Into the Breach

U.S. officials have declared Iraq in material breach of its obligation to present a "full and complete" declaration of its weapons of mass destruction. As a factual matter the Iraqi declaration is indeed inadequate. But Baghdad's failure to provide a satisfactory weapons report is not a deal breaker. It will not prevent the UN from achieving the effective disarmament of Iraq, and it is not a legal justification for war.

Iraq has been in violation of the obligation to report its weapons holdings for more than 11 years, since the Security Council first imposed this requirement in Resolution 707 in Aug. 1991. The most recent Security Council measure, Resolution 1441 adopted in Nov. 2002, acknowledged this pattern of deceit by declaring Iraq in material breach. During the 1990s Iraq submitted several weapons declarations, none of which was full or complete. Baghdad's most recent report apparently follows the same pattern. Although some 12,000 pages in length, the Iraqi document has "not much significant new information," according to chief UN inspector Hans Blix. U.S. Secretary of State Powell said that the document contains "serious omissions."

At issue is Iraq's apparent failure to address uncertainties identified by previous UN inspections. The Jan. 1999 final report of the earlier UN special commission and a Mar. 1999 Security Council report raised questions about a number of unresolved weapons issues. These included Iraq's failure to document its claim to have destroyed chemical weapons and missile warheads. Also unaccounted for were large volumes of chemical precursor elements, biological growth media and more than a dozen indigenously produced Iraqi missiles. In the new report, according to Blix, most of these uncertainties "remain unresolved."

According to Blix's Dec. 19 statement to the Security Council, the Iraqi declaration consists mostly of a rehash of previously submitted documents. In a few areas, however, the declaration provides useful new information. According to Blix, the report provides new documentation on chemical weapons that may "help to achieve a better understanding of the fate of the precursors." The report also provides information on the import of aluminum tubes for a short-range rocket system. This information, in Blix's words, "may be relevant to well-publicized reports concerning the importation of aluminum tubes." This is a diplomatic way of saying that U.S. and British claims about the use of these tubes for uranium enrichment may be incorrect. On the other hand, the report omits previously submitted information about the import of bacterial growth media used for the production of anthrax.

The overall impression is that the Iraqi weapons declaration is seriously flawed. This is a matter of concern, but it is not a major threat to security. It is important to keep Iraq's weapons declaration in perspective. None of the reported omissions or discrepancies involves the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Nor is there any reported indication that Iraq has functional long-range missiles. The concerns about chemical or biological capabilities involve mostly precursor elements not militarily deliverable weapons. There is no evidence from the report or in anything UN inspectors have revealed so far that Iraq has rebuilt its weapons of mass destruction. Blix told the Security Council that at this point the UN commission is "neither in a position to confirm . . . nor in possession of evidence to disprove" Iraq's claim that it no longer has such weapons.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that most of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were eliminated in the 1990s. UN reports confirm that previous weapons inspections dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons infrastructure, accounted for all but two of Iraq's 819 Scud missiles, and destroyed all of the country's known chemical and biological weapons production facilities. Nothing in the new Iraqi declaration or the U.S. and UN reaction to it suggests anything different. Iraq is a weakened power. It suffered military defeat in 1991, more than a decade of UN sanctions and 7 years of vigorous on-site inspections, all of which resulted in a significant reduction of its capacity to commit aggression or develop weapons of mass destruction.

Under the terms of Resolution 1441 the lack of a complete weapons disclosure is not meant to be a trigger for military action. Indeed there is nothing in the resolution referring to the use of military force. Further sanctions and tightening of existing restrictions on military related imports could be imposed in response to Iraq's inadequate disclosure. However, the resolution says only that, in the event of "further material breach," Iraq will face "serious consequences." The diplomatic understanding among members of the Security Council is that a determination of further material breach would be justified only if Iraq interfered with the ongoing UN weapons inspections. U.S. and British officials agreed to this interpretation in the political maneuvering that led to the adoption of Resolution 1441. An inadequate weapons declaration alone does not constitute "further material breach." Iraq must also obstruct weapons monitoring efforts.

To date that second condition has not been met. The inspection process has proceeded smoothly so far. In their first three weeks of operation the new UN weapons commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency have conducted more than 130 inspections. To date they have not met any Iraqi interference or obstruction. The inspectors have had unfettered access to all sites and complete freedom of movement, as required in the new resolution.

The determination of whether Iraq is in further material breach is a matter to be decided by the full Security Council not a single government. Under the terms of Resolution 1441 it is up to the Security Council to meet and decide whether Iraq is in further violation of its obligations. It is also up to the Council to consider the nature of the "serious consequences" that Iraq should face in the event of defiance. There is no authority in the current resolution for a single government to take action on the basis of a determination of material breach. As a practical matter, as long as Iraq gives UN inspectors free rein and does not interfere with the weapons inspectors, it is unlikely that the Security Council will make a determination of further material breach or be willing to consider more forceful action.

The lack of a complete weapons declaration complicates the task of disarming Iraq, but it does not prevent the process from proceeding. If UN monitors are able to conduct continuing inspections throughout the country, they will be able to assure Iraq's effective disarmament. On-site monitoring is the key to disarmament. Blix has indicated that his team of more than 200 trained professionals will conduct as many as 1,000 inspection visits to potential weapons sites in the coming months. As long as this process continues, the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will be neutralized.

UN inspectors are now installing an Ongoing Monitoring and Verification (OMV) system. The OMV system involves the installation of an elaborate array of radiological and chemical sensors, cameras, seismographs and other detection systems at numerous locations throughout Iraq. This will be supplemented by no-notice inspections in which UN monitors verify the disarmament of designated locations. The OMV system is designed to provide monitoring of potential weapons sites on a permanent basis. Once this system is in place, which may come as early as Feb., UN monitors will have a sophisticated capability to detect nuclear, chemical or biological weapons activity. The OMV system will provide a high degree of assurance that any significant weapons activity can be detected.

The resumption of on-site weapons monitoring provides a substantial security benefit. The presence of hundreds of highly trained weapons specialists, conducting dozens of on-site inspections every week, equipped with the world's most advanced detection technology, will enable UN officials to detect any militarily significant weapons activity. Iraq will not be able to develop or use any substantial nuclear, ballistic missile, chemical or biological weapons capability as long as UN weapons inspector remain in the country. The continued monitoring and verification of Iraq's potential weapons capability provides security guarantees against the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

If the goal is assuring Iraq's disarmament, that goal is already being met. Never before has the international community been able to mount such a comprehensive weapons verification and monitoring effort. In Aug. 2002 Vice President Dick Cheney described UN weapons monitoring of the 1990s as "the most intrusive system of arms control in history." The new monitoring system now being installed in Iraq is equally intrusive and is employing even more advanced technology. The current UN weapons inspection process can assure Iraq's effective disarmament.

David Cortright is president of Fourth Freedom Forum, Goshen, IN, and a research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.