Iraqi WMD: new myths for old

Why is the anti-war side now spreading scare stories about 'loose nukes' and poisons threatening world peace?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘The war in Iraq has realised Tony Blair’s worst fear: the creation of yet another country where terrorists can easily find weapons of mass destruction….’ So ran the intro to an article by Richard Norton-Taylor, security affairs editor at the UK Guardian, in November. Under the headline ‘Axis of failure’, Norton-Taylor claimed that the coalition’s invasion ‘has produced a toxic mix of insurgents, resistance fighters, former soldiers, foreign jihadists and bandits, with no shortage of weapons, including…enough explosives to make thousands of bombs, and powerful enough to detonate nuclear weapons’ (1).

We know that the coalition’s pre-war claims about Saddam Hussein having ‘weapons of mass murder’ (Bush) that posed a ‘real and present threat’ to world peace (Blair) were so much stuff and nonsense. As the Iraq Survey Group declared after hundreds of its personnel spent months and millions of dollars scouring postwar Iraq for nukes, traces of anthrax and the whiff of chemicals, the coalition found ‘no shiny, pointy things that [we] would call a weapon’ (2). Now, has the coalition itself, by invading Iraq and leaving it a mess, made its own horror stories come true, creating a fertile breeding ground for terrorists seeking WMD where chemicals, poisons and perhaps even ‘loose nukes’ are doing the rounds?

The war has certainly (as is war’s wont) generated widespread looting, including of Saddam’s stockpiles of conventional weapons and his former nuclear facilities, contributing to a black market in bombs and bullets. On 10 October, Mohammad J Abbas, an official at the Iraqi interim government’s Ministry of Science and Technology, wrote a letter to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reporting that nearly 400 tons of extremely powerful explosives had gone missing from the Al-Qaqaa facility south of Baghdad, which the IAEA sealed after the first Gulf War in 1991 and which American troops were supposed to be guarding in the aftermath of Gulf War II (3). (There is still some debate over whether the explosives were removed before the war began in March 2003 or during the instability that followed.)

The missing high explosives reportedly included 215 tons of HMX, 156 tons of RDX and six tons of PETN; one anti-war commentator described these as ‘ideal weapons for terrorists’ and pointed out that HMX is used ‘for the explosive charge that compresses quantities of uranium into the critical mass required for detonating a nuclear device’ (4). Norton-Taylor also referred to them as ‘nuclear-related high explosives’ (5). In the run-up to the US presidential elections, John Kerry latched on to the lootings as evidence that the Bush administration’s ‘incredible incompetence’ in Iraq has inflamed rather than combated the threat of terrorism (6).

Meanwhile, the eco-warriors of Greenpeace have issued dire warnings about looting at the Tuwaitha nuclear facility south-east of Baghdad over the past year. They argue that the coalition’s antics – focusing on posting armed guards at oil sites rather than at nuclear facilities – could benefit ‘those looking to capitalise on security failures by scoring loose nukes’. ‘The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be about stopping weapons of mass destruction’, said Greenpeace, but following the coalition’s war, ‘the menu of options for securing nuclear material is getting longer and longer [for would-be terrorists]’ (7).

Apparently it isn’t only nuke-related materials that are ‘loose’ in postwar Iraq; so too are potentially deadly chemicals. There are stories of Saddam’s disgruntled chemical weapons experts offering their services to insurgents, and of makeshift labs where anti-coalition forces have attempted to make anthrax and ricin to use against American and British soldiers. Fallujah-based insurgents hit the headlines at the start of November when they vowed to use chemical weapons, including cyanide, against US troops, then on the verge of invading the city (8). In the event, no chemicals were used against the Americans – but Iraqi forces who accompanied US troops in Fallujah reportedly found a ‘chemical lab’, complete with manuals on how to ‘manufacture explosives and toxins’, seeming to confirm the view held by some that where there was no threat from chemical weapons in pre-war Iraq, there is now, in the postwar mess created by the coalition.

And if you think it is only Iraqis reportedly at risk of nuke-boosted terror attacks or US troops being threatened with cynaide who have to worry about the state of postwar Iraq, think again. Some commentators claim that all of us are in greater danger as a result of the toxic combo of floating WMD and crazed insurgents. ‘The world is a more dangerous place’, argues Greenpeace (9). ‘Because of George Bush’s policy in Iraq, the world is a more dangerous place’, said John Kerry during the presidential elections (10). ‘The world is a more dangerous place because of the US-led war in Iraq’ is the view of French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, according to one news report (11). ‘Mr President, the world is a more dangerous place today’, an Irish interviewer told Bush during his visit to Ireland in the summer (12).

One sceptical-about-war commentator sought to spell out just how the world has become a more dangerous place. He ominously warned that ‘Iraq had RDX and HMX for nukes, but no fissile material. But both Iran and North Korea have – or soon could have – fissile material for nukes, but no RDX or HMX. So who says you’re safer now than before Bush invaded Iraq…?’ (13) In short, a lethal combination of the ‘failed state’ of Iraq plus the ‘rogue states’ of Iran and North Korea could spell disaster on a world scale. Many in the anti-war lobby ridiculed Bush when he denounced Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’ in January 2002; yet now they point the finger at the alleged deadly threat posed by these three states as evidence of Bush and Blair’s folly in invading Iraq.

So did a war launched on the premise of ridding the world of WMD inadvertently heighten the risk of WMD being used, both inside Iraq and beyond? Can WMD, in Norton-Taylor’s words, be ‘easily found’ in postwar Iraq?

The war has no doubt been an unmitigated disaster for Iraqis – but the closer one looks at these claims of a rise in WMD, the less convincing they seem. Rather, these scare stories highlight the degraded state of the debate over the Iraq war, demonstrating that the anti-war side, as much as the pro-war side, is using the ‘politics of fear’ to get its point across. Where Bush and Blair stoked alarmism over Saddam’s (non-existent) WMD to win support for their war, now anti-war commentators are doing the same over terrorists getting their hands on juicy nukes in order to show that Bush and Blair were wrong all along. And they’re relying on arguments that appear every bit as dodgy as the dossiers compiled by the coalition to launch the war in the first place.

I spoke to some leading authorities on WMD, few of whom were convinced by the simplistic claims that postwar Iraq has become a hotbed of mass destruction. Consider the looting of the lethal-sounding HMX, RDX and PETN from Al-Qaqaa. These explosives have been referred to as ‘nuclear-related’, with one commentator scarily pointing out that HMX is used to compress uranium for detonating a nuclear device. The implication seems to be that the theft of such materials has increased the risk of a nuclear bomb, or certainly a dirty bomb, being built by Iraqi insurgents, with potentially deadly consequences for Iraqi civilians and coalition forces. In fact, things are a bit more complicated than that.

‘HMX, RDX and PETN are, of course, used in some nuclear weapons built by some countries, but they are by no means the only explosives used’, says Peter Zimmerman, Chair of Science and Security at King’s College, London. ‘As far as I am aware, the loss of those high explosives in Iraq did not significantly, measurably, increase the possibility of “loose nukes” – in part because these explosives are widely available in the quantities needed [anyway].’

Zimmerman points out that, when it comes to building a nuclear bomb, obtaining high explosives is only a small part of a very complicated procedure. ‘First you would have to know how to build a nuke. Then you would need U-235 or plutonium. Then you would need a design that was optimised for one or more of those three explosives. And it’s worth noting that none of the early-generation designs used any of those three explosives, except in the detonators in tiny amounts. Finally, you would have to be capable of very accurate machining and fabricating of the nuclear materials and the explosive lenses.’

It is not only very difficult to build a nuclear weapon (it took Pakistan, a state with much military and scientific expertise to call upon, 20 years to go from collating the necessary materials to test-detonating its first nuke), but pretty much impossible in postwar Iraq. There may be ‘nuclear-related’ high explosives (in the sense that such explosives are sometimes used by some countries capable of building nuclear weapons), but, following a decade of weapons inspections, there is no fissile material.

‘The weapon-useable radioactive materials have been removed from Iraq, and what’s left cannot be turned into a nuclear weapon’, says Stephen Schwartz, publisher and executive director of the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. ‘The missing high explosives, of the type used to detonate nuclear weapons, are mostly a concern in that they could be sold to someone who could use them in that fashion. But they could not be used as such in Iraq because there is no nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.’ Lewis Z Koch, an American investigative journalist who writes on war and intelligence, agrees. ‘There are few hard indicators that the technical hardware [for building nukes] was available in Iraq at the time of the war…. In my opinion, the folks who try to build such a weapon from leftovers in Iraq are very likely indeed to become French toast before their first hour around spent nuclear rods.’

Schwartz says: ‘The critical bar to “going nuclear” is access to sufficient quantities of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) or weapon-grade plutonium…. Without those you’ve got nothing but a nifty design, if that.’

The looting of high explosives from Al-Qaqaa has been blown out of proportion – both in terms of the quantity stolen and possible end-use. Close-to 400 tons of big explosives might sound like a lot, but as Anthony H Cordesman, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, pointed out, ‘the munitions at Al-Qaqaa were at most around 0.06 per cent of the total [in Iraq]’ (14). And these explosives can only very tangentially be described as ‘nuclear-related’ – that tag was attached to make this material, which is likely to end up in car bombs rather than atom bombs, sound more earth-shattering than it really is.

If it is highly unlikely that anyone in Iraq could build a nuclear bomb, what about a ‘dirty bomb’? That is a crude nuclear device, for which you don’t need uranium, compressed, enriched or otherwise, or any of that ‘machining and fabricating’ business. Instead, a dirty bomb is essentially a conventional explosive that incorporates radioactive material in one form or another, which is aimed not only at causing death and injury through an explosion but also at dispersing radiation across a given area and population. What of Greenpeace’s concern that leaving former nuclear facilities largely unguarded increases the possibility of ‘so-called dirty bombs’ being built by ‘would-be terrorists’ (15), and thus of a crude form of nuclear terror in postwar Iraq?

Schwartz says that of course it’s possible that someone somewhere will build a dirty bomb, but he says a dirty bomb is ‘not a WMD’. ‘The good news about dirty bombs is that the most dangerous materials are unlikely to be used by terrorists in constructing one, because doing so would expose the terrorists to levels of radiation so great that they would die long before they finished building and using their bomb’, he says.

‘That means terrorists will have to use materials with less radioactivity, which in turn means that the harm inflicted is substantially less. A dirty bomb is really only effective as a weapon of terror, because people don’t understand radiation and hence fear it. In fact, more people are likely to be killed by the conventional explosives, if they’re near the device when it goes off, or in the panic after the bomb goes off, than by any residual radioactivity.’

Ted Rockwell, a former nuclear scientist and expert in the risks of radiation, also says it’s unlikely that the detonation of a dirty bomb would be as devastating as some imagine. Rockwell has experience in developing real nuclear weapons; he joined the Manhattan Project, America’s race to build an atom bomb before Japan or Germany, in 1943, and was later technical director of America’s attempt to develop naval nuclear power. He tells me that while many are scared witless by the idea of a dirty bomb, the number of deaths likely to be caused by one actually going off would be ‘very few, if any’. Yet the spectre of the dirty bomb can arouse ‘serious public panic’, he says, because of today’s ‘unwarranted fear of all radiation, nurtured by Greenpeace and their allies, and inadequately refuted by nuclear advocates’.

What of chemical weapons then, said by some to be available in postwar Iraq? Again, experts doubt whether such weapons can cause much mass destruction. David C Rapoport, editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, says chemical and biological weapons should more accurately be referred to as ‘weapons of minimum destruction’.

Rapoport points out that even when states have used chemical weapons, they have generally been less effective than conventional weapons at killing large numbers of people. As for non-state use of chemical or biological weapons, he says that ‘fewer than 15 people’ have been killed in such attacks over the past 25 years – and most of those deaths were in the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo, Rapoport points out, had ‘20 members with a graduate degree in science, significant laboratories, and assets of over a billion dollars’ – things that even the best-connected insurgents in Iraq are unlikely to have.

Iraqi insurgents have tried to use chemical weapons – but with no success to date. In May and June, insurgents used old chemical-filled artillery shells, left over from Iraq’s pre-1991 stocks, in three roadside attacks – but no chemical injuries were reported, ‘due to the age of the weapons’, according to one report. A group called the Army of Muhammad reportedly hired a chemist in December 2003 to help them make chemical weapons, including tabun. Yet according to the Los Angeles Times, ‘Despite numerous attempts, the scientist failed to produce tabun’. He did, however, ‘brew a poisonous compound’. ‘The insurgents filled nine mortar rounds with the mixture, but [it was] determined that the rounds were useless because detonation of the mortar would destroy the poison.’ (16)

Stephen Schwartz says that, even if there are chemical or biological weapons and dirty nuke material in postwar Iraq, it is misleading to refer to them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’. ‘Nuclear weapons are the only true WMDs’, he says. ‘In fact, applying the term WMD to anything other than a nuclear weapon grossly inflates the capabilities of those weapons and thus does a disservice to reasoned public discourse as well as planning for future terrorist attacks.’

So why are anti-war commentators talking up ‘WMD’ in postwar Iraq, when it is inaccurate to refer to them as such and when we don’t know whether they exist anyway? Because they’re playing the same game as Bush and Blair did when they launched the war – raising the alarming spectre of dangerous weapons that pose a threat to the world in an attempt to win the argument. This is not a real debate about the war in Iraq, but a squalid attempt by both sides to out-scare each other, the pro-war lot having argued that Saddam’s WMD were so deadly that we needed a war to neuter their threat, and the anti-war side now claiming that the effect of that war has been to put us all in grave danger of unwieldy WMD – and neither side bothering very much with factual evidence.

The end result? Richard Norton-Taylor supports Amitai Etzioni’s call for a ‘new global safety authority’ to keep a close eye on failing states like Iraq, and Susan E Rice of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, in a piece on the looting of nuclear facilities that was published on various anti-war websites, calls on the Bush administration to ‘deploy sufficient troops with robust rules of engagement to secure sensitive facilities’ in Iraq (17). So some of those who criticised Bush and Blair for launching a war in Iraq on the basis of dodgy claims about WMD are now calling for a harder military occupation in Iraq on the basis of dodgy claims about WMD. You couldn’t make it up.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Axis of failure, Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 3 November 2004

(2) See WMD: Wasn’t My Decision, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Disappearance of explosives in question, CNN, 27 October 2004

(4) Missing explosives at Al-Qaqaa: Bush caught in another Iraq war lie, World Socialist Web Site, 28 October 2004

(5) Axis of failure, Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 3 November 2004

(6) Kerry rips Bush for ‘incredible incompetence’, MSNBC, 26 October 2004

(7) One year on, UN takes up Greenpeace Iraq warnings, 12 October 2004

(8) Rebels vow to use chemical weapons in Fallujah, Australian, 1 November 2004

(9) One year on, UN takes up Greenpeace Iraq warnings, 12 October 2004

(10) John Kerry: ‘The world is a more dangerous place’, truthout, 20 September 2004

(11) French: World more dangerous place, Fox News, 19 March 2004

(12) Irish journalist riles Bush over Abu Ghraib, missing WMDs, San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 2004

(13) October surprise, Antiwar, 1 November 2004

(14) Al-Qaqaa reconsidered, Slate, 29 October 2004

(15) One year on, UN takes up Greenpeace Iraq warnings, 12 October 2004

(16) Iraqi insurgents seeking chemical, germ weapons, Los Angeles Times, 22 October 2004

(17) The looting of Iraq’s nuclear facilities: what do we do now?, Susan Rice, Brookings Institution, 21 May 2003

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Topics Politics


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