Iraq War: Prelude to War (The International Debate Over the Use and Effectiveness of Weapons Inspections)

Iraq War: Prelude to War (The International Debate Over the Use and Effectiveness of Weapons Inspections)


In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent war against the Taleban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, United States leaders turned their attention to an old enemy, Iraq, and specifically its dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein.

Although Iraq was not as powerful a military threat as during the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991, U.S. officials asserted that Iraq's proven development and use of weapons of mass destruction made Iraq a potential source of those weapons for terrorists who could then use them against U.S. or other Western targets. Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, and additionally used chemical weapons against civilians in rebellious area of Iraq.

After Iraqi forces were expelled by U.S.-led Western coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War, and as a part of the agreements that prevented the occupation of Iraq and allowed Hussein to remain in power, Hussein agreed to destroy all weapons of mass destruction and forsake

In their trademark blue caps, United Nations weapons inspectors take notes during a visit to a veterinary research center in Baghdad, January 9, 2003. ©AFP/CORBIS.
In their trademark blue caps, United Nations weapons inspectors take notes during a visit to a veterinary research center in Baghdad, January 9, 2003. ©

the future development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. During the next decade, however, 17 specific United Nations Security Council resolutions, weapons inspection programs, and economic sanctions against Iraq failed to secure Hussein's full compliance and assure disarmament of such weapons.

U.S. officials offered prior UN weapons-inspector declarations of Iraqi compliance as proof that Hussein was able to deceive inspectors. Discovery of Iraqi nuclear weapons development facilities in the early 1990s invalidated declarations by IAEA chief Hans Blix that Iraq had no viable nuclear weapons program. After dismantling the Iraqi nuclear program, weapons inspectors had also failed to uncover Iraqi biological and chemical weapons facilities until information supplied to Western intelligence sources by the defection of a son-in-law of Hussein (later executed by Hussein when he returned to Iraq) provided evidence of biological and chemical weapons programs.

Although many weapons were subsequently discovered and destroyed by inspection teams, Iraqi defiance of UN resolutions continued throughout the 1990s. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) was created by the UN Security Council (resolution 1284) in December, 1999. UNMOVIC was chartered to replace the former UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and continue the mandate to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and monitor compliance with other UN stipulations (e.g., that Iraq not possess missiles with a range of more than 150 km). Blix was named the commission's executive chairman. UNMOVIC staff included weapons specialists, scientific analysts, engineers and operational planners. In 1998 Iraq expelled the weapons inspectors and no meaningful inspections took place between 1998 and 2002.

Some Pentagon and administration officials urged immediate and direct action be taken by the United States to disarm Iraq. There were also more controversial calls for a "regime change" in Baghdad as the only means to assure Iraqi disarmament. United States President George W. Bush decided instead to seek international cooperation to disarm Iraq. In September 2002, Bush addressed the United Nations and called for a strong resolution that, backed by the threat of the use of military force, would assure that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction. In October 2002, the U. S. Congress voted Bush the authority to use military force to enforce UN resolutions.

In November 2002, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1441 that reiterated Iraq's obligations to disarm in accordance with prior treaty and resolution obligations and further recognized the threat that "Iraq's non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security." Resolution 1441 went on to restate Security Council intentions to "restore international peace and security in the area."

Resoultion 1441 specifically stated that Iraq "has not provided an accurate, full, final, and complete disclosure…of all aspects of its program to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with a range greater than one hundred and fifty kilometers, and of all holdings of such weapons, their components and production facilities and locations, as well as all other nuclear programs, including any which it claims are for purposes not related to nuclear-weapons-usable material."

Resolution 1441 additionally stated that Iraq had "repeatedly obstructed immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access to sites designated by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), [and had] failed to cooperate fully and unconditionally with UNSCOM and IAEA weapons inspectors…." The resolution deplores "the absence, since December 1998, in Iraq of international monitoring, inspection, and verification, as required by relevant resolutions, of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, in spite of the Council's repeated demands that Iraq provide immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access to the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), established in resolution 1284 (1999) as the successor organization to UNSCOM, and the IAEA…."

Important to U.S. concerns regarding potential links between Iraq and terrorist organizations, resolution 1441 recognized that Iraq had "failed to comply with its commitments pursuant to resolution 687 (1991) with regard to terrorism, pursuant to resolution 688 (1991) to end repression of its civilian population and to provide access by international humanitarian organizations to all those in need of assistance in Iraq…." Important to questions of legitimacy regarding potential military action against Iraq, resolution 1441 recalled "that in its resolution 687 (1991) the Council declared that a ceasefire [of the Persian Gulf War] would be based on acceptance by Iraq of the provisions of that resolution, including the obligations on Iraq contained therein."

Resolution 1441 declared Iraq to be in material breach (a violation of an important or substantial issue, not just a violation of a technicality or legal process issue) of prior resolutions and set out specific demands for Iraq including resumption of inspections in Iraq by UNMOVIC and the IAEA based upon a full and truthful declaration of prohibited weapons (e.g., chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons, nuclear programs, ballistic missiles, and prohibited weapons delivery systems).

Resolution 1441 specifically warned Iraq that future false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq would constitute "a further material breach of Iraq's obligations" and reiterated the Security Council's warnings that "Iraq will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations."

In December, 2002, Iraq produced a 12,000-page document on its weapons programs. U.S. and U.K. officials declared the declaration false, and subsequently, UN weapons inspection teams argued that the document contained little in the way of new information and that it failed to signal Iraq's willingness to cooperate with the international community. Weapons inspectors from UNMOVIC and IAEA returned to Iraq in December 2002.

In late January, Blix, now the chief UNMOVIC weapons inspector, delivered what many observers concluded was a negative report on Iraq's cooperation with the latest in a twelve-year string of UN resolutions to disarm. Blix's report to the Security Council stated, "Iraq appears not to have come to genuine acceptance—not even today—of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and live in peace." Blix went on to specifically cite Iraqi failures to eliminate prohibited chemical and biological arms programs.

Mohamed El Baradei, the IAEA chief inspector for atomic weapons, reported that Iraq had apparently been unable to successfully reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. Although there was disputed evidence that Iraq continued to try to obtain elements of nuclear weapons, it became apparent to inspectors that the destruction or dismantling of Iraq's nuclear program in the early 1990s had prevented Iraq from successfully developing nuclear weapons. Prior to the first Gulf War and the subsequent dismantling of equipment by UN forces, Western intelligence analysts estimated that without intervention, Iraq had been within two years of developing operational nuclear weapons. Based upon El Baradei's report, attention quickly focused on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons program.

Iraq rejected all of the inspectors' negative comments and the Iraqi ambassador, Mohammed A. Aldouri, insisted that Iraq had "fully complied with all its obligations" with regard to UN resolution 1441, which required disclosure of weapons and disarmament by Iraq.

Repeating a stand carefully articulated prior to the passage of UN 1441, President Bush reiterated U.S. resolve to disarm Iraq by force if necessary—even without support by other United Nations Security Council members with veto power (France, Russia, China). The other country with veto power, the United Kingdom, sided with the United States. At peril to their political futures, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw (their own Labour party remained deeply divided over the use of force to disarm Iraq) carefully articulated both the strategic need to prevent Iraq from becoming a conduit through which terrorists could obtain weapons of mass destruction, and also of the humanitarian need to liberate the Iraqi people from the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein. Veto-bearing Security Council members (i.e., France, Russia and China)—joined by members Germany and Syria—contended that the inspections process was yielding results and that additional time should be allowed for Iraq's disarmament.

In statements and reports, Blix's inspection team reported that despite Iraq's denials, there were indications that Iraq had created weapons of mass destruction, including VX agent, a weapon that Blix described as "one of the most toxic [nerve agents] ever developed." Blix's report also contained evidence that Iraq had provided contradictory information about its VX stocks in a 12,000-page declaration regarding Iraq's weapons programs that Iraq supplied to the Security Council in December 2002. The United States and United Kingdom contended that Iraq's false declaration to the Security Council was clear and convincing evidence of Iraq's continued unwillingness to comply with United Nations resolutions and to peacefully disarm.

UN inspection reports provided evidence to the Security Council that Iraq had failed to account for 6,500 chemical bombs, thousand of tons of known chemical agents, empty chemical warheads (including an empty Sakr-18 chemical warhead) discovered subsequent to Iraq's declaration, and stocks of thiodiglycol (a precursor of mustard gas).

Iraq admitted to producing—in violation of international law—8,500 liters of anthrax bacteria capable of use in biological warfare. Iraq claimed that production stopped before the first Persian Gulf War and that it destroyed the anthrax. UN inspection reports stated, "Iraq has provided little evidence for this production and no convincing evidence for its destruction." In addition, UN inspectors concluded that there were strong indications that Iraq had manufactured far greater stores of anthrax.

Blix also reported that Iraq had manufactured a missile, the Samoud 2, that violated United Nations range restrictions limiting missiles to a range of 90 miles (150 kilometers). Inspectors also provided evidence to the Security Council that Iraq rebuilt a missile plant that had previously been destroyed by earlier inspection teams and that it continued to illegally import chemicals used in formulating missile fuels and prohibited weapons. Blix ordered Iraq to begin destruction of the prohibited missiles by March 1, 2003, and to cease production of the missiles. Blix also insisted that Iraq begin to allow U-2 reconnaissance aircraft overflights demanded by inspectors.

U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell presented additional evidence to the Security Council of Baghdad's alleged non-compliance with UN disarmament resolutions. Powell, accompanied to the Security Council meeting by CIA Director George Tenet, also articulated United States assertions of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Powell asserted Western intelligence sources had evidence that Osama bin Laden met with senior Iraqi intelligence officials and that al-Qaeda operatives enjoyed safe haven in Iraq.

Powell also contended that Iraq possessed mobile laboratories to make biological weapons. Powell played intercepts of Iraqi officers apparently ordering concealment of prohibited weapons and displayed satellite pictures of alleged chemical weapons facilities. Powell questioned Iraq's development of unmanned drone airplanes capable of delivering chemical or biological weapons, and claimed that up to 500 tons of chemical weapons agents remained unaccounted for by Iraq.

Powell stressed that the United States and it's coalition partners had "limited patience" for continued Iraqi noncompliance with United Nations resolutions. President Bush and other United States officials insisted that Iraq was in "material breech" of UN resolutions and that military action could be undertaken to disarm Iraq under the terms of existing resolutions.

Other Security Council members disagreed with U.S. and U.K. contentions and, led by France, appealed for more time to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Politics—including political struggles with the European Union and NATO—intermingled with diplomacy as nations sought to position themselves with regard to a need for military action to enforce UN resolutions. France seized on the politically motivated pacifist stance of German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroder to form a unified anti-war alliance fronted by France, Germany, and Russia. Schroder, in deep political trouble regarding domestic economic problems that plagued his 2002 election campaign, ultimately secured a narrow election victory by promising socialist, Green, and anti-American elements of the German electorate that he would never allow German forces to support military action against Iraq. In addition to their anti-war stance, France, Germany, and Russia all maintained important economic interests in Iraq.

Support for France's anti-war position reached its highest point on February 14, 2003, when French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin delivered an impassioned speech that appealed to the noblest aspirations of the United Nations. In a breech of protocol, sympathetic members applauded both de Villepin's and the Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov's appeals for additional time to allow Iraq to disarm under a stricter inspections program.

The next day, February 15, 2003, saw the largest civil demonstrations for peace in the history of the world. Millions of demonstrators at sites around the globe protested potential U.S.-led military action against Iraq.

Events moved to a diplomatic breaking point in early March. France, Germany, Russia, and China staunchly opposed military enforcement of UN resolution 1441 and threatened veto of any resolution that might—even indirectly—authorize the United States and United Kingdom to lead forces to disarm Iraq. The United States, United Kingdom, and Spain put forth a resolution that simply declared Iraq in material breech of 17 prior UN resolutions. President Bush openly declared that he would force countries to "show their cards" with regard to Iraq. In a press conference on March 6, President Bush asserted that Saddam Hussein posed a direct and immediate danger to the security of the United States and, with regard to the United Nations and pending debate and resolutions, asserted that "diplomacy has failed" and that "we really don't need anybody's permission" to defend the United States.

At a meeting of the Security Council the next morning, weapons inspectors Blix and El Baradei reported cooperation had improved, but that Iraqi cooperation was less than complete. Blix issued a report to the Council specifying a number of questions that remained unsolved since the passage of resolution 1441 (and previous resolutions). The UN weapons inspector's report specifically stated that Iraq had not accounted for up to 10,000 liters of anthrax, Scud missile warheads (missiles Iraq fired at Israel and coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War and that could be armed chemical or biological agents), and drone aircraft that could fly past UN-allowed limits and that also could be fitted with spray units that could deliver chemical or biological weapons.

With war seemingly imminent, the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain amended a final resolution that set March 17, 2003, as a final deadline for the council to certify Iraqi compliance with prior resolutions. The resolution stated "…that Iraq will have failed to take the final opportunity afforded by resolution 1441 (2002) unless, on or before 17 March 2003 the council concludes that Iraq has demonstrated full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation in accordance with its disarmament obligations under resolution 1441 (2002) and previous relevant resolutions, and is yielding possession to UNMOVIC and the IAEA of all weapons, weapon delivery and support systems and structures, prohibited by resolution 687 (1991) and all subsequent relevant resolutions, and all information regarding prior destruction of such items."

Although a threat of force was not contained within the resolution, there was little doubt that should Iraq fail to meet the deadline, the United States and United Kingdom would lead a multinational coalition to militarily disarm Iraq. The United States also sought and promised to depose Saddam Hussein and allow the Iraqi people a chance for democratic government.

France vehemently opposed the new resolution setting specific deadlines and actively lobbied against it. The trans-Atlantic alliance between NATO allies was strained more severely than ever in its history. There were terse exchanges between diplomats and angry and severe rhetoric exchanged in the media of France and America. American press reports detailed how French intelligence officials had passed false documents to British intelligence regarding potential Iraqi purchases of uranium. French contracts with the Iraqi dictatorship called French motives into question, and U.S. press and Western intelligence reports claimed evidence of possible sales by France to Iraq of military hardware in violation of prior UN prohibitions.

France and Russia threatened to veto the deadline resolution, and intense diplomatic efforts to sway the votes of the non-permanent members to the Security Council followed. Although the United States and United Kingdom anticipated a French veto, Prime Minister Blair promised his own government that he would seek this final resolution. With France, Russia, China, Germany, and Syria on record in opposition to the resolution, and the U.S., U.K., Spain, and Bulgaria on record in favor of the resolution, the decision rested with the remaining six temporary member states (Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico, and Pakistan). Nine votes and no veto were required to pass the resolution. Although a chance at outright passage remained slim, the U.S. and U.K. pressed for a vote before commencing military action against Iraq.

American and British diplomats claimed that the diplomatic efforts and intransigence of France ultimately "poisoned the diplomatic process." In spite of British attempts to make amendments to pending resolutions and set specific tasks for Iraq to perform to indicate willingness to comply with UN resolutions, France promised to veto the pending resolution—in some cases before Iraq could itself reject the U.K. proposals. On March 15, President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and Spain's President Jose Maria Anzar convened an emergency summit in the Azores where they reaffirmed the trans-Atlantic alliance and stated that March 17 would be the final date for the UN to agree on a diplomatic solution to enforce resolution 1441.

With the UN Security Council deadlocked, the probable votes of the nonpermanent members hotly disputed, and the deadline at hand, the U.S., U.K. and Spain allowed their new proposal to die without a vote. Although he had once promised to call for a vote, President Bush stated that France "had shown their cards" and administration officials declared the "diplomatic window closed." Although France, Russia, and China declared that any U.S.-and U.K.-led coalition action against Iraq would be illegitimate and in violation of the UN charter, U.S. and U.K. officials rested on existing UN resolutions (one reason some experts claimed that another vote was not sought), Iraq's violation of the treaty that ended the Persian Gulf War, and assertions of the right of self defense to legitimize military action.

On the evening of March 17 (Washington time), President Bush, in a televised address that was carried around the world by major news organizations, issued Saddam Hussein and his sons (both high ranking Iraqi officials) a 48-hour deadline to leave Iraq or face war.

UN weapons inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq and most countries withdrew diplomats and other personnel in anticipation of imminent war. France called for a ministerial-level meeting of the UN Security Council, and a meeting of heads of state. The U.S. and U.K. ignored further French efforts and insisted that Hussein could only avoid war by exile.

Hussein ignored the deadline and U.S.-and U.K.-led forces launched aerial attacks against Iraq on the evening of March 19, 2002 (March 20, 2002, in Europe and Iraq).



DeYoung, K., and Colum Lynch. "Britain Races To Rework Resolution: U.S. Insists on Limiting Concessions for Iraq." Washington Post. March 11, 2003.

Evans, D. and D. Charter. "Iraq Strikes Back with Suspected Banned Missiles." The Times. March 21, 2003.

Fisher, I. "Chief Weapons Inspectors See No Big Breakthrough after Talks in Baghdad." New York Times. February 10, 2003.

Gellman, B. "U.S. Reaps New Data on Weapons." Washington Post. March 20, 2003.

Sanger, D., and F. Barringer. "President Readies U.S. for Prospect of Imminent War." New York Times. March 7, 2003.

Tagliabue, J. "France and Russia Ready To Use Veto Against Iraq War." New York Times. March 6, 2003.


United Nations. Security Council Resolution 1441. November 7, 2002. < > (March 23, 2003).


Iraq, Intelligence and Security Agencies
Iraqi Freedom, Operation (2003 War Against Iraq)

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