What We Do Know in Iraq

Andrew E. Busch

July 1, 2003

Titillated by the administration’s admission that President Bush cited a forged document in making his case against Iraq in his January, 2003 State of the Union address, Democratic lawmakers are again insisting on a full-scale investigation into the use and possible abuse of intelligence in the lead-up to war. More generally, administration critics in Congress and in the media have become increasingly strident in their claims that Bush deceived the nation in regard to both Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and its ties to organized terrorism.

It is impossible to say what discoveries the future will bring (a fact which, incidentally, makes the Democratic strategy quite risky) but it is useful to refocus attention on what we know—not what we thought we knew, or what we think today, but what is known beyond serious dispute.

In the area of weapons of mass destruction, we know that:

  • Saddam Hussein in the far and recent past had an active chemical and biological weapons program.
  • Saddam had as recently as 1998 significant stockpiles of these weapons, according to both U.S. intelligence and U.N. weapons inspectors, who had seen and catalogued this stockpile.
  • The Baathist regime used these chemical and biological weapons on at least half a dozen instances.
  • Saddam provided no significant evidence to inspectors in 2002-2003 that he had destroyed any of this stockpile.
  • In 1998, the Clinton administration launched an intensive, though short, preemptive air war against Iraq because it was convinced that Saddam’s WMD program was unchecked.
  • The Iraqi dictatorship was reasonably close to obtaining nuclear weapons on two occasions in the past, and was prevented from doing so only by military force. In 1981, an Israeli air strike crippled the Osirik nuclear reactor which had been producing nuclear material for bomb use. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm again crippled Iraq’s nuclear program, which experts later estimated had been within one year of developing a bomb.
  • The Iraqi dictatorship retained the scientific know-how and the services of many of the scientists who had been active in its previous nuclear efforts. It also coordinated the concealment of equipment necessary for a nuclear program. Recently, an Iraqi nuclear scientist led allied forces to a key piece of equipment that he had been instructed to bury under a rose bush at his home.
  • Likewise, in late April, an Iraqi scientist involved in the biological and chemical weapons program led Americans to a site in the desert where chemical components for chemical weapons had been buried by the regime immediately prior to the onset of war.
  • In both the nuclear and chemical/biological arenas, Iraq possessed many “dual use” facilities that had been used for weapons programs and could have been again with little difficulty. For example, early in the war U.S. forces stumbled across a giant buried complex which seemed well-suited for chemical weapons production. As it turned out, the facility had been a chemical weapons plant until 1998, when it had been converted to civilian production. A vast underground facility was also discovered beneath Iraq’s main civilian atomic research center, filled with sealed barrels of uranium. Upon investigation, the site was known to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had sealed the uranium. In neither case was there any significant barrier to the reconversion of those facilities for WMD purposes on short notice.
  • As was widely reported, two mobile laboratories have been captured, and many (though not all) weapons analysts consider it either probable or possible that they were used for biological weapons development.
  • Along the route to Baghdad, large numbers of Iraqi troops were killed or captured in possession of gas masks. Military headquarters and bases were consistently found stocked with chemical warfare suits and large stockpiles of nerve gas antidote.

When it comes to terrorism, what we know is this:

  • Saddam actively sponsored the terrorist group Hamas, boasting that he had sent $35 million to provide for the families of Hamas suicide bombers.
  • Notorious terrorist figures Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas (of Achille Lauro fame) had taken up residence in Baghdad under Saddam’s protection (at least until Abu Nidal committed "suicide" last year by multiple gunshots to the head).
  • A Palestine Liberation Front training camp was maintained outside of Baghdad, complete with airplane chassis for hijacker training.
  • In northern Iraq, U.S. and Kurdish forces overran a base and training camp for Ansar-al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization with hundreds of members. The Ansar-al-Islam camp included a crude poison lab, with evidence pointing to the possibility that the group had made the deadly toxin ricin for use in attacks.
  • Another major terrorist facility in the desert of central Iraq was recently uncovered and destroyed by U.S. forces.
  • Iraqi intelligence documents published by the London Daily Telegraph indicated that Iraqi officials had traveled to Sudan in 1998 to meet with Osama bin Laden, seeking a “strategic alliance” against America. For his part, bin Laden released a tape shortly before hostilities began urging jihadists to flock to the defense of Iraq.
  • The deputy of a key Al-Qaeda associate who had been reported in Baghdad receiving medical treatment after fleeing Afghanistan was captured there shortly after the fall of the Iraqi capital.
  • Whatever ties Iraq did or did not have with Al-Qaeda, it is clear that Saddam supported the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Upon their arrival in Iraq, coalition forces found items like official murals celebrating the 9-11 attack and 9-11 commemorative cigarette lighters complete with etchings of bin Laden and the World Trade Centers carried by Baath Party functionaries.
  • Saddam had no compunction about using terrorism against the United States directly. In 1993, Iraqi agents were apprehended in Kuwait before they were able to carry out a plan to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush on his visit to the Emirate. Considerable evidence also links Saddam and Iraqi intelligence to the first attack on the World Trade Centers in 1993.

Much of this compilation of evidence on WMD and terrorism is inferential, but most court cases are determined on the strength of inferential evidence. Many a convict has been sent to the Big House on the basis of less than we already have on Saddam. The odds—even absent any other special intelligence—would still seem to favor the proposition that Iraq did possess significant WMD capability and was seeking more, and there can be no question that Iraq’s was a terrorist regime.

So where are the stockpiles? Perhaps, having existed once, they no longer existed by March 2003; some Iraqis, including Tariq Aziz, claim that they were destroyed shortly before the war. Perhaps they are still hidden. Perhaps they were spirited out of Iraq by terrorists or Baathists—a possibility much more troubling than the misreading of intelligence by an over-eager administration. The least likely scenario is the one fixed upon by the hysterical left that Bush simply lied in order to justify a war waged for who-knows-what real reason.

The bottom line remains that Iraq was an avowed and dangerous enemy of the United States, and that no serious offensive against our foes in the war on terrorism could leave Saddam’s regime standing. Yet unless the administration does a better job of reminding the public (and the world) of what we do know, it runs the risk of allowing its credibility to be unnecessarily undermined with potentially great cost in Iran, North Korea, and beyond. And one of Bush’s greatest electoral assets—public belief in his sincerity and trustworthiness—will be vulnerable to attack.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.