IRAQ: America’s Rationale for War

February 3, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Before the war started, did the U.S. have a "smoking gun" that proved Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?

No. United Nations weapons inspectors discovered that Iraq had built ballistic missiles whose range exceeded U.N. limits. But they didn’t turn up conclusive proof that Iraq possessed large stocks of banned chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

What was the U.S. case for war against Iraq?

The Bush administration argued that, in the 12 years since the end of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein defied the will of the United Nations by failing to fully disclose his suspected arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. The administration also said Saddam had formed alliances with terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, that could use Iraqi weapons against U.S. targets.

What did the administration base its claim on?

Previous weapons inspections, information from Iraqi defectors, and other intelligence sources.

Are the defectors’ accounts credible?

That is a judgment call officials and others have to make. The accounts usually can’t be confirmed and often are out-of-date.

What were the intelligence sources?

Intercepted communications, surveillance photographs, and reports from Iraqi informers. In a February 5 address to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed photos taken by spy satellites and played recordings of taped conversations between Iraqi officials.

What evidence did U.S. officials offer of Iraq’s banned weapon programs?

Because they lacked an overwhelming amount of hard proof, U.S. officials and others tried to establish Iraq’s guilt indirectly. They cited several instances in the past when Iraq was known to have possessed banned weapons or the materials to make them, and then pointed out that Iraq has failed to offer credible explanations to account for them. They said that if the weapons were destroyed, there would be physical evidence, records, or eyewitness accounts to back up Baghdad’s claims. Iraq did not supply the information.

What chemical and biological weapons did Iraq fail to account for?

In various speeches, statements, and briefings, President Bush, Secretary Powell, and Hans Blix, head of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), cited several examples:

  • Anthrax. The U.N. in 1999 concluded Iraq had the ability to produce more than 25,000 liters of the biological warfare agent; Bush has said that amount is "enough doses to kill several million people."
  • VX. Blix said Iraq had not adequately addressed UNMOVIC’s questions about a suspected program to produce the deadly chemical agent and whether it had been weaponized. Bush said U.S. intelligence reports indicated Iraq could produce as much as 500 tons of "sarin,mustard, and VX nerve agent."
  • Botulinum. The president said the U.N. reported in 1999 that Iraq could produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum nerve toxin, the single most toxic substance known to science.
  • Munitions. Bush has said U.S. intelligence shows Iraq has more than 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Powell, in his February 5 presentation, said Iraq hasn’t accounted for 500 mustard gas artillery shells.
  • Weapons inspectors found 16 122-millimeter chemical rocket warheads in mid-January. Iraq said they were part of a group of 2,000 rockets dating from the 1991 Gulf War; Iraqi officials said the 16 had been misplaced. Blix has said 6,500 Iraqi bombs are missing; together, he said, they could deliver 1,000 tons of chemical agents.
  • Growth medium. Blix said approximately 650 kilograms of bacterial growth medium were missing. Iraqi officials conceded in 1999 they had imported the medium, which can be used to cultivate germs, but an Iraqi weapons declaration issued December 7 failed to mention it. Blix said the amount of missing growth medium could produce "about 5,000 liters of concentrated anthrax."

Did officials cite other weapons programs that violate U.N. resolutions?

Yes. Among them:

  • Missiles. In a December 7 declaration of its weapons programs, Iraq noted that it was producing a ballistic missile, the al-Samoud II. Weapons inspectors concluded the missiles violated the 150-kilometer range dictated by U.N. resolutions. Iraq has also imported 380 SA-2 rocket engines, material prohibited by U.N. resolutions. On February 21, UNMOVIC ordered Iraq to destroy the missiles and engines.
  • Unmanned aircraft. U.S. officials said Iraq had developed pilot-less aircraft that could be used to disperse biological and chemical weapons.
  • Mobile laboratories. U.S. officials said they learned from Iraqi defectors that Iraq had built several mobile laboratories to produce biological weapons.

Did Iraq have a nuclear weapons program?

According to U.N. weapons inspectors, there was no evidence in 2003 that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), said in January 2003 that if inspectors were able to continue their work for "the next few months," they could "provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons program." Weapons experts note that Iraqi scientists retained the technical know-how to build nuclear weaponry.

What was the U.S. view?

Officials said Iraq lacks only the necessary fissile material to produce a nuclear bomb. As a result, they said, Baghdad tried to import high-strength aluminum tubes that could be used in gas centrifuges to make weapons-grade uranium. The IAEA disputed that interpretation of the tubes’ use. Powell also told the Security Council that Iraq tried to acquire "magnets and high-speed balancing machines" that could be used to enrich uranium. Britain released a report in September that said Iraq had tried to buy large amounts of uranium in Niger; the documents that accusation was based on were later proved to have been forged.

Did Iraq once have a nuclear arms program?

Yes. After the 1991 Gulf War, IAEA inspectors dismantled Iraq’s nuclear arms program and removed stores of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Some weapons experts believe a covert program continued after that.

Does Iraq have links to al-Qaeda?

That’s been debated— inconclusively— since September 11, 2001. In his January 28 State of the Union speech, Bush raised the specter of Iraq sharing weapons of mass destruction with terrorists, and he said that U.S. intelligence data has linked Saddam and Osama bin Laden’s extremist network. Powell said February 5 that Baghdad is harboring "al-Qaeda affiliates."

What were the reputed al-Qaeda-Iraq connections?

Powell said that Abu Musab Zarqawi, a chemical and biological weapons expert who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, was in Baghdad in 2002 to receive medical care and established a cell of operatives there. Powell also said that Iraq has contacts with Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group in northern Iraq that has been linked to al-Qaeda. Officials hoped to find conclusive evidence at the war’s end.

What’s the source of information about al-Qaeda-Iraq links?

Much of the information before the 2003 war was pieced together from interviews with suspects detained in the post-September 11 worldwide roundup of extremists.

What was Iraq’s response?

Iraq denied all the U.S. allegations. Its leaders long maintained Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction; they claimed that all unaccounted-for banned weapons and materials had been destroyed. Saddam had also denied an alliance with al-Qaeda.

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