IRAQ: Weapons Inspections: 1991-1998

February 03, 2005

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Why did the United Nations send weapons inspectors to Iraq?

Because Iraq had a history of using chemical weapons, and giving up its weapons of mass destruction was a requirement of the U.N. Security Council resolutions that marked the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq initially promised to cooperate with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), and the United Nations expected that disarmament would proceed smoothly and wrap up quickly. Instead, Iraq watchers say, Iraq undermined and circumvented inspections from the beginning and continued to develop weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors were withdrawn in 1998. The U.N. Security Council replaced UNSCOM with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) the following year, and inspectors from that agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) returned to Iraq in November 2002.

When did the U.N. inspections begin?

In 1991, when the United Nations set about trying to disarm Iraq. The Security Council passed Resolution 687, which mandated the "destruction, removal, or rendering harmless" of all Iraqi biological, chemical, and nuclear weaponry; the machinery and facilities used to develop them; and ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers (about 100 miles). This resolution invoked Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of force to enforce it.

What were the ground rules for the 1990s inspections?

UNSCOM was to handle the hunt for biological and chemical weapons; it partnered with the IAEA to tackle the Iraqi nuclear program. Iraq and the United Nations agreed that U.N. inspectors would have unrestricted authority to inspect any Iraqi site, copy documents, take photographs, install monitoring equipment, and travel from, to, and within Iraq--all without having to seek prior notice or approval. Iraq said it would disclose all its unconventional weapons programs and guarantee the safety of international inspectors.

Did the inspectors find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Yes--and they destroyed more of them than the U.S.-led coalition did during the Gulf War. Among other things, U.N. inspectors located hundreds of tons of chemical weapons agents and thousands more tons of the chemicals used to make them; a major biological weapons production facility; machines for separating out radioactive isotopes that could be used to fuel a nuclear bomb; and dozens of missiles, launching pads, and missile warheads for both conventional and chemical munitions. Inspectors were stunned by the volume of information and material they found, and surprised that Iraq’s weapons programs were much more advanced than they had expected.

How did the inspectors know where to look?

They started with declarations made by Iraq about its weapons and missiles. But these disclosures were far from complete. For example, Iraq claimed it had no nuclear weapons capacities, but various national intelligence agencies gave the IAEA inspectors evidence that led them to uncover a nuclear weapons program. In addition to outside intelligence, UNSCOM relied on disclosures by Iraqi defectors such as Hussein Kemal, who oversaw Iraq’s weapons programs until he fled to Jordan in 1995. Kemal, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, was murdered when he returned to Iraq in February 1996.

Did Iraq continue to develop unconventional weapons while the inspectors were working?

Yes. UNSCOM inspectors discovered that Iraq was secretly importing missile components and other materials for making weapons of mass destruction while the inspection regime was underway. To thwart the inspectors, Iraq built clandestine laboratories that were mobile, underground, or contained in civilian factories.

Did Iraq cooperate with the weapons inspections?

No. Iraq claimed its arsenal of banned weapons was smaller than its actual size--for example, Iraqi officials insisted until 1995 that a biological weapons research was for defensive purposes only--and tried regularly to outfox the inspectors. Iraqi tactics included having troops fire warning shots at the unarmed inspectors, confiscating documents from UNSCOM and refusing to hand over other documents, spying on U.N. personnel, stonewalling while materials were removed from sites in advance of the inspectors’ arrival, sabotaging monitoring equipment, and preventing UNSCOM from using its own helicopters and surveillance aircraft. Iraq increased its resistance at suspect sites it had not declared as weapons facilities, and tons of material used to produce unconventional weapons went unaccounted for.

When did the UNSCOM inspections stop?

In 1998. As the years passed, Iraq found new ways of evading its U.N. obligations; at the same time, international resolve to back up the inspections with the threat of force eroded. Iraq accused UNSCOM of spying for the United States, barred American employees of UNSCOM from the country, and declared off-limits a growing number of "presidential sites"--a category not recognized in the U.N.-Iraq inspections accords. After negotiating with the Iraqis, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan exempted the sprawling presidential sites from inspections. Nevertheless, in October 1998, Iraq said it would no longer cooperate with UNSCOM. That refusal triggered several days of U.S. and British air strikes, known as Operation Desert Fox, in December 1998. UNSCOM withdrew its inspectors before the air strikes began, and they never returned to Iraq.

What replaced UNSCOM?

In December 1999, the Security Council created UNMOVIC, a weaker body that at first lacked UNSCOM’s free-ranging mandate and couldn’t share classified information with intelligence agencies or enter Iraq’s self-declared "presidential sites." However, UNMOVIC was granted new powers in November 2002 under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which insisted Iraq give inspectors "immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted" admission to any site, as well as unfettered, private access to people they wished to interview. Inspectors worked in Iraq from late November 2002 until mid-March 2003, days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began.

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