose its rulings, as the relationship between the Security Council and Iraq, together with countless other cases, makes so abundantly clear. The only response of the world’s overriding government body to repeated violation of its resolutions is a further resolution calling on the culprit to please obey now what was not obeyed then.

The question now is whether resolution 1441 proves to be just another link in an unending chain or the final and definitive word. If the Americans accept it as a diplomatic manoeuvre designed to shore up the ramshackle anti-Saddam coalition, it is because they consider it unlikely that the inspectors will obtain any concrete evidence. If Baghdad resisted as long as it could, it was because it feared that with the inspectors’ noses in every nook and cranny, something might show up. If it eventually accepted, it was because it had no choice and it deemed the risk small. It was reasonably confident in its skill in concealment, perfected over a period of twelve years, intensively in the last four when there were no prying eyes to molest it.

We can assume that in the two months of discussions prior to the resolution of the Security Council Iraq put the finishing touches to the concealment of all programmes aimed at acquiring weapons of mass destruction and missiles, placing all hardware and tell-tale accessories in safe hideaways. This enables it to comply with international demands for cooperation with the UN mission, at least in the negative sense of not obstructing the inspections. It is a safe bet that the inspectors’ labours will be fruitless. Almost certainly, nothing will be found in the approximately 1,500 installations on the UNMOVIC list. The needle is not in the haystack, nor anywhere else anyone could possibly trip over it. The only hope is someone inside the country who is prepared to talk. After all, that was the source of the significant findings in the 1990s.

For this reason, a new feature of resolution 1441 is its specific mention of inspectors’ rights to interview people, if necessary by taking them and their families out of the country to avoid the tremendous reprisals the Iraqui regime is fond of taking against its opponents’ relations,. If in the past it was whispered communications and outright desertions that played a decisive role in revealing the existence of what Saddam denied, this resolution at least favours a repeat performance. However, the probability of this actually occurring remains remote. The risks run by anyone prepared to talk are enormous. Saddam, particularly since his defeat in the Gulf War, has retribalised the country as fast as he can in order to tighten his grip on society and ensure that the number of people liable to reprisals can be counted in their hundreds, if not thousands. Although at the time of writing the inspectors have not tried field interviews to any significant extent, a pattern has already emerged: interviewees refuse to talk unless a representative of the regime is present.

The other source of progress in the inspections was intelligence provided by those countries interested in the success of the work of the United Nations, However, at present, the Americans and the British are in a difficult position. They have gone on record as saying they have certain knowledge that after the withdrawal of the last UN mission at the end of 1998 the Iraqui regime continued to develop chemical and biological weapons, together with its nuclear and missile-based delivery programmes. Yet they have provided precious little evidence of this. This damages their credibility. The main problem US policy faces is that the world fails to see danger from a country as harrased and poor as Iraq. And yet in a country such as Spain, with one of the highest levels of opposition to the war, 61% of respondents say they would support war “if we knew that Iraq was developing nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction”. (BRIE: Barómetro del Real Instituto Elcano, December 2002).

The reluctance to provide details that would convince the public is not only, or mainly, the traditional coyness with which all intelligence services treat their sources. The problem now is much more serious. The depôts and production centres of this dangerous armoury constitute one of the principal targets of the bombing campaign that marks the start of any war. If the United States reveals where they are, when the balloon goes up, they’ll be gone. Also, much material of this type is probably concealed in places where bombing is unthinkable: under schools, hospitals, mosques, etc. In fact, in the last few years, the regime’s building frenzy has switched from palaces to mosques. This could be justified as ideological reorientation of what was a lay regime to exploit the nation’s deep-seated religious vein. But in some cases the old and new religious complexes could be called upon to fulfil a very different purpose.

Without inside information or outside intelligence the inspectors cannot be expected to achieve much; indeed, less now than ever before. Baghdad is therefore free to let the UN teams wander aimlessly round the country. It lets the world see how keen the regime is to help and provides an opportunity for denouncing Iraq’s enemies.

However, at the end of the second week of January the regime began to accuse the inspectors of spying. This takes us back to the ambiguity in resolution 1441 as a result of respecting international conventions that are out of place in dealing with a regime such as that of Saddam Hussein. In the spirit of the clearly humiliating and extraordinary sanctions applied to Iraq is the clear idea that non-transparency in any form is suspicious and that only total frankness will satisfy the international community. More or less implicitly, the resolution is telling Saddam that his best plant would be to have no military secrets for people to want to spy into. Because what the inspectors really are is legal spies. As the resolution expressly says that they are to be subject to no restrictions, it is difficult to see what limits can be imposed on what they spy into.

This change of tack on the part of Iraq is worrying. Iraq tried at one stage to use the Security Council envoys as its alibi. And it is true that the inspectors have made no secret of the fact that they have so far failed to find anything. On the other hand, however, they have expressed their keen disappointment at the declaration that Saddam made on his arsenal. The member countries of the Security Council have seconded this sentiment, something that to a certain extent will determine their position in any future Council debate. The Iraqui change of tone, with accusations of espionage, appears to indicate a desire for open confrontation with UNMOVIC or the IAEA. It may even be preparing for the expulsion or, worse still, one of the objections of the American supporters of direct action could come true: the use of the inspectors as hostages.

One of Saddam’s many manoeuvres is that of bringing in international volunteers to act as human shields against the expected invaders. So far he is not having much success. Were he prepared to use inspectors accused of spying in such a manner, it could create a serious problem for US military staff.  In 1991 he detained dozens of foreign nationals for several weeks. In the end he released them, convinced that the damage to his international image was not compensated by any advantages he could hope to gain. Almost certainly he repented of his decision later. One of the concerns over the next few weeks is whether he will be prepared to take such a step a second time.

Another important question mark is whether the Americans decide to reveal an item of information allowing the inspectors the opportunity of making a significant find to show the Saddam regime in its true colours. However, it is not easy to see what the net result of such a find would be. Those who radically oppose the war either on principle or for their own interests would doubtless argue that the discovery demonstrated the effectiveness of the inspectors and that they should be given all the time they need to continue their work.

In the absence of conclusive proof that the Iraqui regime has been deceiving the international community, the main item of evidence before the members of the Security Council as of 27 January, when Messrs Hans Blix and El Baradei, the heads of the two teams of inspectors, are due to present their interim report, will be the declaration presented by the Iraqui government on 7 December.

Until that date Irak had totally denied possession of any prohibited item or the wherewithall to procure it. It maintained this position in its declaration. The nearly 12,000 pages of that document are essentially re-hashed material that goes back to at least four years ago, to the time of the last inspection period. When those inspections were halted, the UN mission, UNSCOM, had certain knowledge of tons of chemical and biological products and the equipment for their manufacture, plus materials for a nuclear warhead programme, and a number of medium-range Scud missiles (about 20) whose existence they considered proven although they had been unable to locate and destroy them.

According to the declaration by the Iraqui government, all this has long since disappeared, and all research, development and production programmes were cancelled. However, there is not one single documentary proof of such a massive dismantling operation. Meanwhile, it gives highly unsatisfactory explanations for its known efforts of the last four years to acquire abroad, under the counter, materials capable of being used in chemical, biological and nuclear arms and missile-based delivery systems. The goodwill towards the Saddam regime required to accept these explanations at face value is quite simply immense.

None of the people who decide things in the Security Council has expressed satisfaction at the contents of those 12,000 pages; the United States stated bluntly that they constitute a breach of Saddam’s agreement to accept the terms of resolution 1441. It is not, however, prepared to take the unilateral step of considering that this latest example of trickery is sufficient to justify armed intervention. So, all hangs now on the report the inspectors are due to present on 27 January and on how the Security Council evaluates it.

Conclusion: For political rather than legal motives, the United States took its proposal to force Iraq to disarm, as laid down in sixteen UN resolutions, to the Security Council. The text of the Security Council resolution and the procedure agreed on to force Iraq to comply reveals the ambiguity and contradictions typical of international organisations. The way the inspections have progressed to date reveals, similarly, their limitations and impotence. Following presentation of the inspectors’ report on the result of their labours so far and their evaluation of Iraq’s claims, the Security Council will have no option but to face up to its duty to maintain peace based on respect for its own rulings.

Manuel Coma
Senior Analyst, Security and Defence Area, Real Instituto Elcano