Published on Sunday, December 8, 2002 by the Observer/UK
US Seeks One Excuse for War in 12,000 Pages of Denial
As Iraq insists it has no weapons of mass destruction, Washington is losing patience with anyone who wants to prevent another conflict
by Peter Beaumont and David Rose in London, Ed Vulliamy in Washington and Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
Iraq's Tuwaitha nuclear center, 11 miles from south-eastern edges of Baghdad, spreads out in a vast extended 'E'. A few trees break up the long, low wings of concrete, set in the yellow dirt, that enclose clusters of buildings, rusting towers and haphazard piles of building materials. Heavily damaged by allied aircraft during the first Gulf war, Tuwaitha - once the epicenter of Iraq's nuclear infrastructure - is the most potent symbol of Iraq's ambitions to acquire devastating weapons of mass destruction.
Tuwaitha once housed uranium enrichment programs, reactors and 'hot cells' - the safety chambers that allowed Iraqi scientists to manipulate fissile material - material removed by UN inspectors before they left in 1998, who shattered and sealed the chambers, filling the handling gloves with concrete and epoxy resin.
In early September, amid the US-led clamor for a war to depose Saddam Hussein and strip Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, Tuwaitha was catapulted again into the headlines. The International Atomic Energy Authority had released satellite images suggesting new building work at the site.
Although the IAEA drew no conclusions from the pictures, the White House did, putting forward spokesman Ari Fleischer who said the images could indicate Saddam 'may seek to develop nuclear weapons and may be making progress'. Within days, those images had become part of the received knowledge about Iraq: evidence that Saddam was rebuilding his nuclear weapons capability.
Last week Tuwaitha was in the news again. This time, however, it was because UN inspectors had visited the site of the new construction at the plant. According to western intelligence sources, they found nothing untoward - certainly 'no smoking nuke'.
In fact, in a week of inspections, the inspectors of UNMOVIC (charged to find chemical and biological weapons and their components) and the IAEA (which is looking for Saddam's nuclear program) so far have not found very much at all.
To the irritation of the US administration of George Bush, they have poked around some well-known sites, sniffed some sweets found in a cupboard in the wrecked Muthanna chemical weapons site, and provided some entertainment for the bored international press corps camped out in Baghdad, assiduously following their every move.
But last week's inspections at Tuwaitha have been the preamble to what many Washington hawks hope will be the main event that will catch out Saddam without the need for lengthy and difficult searches for where Iraq has stashed its weapons of mass destruction.
That main event is the complete disclosure of Iraq's programs for weapons of mass destruction demanded by UN resolution 1441.
Yesterday General Hasam Amin, the officer in charge of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate, handed Iraq's massive self-declaration of its clean bill of health, including, say officials, the emphatic denial that Iraq possess any weapons of mass destruction. Displaying the documents to journalists a few hours before they were handed over, he said: 'We declared that Iraq is empty of weapons of mass destruction. I reiterate Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. This declaration has some activities that are dual-use.'
Last night two copies of that enormous document - written in Arabic - were on their way by courier to the IAEA in Vienna and UNMOVIC in New York, where it will first be translated and assessed by the weapons inspectors before being handed on to the 15 members of the UN Security Council.
At upwards of 12,000 pages long, there are few who believe that it is likely to be anything other than a slippery affair. Over the years Iraq has made numerous 'final declarations' of its weapons of mass destruction, all of them containing significant omissions - not least the entire Iraqi biological weapons program
The question now is what is actually in that document. Few in London and Washington are optimistic that Saddam will be more honest this time round.
'It is incredibly hard to foresee what he will do in the document itself,' said one British source. 'But there was a good chance that he would give a fraudulent headline declaration, while giving enough detail to cause problems on the Security Council when it evaluates the information. There may be enough new stuff declared to slow up the deliberations and give ammunition to those like Russia and France who oppose a war. That is how Saddam works.'
Another suspicion is that Iraq will argue it has no weapons of mass destruction complete and assembled, and therefore 'no weapons of mass destruction', second-guessing what components the US and Britain believes it has while hiding away small numbers of chemical and biological weapons for domestic use if the regime is threatened.
As intelligence agencies and government scientists waited for their translations of the document on both sides of the Atlantic, it became clear that the veracity of the Iraqi declaration - and the prospect of a second Gulf war - will be judged against the undisclosed intelligence held by the US and the UK, both of which continue to insist they have 'solid evidence' that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction.
It is an insistence that is exacerbating the already fraught relationship between the Bush administration and the UN's chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, a Swedish career diplomat for whom Washington hawks have little time. They have accused him of not having pursued the first 10 days of investigations with sufficient vigor.
In private, Blix says, he has had only 'heard supporting words' from the Bush administration. In public, however, the past seven days have seen an increasingly tense series of exchanges with the chief inspector and the main cheerleaders among the Bush administration hawks who have heckled Blix and his team from the sidelines on an almost daily basis, insisting, not least, that he use his powers to remove Iraqi scientists and their families from the country for interview by US officials.
By Friday that heckling had began to irritate Blix, who delivered a series of rebukes to the Washington hawks. 'We are not going to abduct anyone,' he said on Friday after meeting the Security Council. 'The UN is not a defection agency.' Blix's irritation has not been limited to the issue of defections. He has complained sharply too that if the US has evidence that Iraq retains weapons of mass destruction then it should share it with the UN's inspectors so that they can investigate.
But if Blix is frustrated in his relations with the Bush administration, it is a frustration that mirrors a tension with Bush's government itself - between hawks in the Pentagon, who regard Blix's business as being to provide them with the excuse they need to quickly go to war, and the State Department, which has aligned itself with the inspection process and the UN. At the center of that split is what the Iraqi declaration will allow Bush to do.
Administration hawks in the Pentagon and White House greeted the prospect of Iraq's unseen declaration with confidence that it would lock America inexorably on a short path to war.
Pentagon sources close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, insisted it was now 'likely' that Bush would declare Iraq in 'material breach' of last month's security Council Resolution, reveal intelligence of its alleged weapons of mass destruction programs, and prepare for an attack within weeks.
'Historically, this administration seems to have a Rumsfeld face and a [doveish Secretary of State Colin] Powell face,' one source said. 'Bush has always done what Powell has recommended first, and when that has failed gone on to adopt the Rumsfeld approach. On that basis, history tells us he is going to follow Rumsfeld now. I think that is much more likely than he accepts the declaration and carries on playing cat-and-mouse with the UNMOVIC inspectors.
'As to whether Bush has to go back to the Security Council for UN approval before going to war, the key word in the resolution is "assess". The UN has to assess whether it agrees Iraq is in material breach of its obligations, but it does not have the power to decide this issue. That gives the President the freedom he needs.'
In a further sign of a probable hardening of attitudes, analysts said there were strong domestic reasons to move towards war. 'If you look at the polling numbers, they're very clear,' one Republican Party aide said. 'The American people are quite happy to go along with the President for war at the moment, but are also getting sick of this thing dragging out. The longer he leaves it, the greater the political risk.'
This view is in sharp variance with the both the State Department line and the understanding of Bush's closest ally on Iraq, the British government, which believes that it secured from the US in the negotiations for the wording of UN resolution 1441 the agreement that not only would the inspectors report back to the UN, but that it would be the Security Council, not the US, that would be able to declare Iraq in 'material breach' of the resolution, thus triggering a war.
British officials also insist that omissions from the declaration in itself are not enough to trigger war - a view that appeared last week to be supported by Wolfowitz, one of the Pentagon's leading hawks, while visiting London and NATO.
'The resolution talks about a false declaration or omission plus non co-operation or compliance,' said one UK source. 'Plus is the important word. There is an awful lot of rhetoric on the US side, but you would expect that if you wanted Saddam to comply. But we feel comfortable in the agreement we made with the US. The document itself is not a trigger for war.'
If there are conflicting noises coming from the US, then Rumsfeld, did little to clear up the confusion at the heart of the administration last week, commenting archly instead: 'It depends on who you talk to and when you talk to them.'
They are comments that applied as much to differences among Bush's closest foreign policy advisers as between Britain, the UN and the US.
Last Thursday as those advisers - Vice-President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice - sat down in the White House's Oval Office, that fault line was running through the room and the heart of the Bush administration itself.
For far from reflecting the pessimism expressed by Bush at the start of the week that the inspections had not got off to an encouraging start, the State Department holds a rather different view. Talking to The Observer on Friday, officials said that staff remained behind Powell's judgment that the weapons inspectors were 'off to a good start'.
Like British officials, Powell's loyal but increasingly isolated office insists that no military action can justifiably be taken until the inspection process has been exhausted, even if - as Powell himself concedes - the US is 'convinced [Iraq] has weapons of mass destruction'.
In this Powell finds himself on his own in the Bush Cabinet, aware that the White House and Pentagon are preparing to make a case for war whatever the outcome of tomorrow's declaration.
Indeed, at the Pentagon in particular, divisions over Powell's role run deep and bitter, with many among the professional military chafing under the civilian hawks, privately joking that they still regard Powell as their chief of staff - his role in the first Gulf war - even as they prepare for a second Gulf conflict. Civilian political appointees working under Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, however, talk about Powell with derision; one senior official described him as 'yesterday's man'.
And it is Cheney who has taken up the most belligerent position, insisting to the President that any omission - no matter how minor - will constitute a material breach, that 'deception will not be tolerated'.
For his part, Bush yesterday further muddied the waters by steering a line between the two camps in his weekly radio address, telling listeners that he would 'judge the declaration's honesty and completeness only after we have thoroughly examined it, and that will take some time'.
Yesterday, as Iraq prepared to hand over its declaration, the inspectors were back at Tuwaitha for a second time in four days, hoping Washington would give them time to complete the job.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002