What Happened to Iraq’s Weapons?
Rolf Ekeus was the chief UN arms inspector for Iraq (UNSCOM) from the end of the first Gulf War until 1997. From his home in Stockholm, he spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.
NPQ | Months after invading Iraq, US forces have so far been unable to uncover any weapons of mass destruction, which was the rationale for going to war. Does this surprise you?
ROLF EKEUS | It does not surprise me in the sense that I believe we already destroyed 95 percent or more of the chemical and biological agents Iraq had by 1998. I think it is probable that small quantities of agents, but a high quality of production facilities, will be found.
The present operation of US forces seems to be focused on finding anthrax or VX nerve agents rather than looking for what I consider to be far more significant—the production facilities such as fermenters and the like needed to manufacture chemical or biological weapons.
These can be very difficult to identify without the proper experts. Our experience is that the Iraqis were blending in their weapons productions with the production of rat poisons, insecticides or pesticides for legitimate civilian use. The old UNSCOM was very apt in identifying these Iraqi tricks. The inspectors that came after—somewhat like US forces right now—were looking cluelessly about for different weapons.
I am very skeptical of the statement made by Gen. Saadi [Saddam Hussein’s top scientific advisor who surrendered to US forces—ed.] who has said that Iraq had no weapons. He specifically did not say anything about production facilities.
So, it is too early to start making conclusions about Iraq’s mass destruction weapons capability. Only when the Iraqi scientists involved in setting up the production network start to talk, and that information is followed up with a systematic search for facilities, will we find what we are looking for.
I had said that it would take two years to complete such a search in the unfriendly condition of Iraqi denial. Now, I think it could be completed in one year.
NPQ | If Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, why didn’t they use them on invading US troops? To many, this failure is proof such weapons don’t exist.
EKEUS | My sense is that Iraq felt it was militarily meaningless to use chemical and biological weapons against fast-moving invasion forces when their own forces were collapsing.
In 1991—when we had certified knowledge that they possessed huge quantities of such weapons—the Iraqis did not use them. Why? Some say they were deterred from using them by the threat then that the American military would go all the way to Baghdad. I think it was because such weapons, then, as in the recent war, are not useful on a highly mobile battle?eld. These weapons are not easy to use. Their effectiveness depends on a whole range of elements, from the direction of the wind to the stationary posture of the opposing military forces.
In this war, American forces moved rapidly within days all the way to Baghdad, and they were prepared to protect themselves against unconventional weapons.
In the war against Iran, Iraq used chemical weapons with great success because the Iranian troops were not protected and were grouped in large numbers in stationary positions like World War I soldiers in the trenches.
NPQ | There are reports from some Iraqis that the chemical and biological weapons were destroyed rapidly as American troops invaded. Is that credible?
EKEUS | No, that is not credible. You cannot destroy such weapons—if they have live agents—overnight. Russia has still not been able to destroy all the huge quantities of agents they produced. And it took us two years, from 1992 to 1994, to destroy the agents, including mustard agents, we found.
Also, we came to learn that the Iraqis were unable to stabilize the nerve agents they produced. That means, as the agents get older, the poisonous qualities disappear. That means they can’t be produced and stored. These impure stocks would be easier to destroy.
Toward the end of the 1980s in the war against Iran, chemical agents were produced not for storage—because they couldn’t be stabilized—but for immediate use on the battlefield.
NPQ | Should UN inspectors go back to Iraq, or should the US forces handle the inspections?
EKEUS | Bringing in UN inspectors now would only confuse the situation. The most important thing is to establish full control of the country so a systematic search can take place in a secure, friendly environment. Once there is an Iraqi interim administration, then it is time to invite in international experts—including a freshened-up UN team—to help, and to certify, whatever the US finds.