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October 8, 2004

WMD Myth Meant to Deter Iran

by Juan Cole

First, the CIA comes out and says it can't find any convincing evidence that Saddam Hussein harbored Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi's presence at certain points in Iraq has long been argued as a proof of his links to terrorism and al-Qaeda (even though Zarqawi's Monotheism and Jihad is a bitter rival of al-Qaeda rather than part of it). It was always argued by the Right in the U.S. that Iraq was a tightly controlled totalitarian state and that Zarqawi couldn't have slipped in and out unnoticed. But this was always a silly argument. Saddam's state was ramshackle, and Badr Corps fighters slipped in and out of Iraq all the time (they are supposedly on our side; has the administration bothered to debrief them?). The Zarqawi story was so important as a casus belli that the Bush administration even deliberately avoided attacking the small Ansar al-Islam base in northern Iraq when it had the chance before the war.

Now the Iraq Survey Group report finds no evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or weapons programs in Iraq since the mid-1990s. True, he was having a tiny amount of rat poison made to drop into the drinks of his enemies. The most menacing they can paint Saddam is that he would kind of have liked to, you know, have some weapons of mass destruction, sometime in the future. This is not a threat, it is a daydream. So why in the world did Saddam not just announce the fact to avoid being invaded by the U.S.?

Well, of course, he did announce the fact, in the materials submitted to the UN in fall of 2002. But the paperwork did not explain how exactly all the chemical weapons were destroyed, and actually fueled the Bush administration attack rather than forestalling it.

The Guardian reports an Iraq Survey Group Report that is based in part on interviews with Saddam after he was captured. They reveal that Saddam feared using chemical weapons against coalition troops in 1990-1991 because he was convinced that this move would cost him the support of all his backers. He said, "Do you think we are mad? What would the world have thought about us? We would have completely discredited those who had supported us."

Of course, he may have been lying about his motives. The U.S. had threatened him with regime change if he used those weapons, whereas he knew he might well survive if his forces were just tossed out of Kuwait. Also, he had to be at least a little afraid of U.S. retaliation, and it actually does have nuclear and biological weapons.

The main reason for which he would not provide proof of the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, he told the group, was that he was worried about Iran. Apparently he never got over the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, when he came close to being defeated by his much bigger neighbor. (Only the Reagan administration alliance of convenience with him saved him). And, of course, his anxiety about Iran was in part a code for fear of a Shi'ite uprising.

Saddam was fighting several Shi'ite revolutions, being mounted by the Sadrists, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the al-Da`wa Party, and the Marsh Arab Hezbollah. He was barely able to keep a lid on them, using secret police and brutal repression. They were being backed by Iran (or at least all but the Sadrists were), and he was admitting that he feared that if the Iranians and the Iraqi Shi'ites thought he would not be able to gas them, he might be open to another invasion or a popular Shi'ite uprising. The group report says Saddam used chemical weapons on the Shi'ites to put down the rebellion of spring 1991. (What it does not say is that the United States, which was in a position to stop this use of WMD on civilians, as well as the use of conventional weapons to massacre thousands, declined to so much as fire a missile at a helicopter gunship.)

Ironically, the Sadrists and Marsh Arabs have gone on to pose a dire threat to order in post-Saddam Iraq, and the U.S. has also treated them harshly as a result.

Saddam also appears to have been convinced that the U.S. would not attack his regime after Sept. 11, because of its secular character. Saddam is often caricatured as a madman (and it is true that there is something wrong with the man), but in this remark he shows himself thinking rationally and expecting Bush to do the same.

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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