The war against Iraq divided opinion throughout the world and generated a maelstrom of spin and counterspin. The man at the eye of the storm, and arguably the only key player to emerge from it with his integrity intact, was Hans Blix, head of the UN weapons inspection team.
This is Dr. Blix’s account of what really happened during the months leading up to the declaration of war in March 2003. In riveting descriptions of his meetings with Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Kofi Annan, he conveys the frustrations, the tensions, the pressure and the drama as the clock ticked toward the fateful hour. In the process, he asks the vital questions about the war: Was it inevitable? Why couldn’t the U.S. and UK get the backing of the other member states of the UN Security Council? Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? What does the situation in Iraq teach us about the propriety and efficacy of policies of preemptive attack and unilateral action?
Free of the agendas of politicians and ideologues, Blix is the plainspoken, measured voice of reason in the cacophony of debate about Iraq. His assessment of what happened is invaluable in trying to understand both what brought us to the present state of affairs and what we can learn as we try to move toward peace and security in the world after Iraq.
About the Author
Hans Blix was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997 and was a member of Sweden's delegation to the United Nations from 1961 to 1981. From 2000 to 2003, he was the executive director of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), supervising international inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq until the inspections were suspended in March 2003. Blix has been named chairman of the newly formed International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, which began its work in January 2004. He lives in Sweden.
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By Hans Blix
PantheonCopyright © 2004 Hans Blix
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Chapter OneDisarming Iraq:
Moments of Truth? Invasion Instead of Inspection
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 16, 2003, I was in my office on the thirty-first floor of the United Nations Secretariat building in New York, the headquarters of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq (UNMOVIC). Some of my close collaborators had joined me to put the final touches on a work program I was to submit to the Security Council.
When our commission was established by a Security Council resolution in December 1999, the Council had recognized that there might still be weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, despite the fact that a great deal of disarmament had been accomplished through UN inspections after the end of the Gulf War in 1991. In November 2002, a new round of inspections had been initiated to identify key remaining tasks in the disarming of Iraq.
Although the inspection organization was now operating at full strength and Iraq seemed as determined to give it prompt access everywhere, the United States appeared determined to replace our inspection force with an invasion army. After the terror attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, a policy of containment-keeping Saddam Hussein in his box-and ensuring the disarmament of Iraq through UN inspections was deemed no longer acceptable.
The people around me were all solid professionals coming from different parts of the world. There was Dimitri Perricos, probably the world's most experienced inspector. A Greek and by profession a chemist, he had more than twenty years of experience with international nuclear inspections-in Iraq, North Korea, South Africa and many other places. He was the head of operations. Muttusamy Sanmuganathan, known to all as Sam, was from Sri Lanka. Both Dimitri and Sam had worked closely with me for many years in Vienna, when I was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Ewen Buchanan, a Scot, was our manager of media relations and institutional memory. For years he had been a political expert and the spokesman of the previous inspection authority, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). There was Torkel Stiernlöf, who had been stationed in Baghdad and knew Arabic. He was about to return to his job at the foreign ministry in Stockholm after six intense months as my executive assistant. Lastly, there was Torkel's successor, Olof Skoog, an ambassador at the early age of 35 and on loan to me.
The military invasion of Iraq was all but announced and here we were at the UN sketching a peaceful way to try to ensure the country's disarmament! The military force, whose buildup had begun in the summer of 2002 and had been an essential reason why Iraq had accepted the inspectors back, had reached invasion strength and was now waiting to be deployed.
In the Security Council, all efforts to reach agreement on what might be demanded of Iraq in the next few weeks had collapsed. Proposals had been made by the British that Saddam Hussein should go before Iraqi television and declare his determination to disarm and to cooperate fully with the inspectors. The declaration would be accompanied by Iraq's fulfillment of a number of specific disarmament tasks within a very short time-perhaps ten days. (The approach had some similarity to the British efforts which ten months later would prompt Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, to declare that Libya was stopping all efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and would open up for thorough inspection.) The U.S./UK would consider themselves authorized to take armed action against Iraq if they determined that Iraq was in non-fulfillment of the demands.
While the guidelines in the December 1999 UNMOVIC resolution were perfectly valid and called for a work program covering a first period of 120 days of inspections, the U.S., the UK and Spain had been taking their cues from Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted on November 8, 2002. In their reading, this resolution gave Iraq only a limited time and a last opportunity to cooperate to attain disarmament or else face "serious consequences." That limited time, in their view, had now expired. Others in the Security Council thought the process of inspections required more time. They were not ready, at this stage, to authorize "serious consequences"-armed action. Most member states of the Council were of the view that such a decision was for the Council collectively, not for individual members, as the U.S. and the UK insisted.
On this Sunday, U.S. president George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar Lopez had met for an hour on the Azores islands in the middle of the Atlantic and, for the record, made a last appeal to reluctant members of the Security Council to go along with the draft resolution on Iraq. Blair had stressed that they had gone an extra mile for peace, but Bush seemed already to be describing the blessings that would follow from armed action.
Most observers felt the war was now a certainty-and, indeed, it came. Although I thought the probability was very high, I was also, even at this very late date, aware that unexpected things can happen. I remembered how, in July 1991, after confrontations, the Iraqis had sent the IAEA a note admitting that they had tried several methods of enriching uranium. In October 1998, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, had secured an important concession from Iraq, prompting U.S. president Bill Clinton to call back bombers that had been sent to punish Iraq for its lack of cooperation. If, in the current situation, Saddam Hussein had made the kind of dramatic speech the British suggested, and offered quickly to solve a number of issues, there might well have been a suspension of the marching and flying orders and, instead, intensified inspections. Saddam did make a speech on his son's television channel, but it was not the dramatic gesture that the situation called for. In it, he noted that Iraq had had weapons of mass destruction in the past, but that it had none now.
As we were sitting around the table in my office, the telephone rang. It was Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf in Washington, calling to advise me that it was time to withdraw our inspectors from Iraq. No further notice would be issued and expeditious action was suggested.
Preparations for the Withdrawal of Inspectors
We had been preparing for this situation since the end of February, and in the previous few weeks had deliberately decreased the total number of our staff in Iraq. The chartered helicopters had already been removed by their owners. We had one airplane sitting in Baghdad and another was chartered to enable us to assist the UN by airlifting staff dealing with humanitarian assistance. Jeeps and buses for land transport would also be available, if this were to prove necessary.
It was now around 3 p.m. this Sunday in New York, and 11 p.m. in Baghdad. If Dr. Miroslav Gregovic, the head of our mission in Baghdad, were instructed immediately, the first planeload of staff would leave Baghdad the following morning. I was anxious to bring the people for whom I was responsibile to security as soon as possible. However, I was not the only one with responsibility. As secretary general, Kofi Annan had the highest managerial responsibility for all UN staff in Iraq. My colleague Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, was responsible for the nuclear inspectors in Baghdad. I phoned both. Mohamed did not want to hasten the process. He was anxious that the withdrawal should not look like a retreat.
Although the secretary general did not need permission from the Security Council to issue an order of withdrawal, he wanted to inform the Council before he gave the instruction. He decided that he would do so at a meeting the Council was scheduled to hold on Monday morning. This meant that the withdrawal could not take place until Tuesday morning. I was not happy about the delay, but I assumed Kofi had reasons to be confident that this delay did not increase the risks.
Security Council, March 17: Resolution Authorizing War Withdrawn from Vote
Our inspectors in Iraq continued to work on Monday, March 17. They supervised the destruction of two Al Samoud 2 missiles, bringing the total number destroyed to seventy-two. They conducted a private interview with a biological scientist, bringing the total number of such private interviews to eleven. Inspection teams visited a dairy factory 140 kilometers north of Baghdad and two sites northwest of Baghdad. I worried about the risk of any hitches in the arrangements for their withdrawal on Tuesday morning. We had earlier received assurances from the Iraqi side, but I remembered that, in 1990, hostages had been taken.
The Security Council met at 10 a.m. To my dismay, Kofi Annan did not announce the withdrawal of UN staff from Iraq. It was already 6 p.m. in Baghdad and every hour's delay in issuing instructions from New York would make the preparations for departure more difficult.
The tone in the Council was not combative or acrimonious. The struggle was over. The path of inspection had been blocked by the U.S., the UK and Spain, and a resolution implicitly blessing armed intervention had been blocked by the majority of states in the Security Council. The Azores meeting and all the working of telephones during the weekend had not brought any change in the positions of governments. The UK said that the draft resolution, which it had sponsored in the Council, would not be put to a vote. This was a tacit admission that it could not have passed. If the resolution had been submitted to a vote and rejected, the negative vote would have further undermined the doubtful claim by the sponsors that earlier resolutions by the Council authorized them to use armed force if and when they deemed that Iraq was in non-fulfillment.
Even though the UK and the U.S. pointed to the threat of a veto from France as the reason for this debacle-ignoring the possibility that China and Russia might have joined France-a majority of the Council had, in fact if not in form, refused to legitimize armed action. The UK persisted in stating that although the chances for a peaceful solution were now slim, Saddam could still take action to save the situation. The U.S. confirmed the advice that the UN should take expeditious action to withdraw staff.
France declared its opposition to any resolution that would authorize force and rejected the view that individual members could use armed force without Council authorization. France wanted UNMOVIC to present its work program for inspections and suggested the Council meet-perhaps at ministerial level, as Russia had urged-on Wednesday to approve the program. A time line should be set after which the Council would evaluate the results of the inspections. Mexico said there was at the time no justification for the use of force in Iraq. Angola said it had lived with war and insisted on the need to exhaust all peaceful means.
War Justified by Iraq's Failure to Disarm; Moment of Truth Expected
In a televised speech on the evening of Monday, March 17, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq with his family within forty-eight hours. Vice President Dick Cheney said that an offer by Iraq to disarm was no longer an option. Referring to Saddam Hussein, he said, "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." His declaration was as firm as it was unfounded.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was more nuanced. At a press conference on March 17, he said the U.S. had become concerned about Iraq's sincerity shortly after the adoption of the new resolution in November 2002. The 12,000-page declaration Iraq had submitted a month later had, he stated, been an incomplete and untruthful rendering of their weapons programs. The U.S. had cooperated loyally with and assisted the inspectors. Despite some improvements, Iraq had not, however, provided the kind of cooperation demanded. The resolution which the U.S., the UK and Spain had now decided not to put to the vote would have given Iraq yet another last opportunity, but it had been blocked by France's threatened veto. So, although the UN would remain an important institution, the Security Council, in this case, had not met the test.
Perhaps it was convenient to blame the diplomatic failure on France, but it was evident that a majority of the members of the Council were against armed action at this juncture, though none of the states had excluded agreement on it at a subsequent stage. It is an interesting notion that when a small minority has been rebuffed by a strong majority, it is the majority that has failed the test.
There was no reference in Colin Powell's statement to the U.S. asserting a right to strike preemptively against Iraq. Instead, his legal justification given for the armed action was the same as that claimed by the UK: namely, that Iraq had not fulfilled its obligations under binding Security Council resolutions to disarm and that this entitled individual members of the Council to take action without the need for any collective decision by the Council.
With an expression used also by other U.S. spokesmen, Powell declared that the window on diplomacy was closing and that the "moment of truth" was arriving. Armed action, indeed, stands in contrast to diplomacy-but it does not necessarily stand for truth. There might be more to the saying "The first casualty in war is truth." Nor do I find it appropriate to make diplomacy the opposite of truth-to project it as lies or illusion. Diplomacy will often use language that understates the divergence of positions so as to minimize the gaps that have to be bridged and make reconciliation less difficult, but lying is not a part of diplomacy-at least not of good diplomacy.
The most important truth that U.S. spokesmen had in mind and expected to be revealed through the war was undoubtedly the existence of stocks of biological and chemical weapons and other prohibited items, and the people and programs related to them.
Withdrawal of UN Staff and Submission of Work Program to the Council
On Tuesday, March 18, Dimitri Perricos phoned at 7 a.m. and told me that our first plane from Baghdad had arrived in Cyprus and that the second was due a little later. All had gone well! They had even been able to take along sensitive equipment. The Iraqis had been most helpful throughout the operation. What a relief! Our inspectors would now stay in Larnaca for some days before being released to go back to their home countries. As they remained formally in our service until their contracts expired, they would still be available in the rather unlikely case that UNMOVIC would be asked to perform some verification function during the coming occupation.
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An Interview with Hans Blix
Barnes & Noble.com: Your book is entitled Disarming Iraq. Considering that the UN has pretty much determined that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) after 1994, it's apparent that your inspections worked. Do you feel personally vindicated?
Hans Blix: It is of importance to the world and not just a matter of personal satisfaction to me that inspections in Iraq from 1991 and onward, together with military, economic, and diplomatic pressures, in fact contained the Saddam regime and deterred it from keeping or rebuilding WMD capacity. The inspections that UNMOVIC (United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission) carried out from November 2002 to March 2003 and our analyses of them pointed to many open questions but did not conclude that there were any WMDs.
We were more critically minded than some governments and avoided rushing to conclusions. We warned about the weakness of some of the evidence they referred to, but our comments were ignored. I feel more sadness than satisfaction about that.
B&N.com: In February 2004, the CIA admitted that it did not share all of the intelligence it had amassed on potential arms sites with the UN. How did you feel when you learned that the United States had not been fully cooperative with your efforts?
HB: United States authorities did not tell us that they had given us all the suspect sites they knew about but said that they had given us "the best." When we found no WMDs at these sites, I asked myself, What is the rest? The reality was that they were 100 percent convinced that there were WMDs and had 0 percent knowledge where they were.
How could they? There were no weapons. This made us skeptical about the evidence that was invoked.
B&N.com: There have been allegations that some UN offices, including that of Kofi Annan himself, were bugged by the U.S. and the U.K. Do you believe your office was bugged?
HB: I have no evidence that my office and my private apartment were bugged, but I assumed at the time that it was quite possible. The Iraqis would do it if they could, and I thought the U.S. -- and perhaps others as well -- might do likewise. While this was an unpleasant feeling, it did not worry me unduly. We were not involved in any conspiracy, and what I said on the internal lines did not go in directions different from what I said publicly.
B&N.com: Was there anything Saddam could have done to forestall an invasion, in your opinion?
HB: Saddam should have wholeheartedly welcomed inspections and invited them everywhere and gone out of his way to help us in every respect, because convincing the inspectors that there were no WMDs was about the only way he could convince the world. It would believe us -- not him. He opened the doors and let us in everywhere, but he could have presented relevant witnesses for interviews at an early stage and asked them to be absolutely open.
It was only in February 2003 that Iraq began to understand that witnesses could be of value. Since there were no WMDs, they could not run any risks in encouraging their people to speak freely. I think Saddam was too proud and felt humiliated by being forced to accept international inspection. He should have seen them as an opportunity, not a penalty.
B&N.com: How did the events of September 11th affect the perception of whether Iraq had WMDs or not?
HB: September 11 led the U.S. administration to look at old evidence in a new light. It was looking for more guilty parties to punish than Al Qaeda. It became convinced about the existence of witches and simply looked for evidence confirming it. It was not examining evidence with a sufficiently critical mind.
For instance, an expansion of a building that used to have nuclear activities was proof enough that there were new nuclear activities. When the expansion was inspected it was found to be empty. Satellites can see roofs, but from roofs alone you cannot draw so many conclusions. Inspectors can see the inside of buildings. The combination of satellites and inspectors is good.
B&N.com: Didn't the massive American troop buildup during the time you were conducting arms inspections pretty much guarantee war?
HB: By the end of February, the U.S. and U.K. had painted themselves into a corner. With several hundred thousand men sitting in the desert, they would have needed something very spectacular to happen to enable them to call it victory and reduce the military threat. The destruction of 70 Al Samoud 2 missiles was not enough. If the military buildup had been more modest -- say, to 50.000 men -- the pressure could have continued while inspections went on in March, April, and May and the summer. It would then have become apparent that there were no WMDs at any sites known to intelligence (because there were no WMDs). The main argument given for the war, that there were real weapons of mass destruction, would have been drastically weakened and the war might have been avoided.
Lots of deaths and destruction would have been avoided. Loss of credibility for Bush and Blair would have been avoided and loss of authority for the Security Council would have been avoided. But Saddam and his terror regime would have remained. He was not a threat to his neighbors, nor to the world but, indeed, to his own people.
B&N.com: With Saddam now out of the way, was the war worth it?
HB: It is, indeed, welcome that Saddam is out, but the U.S. and UK did not justify the war by a need to finish a bloody regime. Nor is it likely that the U.S. Congress and the U.K. Parliament would have authorized war to get rid of Saddam. WMDs were the ground chosen because it was the only one that could secure authorization by the lawmakers. The inspectors and the world at large were not impressed by the evidence and so withheld authorization. Now we have to look forward. Bad and good consequences flow from the war. We must seek to minimize the bad ones and be pleased that that there is one big good consequence in Saddam's disappearance.
B&N.com: Did the war and the events leading up to it do more damage to the UN's credibility or that of those who pushed for war?
HB: The majority of the Security Council, which refused to authorize armed action, did not thereby make itself irrelevant. On the contrary, it denied legitimacy to an action that should not have been legitimized: The grounds invoked did not exist. How would we today have looked upon the inspectors if in March they had simply said, "We have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the evidence presented," and how would we have looked upon the Security Council if it had simply said, "Amen" to a request to authorize armed action to eliminate weapons which did not exist?
I think the authority of the Council is greater for not having allowed itself to rush to the wrong conclusions but urging longer time for inspection and examination of evidence. There was no other hurry than that created by an unnecessarily fast buildup of troops that could not sit idle very long. At the same time the Council's authority was damaged by the fact that a minority of its members chose simply to ignore the view of the majority. The U.S. and U.K. must have come to realize, however, that the resulting lack of legitimacy for the action turned out to be a greater handicap than they had foreseen. Perhaps it will lead them to be more cautious in the future.
Finally, it is remarkable that the differences in the Council did not relate to conflicting strategic or ideological interests. After the end of the Cold War there is even an eagerness to cooperate. All wanted assurances that Iraq had no WMDs. The only question was how. Was this difference worth all the porcelain that was broken in the Council?