Smoking guns

It was always a risky gamble to make weapons of mass destruction the main official reason for attacking Iraq. The fact that there is still no sign of anything resembling a WMD could easily blow up in the faces of Tony Blair and George Bush. Robin Cook seems to have started to sharpen the knife. Although thousands of US personnel are now solely concentrated on finding them, the only reliable signs of illicit weapons in Iraq are the cluster bombs that have been dropped from US jets. In his address to the UN security council, the UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix attacked Washington and London for going to war on "very, very shaky evidence. It is conspicuous that so far the US inspectors have not stumbled upon anything evident" (The Independent April 23). There is a real possibility that the whole military operation will universally be looked upon as a political failure if those illusive WMD are not uncovered soon. Most probably, though, they did not exist in the first place. At the beginning of the war, US forces claimed to have discovered a "huge" chemical weapons factory near Najaf. It turned out to be a disused cement factory. Next, chemical protection suits were discovered in Nasiriya. At the time defence secretary Geoff Hoon was certain that these items "show categorically that Iraqi troops are prepared" to use "weapons of mass destruction" (BBC News Online March 23). Later, it turned out that the suits were of the same type that Iraq used in the 1980s during the war with Iran; and now the find is rated as "obviously not conclusive". Indeed, the suits may well have been 20 year-old leftovers, as the Cambridge academic Glen Rangwala pointed out. US officials confirmed that there was no indication they were freshly worn or issued. A number of other loudly announced "discoveries" were later disproved and quietly dropped. Even earlier this week, British foreign office minister Mike O'Brien still insisted it was "absolute fact" that there were weapons hidden in Iraq: "The suspected presence of WMD is at the heart of our reasons for taking military action against the Iraqi regime" (BBC News Online April 21). However, reality stands in the way of this "absolute fact". If we presume Saddam Hussein possessed any such weapons, surely a good time to use them would have been around March 20. Weapons of mass destruction come in quite handy if you are trying to defend yourself against an invasion by the most powerful armed forces in the world, which want to eradicate you and your whole regime. Instead, we are supposed to believe that Saddam Hussein used the last days of his regime in order to hide or destroy his weapons system. Why? In order to keep his good reputation once the US had won? Another, new explanation from the US administration is that the looting that ensued after the fall of the Iraqi regime made it "extremely hard to secure potential weapons or intelligence sites" (The Independent April 23). Of course, American troops did not even attempt to stop any of the civil unrest. Just another excuse. The most likely scenario is that the Iraqi regime simply did not possess WMD. Also likely is that the US administration and its secret service were very well aware of this fact even before their invasion force moved into Iraq. But if they hoped that a quick and overwhelming victory would be enough to silence critical and anti-war voices, they were palpably wrong. While the US administration can look back on a lightning victory over Saddam Hussein's wrecked regime, a serious absence of legitimacy remains. During the war, polls suggested that a majority of people in Britain and the US subordinated their anti-war sentiment to patriotism. A clear anti-war majority of up to 65% was reduced to a minority of around 25%. Many felt that, once the war had started, they had to 'support our troops'. With the war won, opinions start shifting again. A poll amongst 1,200 invited BBC News Online readers over the easter holiday weekend showed that only 36% agreed with the motion that "going to war was a price worth paying for the liberation of the Iraqi people." 64% disagreed. Similarly, the governments of France and Russia are turning the heat back up. They are demanding that UN weapons inspectors should immediately return to Iraq. Officially, Russia and France want the UN inspectors to administer the search for and possible destruction of any WMD. Unofficially, the inspectors are also to make sure that WMD are not just planted there. The Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov hinted on the danger of falsified evidence: "Even if the American-British forces report that they have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the final assessment of their origin can be given only by international inspectors" (Pravda March 26). Unsurprisingly, the US have made their opposition to such proposals clear. John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the UN, said that "for the time being, and for the foreseeable future, we visualise inspections as being a coalition activity. The coalition has assumed responsibility for the disarming of Iraq" (The Guardian April 23). Robin Cook, former leader of the House of Commons, has thrown his hat back into the ring. He also demanded that chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix should return to Iraq "on the next plane". And - in what could well turn out be a serious declaration of war against Tony Blair - he also added that "if the threat from Saddam does turn out to have been overstated, the responsibility must rest with those who made the public statements" (Evening Standard April 22). Tony Blair's position is far from secure. Sure, he and his mate George have won the war. But he certainly does not come out of it squeaky clean. Two million people on the streets of London made it quite clear that they did not believe his war rhetoric. Backbench Labour MPs staged the two biggest parliamentary revolts in British history. And as the examples of Winston Churchill and George Bush snr show, winning a war does not guarantee that you and your party will win the next election. Tina Becker