On Friday, chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei made their reports to the UN Security Council. The U.S. press, which eagerly covered previous reports, barely mentioned this event. Why? Because both reports draw conclusions that are exactly the opposite of what the Bush administration had hoped from Blix and ElBaradei.
Blix’s report stressed that Iraq is cooperating with the inspectors in numerous ways, including allowing surveillance flights over its territory without demanding advance warning and allowing private interviews with Iraqi scientists. While Bush administration officials claim that the interview rooms are being bugged, they don’t tell us how they know that for a fact, nor do they explain how this is any different from U.S. efforts to target “hostile” UN Security Council members with electronic surveillance (a little fact leaked by the British press, but which the U.S. press has largely ignored).
In addition to addressing the main demands of the Bush and Blair administrations (surveillance flights and private interviews), Iraq has given the UN inspectors a list of people involved in destroying chemical and biological weapons, located and surrendered documents on its VX and anthrax programs, committed to issuing a new and expanded report on its VX and anthrax programs, and appointed a government commission to ferret out more such documents and locate evidence to support its claims of weapons destroyed just after the Gulf War.
Blix noted that Iraq is engaging in two current, active disarmament projects right now. One is the excavation of an old disposal sight that has so far unearthed 2 liquid-filled R-400 bombs, 6 other complete warheads, and many bomb fragments. The other is the destruction of 34 Al Samoud 2 missiles, a missile launcher, 5 rocket engines, and 2 casting chambers used to make the Al Samoud. Blix characterized the destruction of the Al Samoud missiles as “a substantial measure of disarmament — indeed, the first since the middle of the 1990s.” He then went on to temper this high praise with a warning that Iraq had taken a one-day pause in their destruction of Al Samoud missiles; he didn’t, however, point out that it was Friday, the Muslim holy day.
Colin Powell has asserted that Iraq is firing up its production program to produce more Al Samouds and, to deceive the inspectors, is moving around the rocket engines and equipment needed to make the missiles. This is absurd. Moving enormous casting chambers on a moment’s notice is simply impossible. And with surveillance over-flights, such efforts would be immediately apparent to the inspectors. Blix gave no indication that the surveillance flights have picked up any massive efforts to move heavy industrial equipment.
Blix drove a stake through the heart of a key U.S. accusation: that Iraq has mobile bioweapons labs. UN inspectors have followed up on intelligence from the CIA and examined mobile food testing laboratories, mobile workshops, and large containers holding seed processing equipment. They’ve found no evidence of mobile bioweapons labs.
Blix also skewered U.S. claims that Saddam is hiding his weapons of mass destruction underground. The UN inspectors have used ground-penetrating radar and visited sites recommended by the CIA and British intelligence, but have found no evidence of underground activity, converted subway tunnels, buried mobile bioweapons labs, or other such fantasies.
Blix also stated a preference for “twice the amount of high quality information about sites to inspect than twice the number of expert inspectors” — a direct request for the U.S. and Britain to quit screwing around and give the inspection teams more and better intelligence.
Blix finished his report with two key points. First, UNMOVIC is moving forward on its commitment to draft a program of work that will include a list of remaining disarmament tasks — a development that the Bush administration dreads. Such a list will make it harder for U.S. officials to make further unsubstantiated accusations against the Iraqi government, accusations which have set the bar ever higher for Iraq and would, ironically, make the inspection process go on forever if the U.S. weren’t intent on a war. This list represents the light at the end of the tunnel for Iraq; if it can meet the goals definitively spelled out by the UN, then it might see the sanctions lifted sometime within our lifetimes. At least the hope is there; the reality is that the U.S. would veto such a move as long as Saddam Hussein remains alive and in power — and as long as George Bush remains in office.
The second key point was Blix’s estimation of the timeframe needed to finish the inspections and disarmament program. He consciously echoed George W. Bush’s earlier ultimatum that the U.S. would give Iraq “weeks, not months” to disarm, but with an important difference. Here’s the direct quote: “How much time would it take to resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks? While cooperation can and is to be immediate, disarmament and at any rate verification of it cannot be instant. Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude, induced by continued outside pressure, it would still take some time to verify sites and items, analyse documents, interview relevant persons, and draw conclusions. It would not take years, nor weeks, but months.”
Months, not weeks. And certainly not ten days, as the U.S. immediately demanded — a move that sent at least two of the six swing votes on the UN Security Council into the Franco-German-Russian camp. Pakistan’s defection, in particular, was a shock to U.S. diplomats who had assumed Pakistan was in Bush’s pocket because of all the anti-terrorism money we’ve spent on them. Aggressive, delusional demands can alienate anyone, it seems.
The head of the nuclear inspections in Iraq, Mohamed ElBaradei, repeated his rousing performance of mid-February, in which he boldly scolded Colin Powell for presenting faulty evidence. Happily, his first statement was a soberly-worded attempt to remind the Security Council that Iraq has suffered under more than a decade of sanctions that has deprived it of parts and equipment to rebuild its industrial infrastructure. Skilled Iraqi technicians and scientists have deserted the country for better jobs and less onerous living conditions abroad. But it was the way in which he said it that made U.S. officials fume: “industrial capacity has deteriorated substantially, due to the departure of the foreign support that was often present in the late 1980s…” — a direct reference to the Regean administration’s support for Saddam during the years when he built and used his weapons of mass destruction.
ElBaradei made another reference to U.S. non-cooperation. He asked member nations to allow IAEA inspectors to interview exiled Iraqi scientists living in their countries — a clear demand to talk to the “defectors” that Powell and the CIA have relied on so heavily to develop the Bush administration’s case against Iraq.
Then ElBaradei addressed the three main charges Colin Powell made after the mid-February UN reports. First, the aluminum tubes. The IAEA reviewed Iraqi design documents, procurement records, meeting minutes, samples, and other data, and their experts on nuclear centrifuges have concluded, yet again, that the aluminum tubes were bought for use in the reverse-engineering of rockets. Iraq does not have the capability to modify the tubes for use in nuclear centrifuges.
The IAEA also examined Iraq’s purchase of heavy magnets and concluded that the magnets have been used for missile guidance systems, industrial machinery, electricity meters, and field telephones. None of the magnets are suitable for use as magnetic bearings in nuclear centrifuges.
Finally, the IAEA investigated the charge that Iraq sought to acquire uranium from Africa. By analyzing documents of an alleged deal between Iraq and the nation of Niger, and comparing those documents to actual forms issued by the government of Niger, ElBaradei concluded that the Iraq/Niger documents were fakes. So much for the accuracy of British intelligence and the gullibility of George Bush and Colin Powell.
ElBaradei wrapped up his report by repeating what he said in mid-February: “After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.”