The Disarming of Iraq: What Went Wrong and What Went Right

Inspection teams found and destroyed the country’s WMDs. So why did the US and UK invade in 2003?

The Disarming of Iraq: What Went Wrong and What Went Right
U.S. Marines patrol Baghdad on April 10, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. (Sean Smith/Getty Images)

On the night of Sept. 25, 1991, Chief Inspector David Kay and his deputy, Robert Galluci, had a strange request for a group of Iraqis who were stopping them from leaving a car park. If you’re going to beat anyone up, they asked, will you make sure it’s us?

It was three days into a weeklong standoff involving a team of unarmed inspectors mandated by the U.N. Security Council and their armed Iraqi inspection hosts. The issue at stake was that the international inspectors had just found a tranche of documents proving the existence of Iraq’s illegal nuclear weapons program. The Iraqis couldn’t let them leave with this evidence, but the inspectors refused to leave without it.

During the daylight hours, the Iraqi regime engineered irate protests at the site. Television cameras captured events and broadcast footage around the world, and the inspectors reasoned that the media coverage provided their teams with some protection; surely the Iraqi inspection hosts would not be reckless enough to rough up international inspectors on camera.

But the nights were different. Protesters and TV crews were gone for the day, and Kay and Gallucci feared that the Iraqis who were trying to keep them from taking the documents might use force, a concern that grew when they noticed the numbers of Iraqi soldiers ramping up. Knowing that their teams included combat-trained personnel, they worried that some of their crew might retaliate if provoked and that a resulting confrontation could get out of hand. If there was going to be violence, Kay and Gallucci preferred it to be directed against them. At least they knew they would not react and escalate the problem.

In the end, a resolution arrived before it came to this. Miles away in New York, the executive chair of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), which had been set up to supervise the declaration and destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological warfare capabilities and long-range missiles, had been carefully keeping the Security Council informed about the situation, and the council issued an ultimatum that insisted Iraq comply with the inspections.

The Iraqi regime had no choice but to reluctantly let the inspectors leave with their findings. According to some accounts, a senior Iraqi official asked whether Kay and Galluci’s offer to be beaten up still stood, as acting on it could help him save some face. Gallucci and Kay declined.

The “car park incident” illustrates the complex dynamics among the weapons inspectors, Iraq and the Security Council during the early-to-mid-1990s, through which, despite many challenges, the inspectors managed to find and oversee the destruction of Iraq’s outlawed weapons by 1997. This history is often overshadowed by the 2003 U.S.-U.K. military invasion that was publicly justified with flawed claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the forgotten history of the international weapons inspections shows that safe and verified disarmament is possible, even in difficult circumstances, and that cooperative approaches offer better options for achieving lasting security than poorly conceived military interventions based on a misuse of national intelligence.

The international inspectors were in Iraq as part of the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War, mandated by the Security Council in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The cease-fire agreement (formalized in Resolution 687, adopted on April 3, 1991) stipulated that Iraq declare and eliminate its WMD and long-range missiles and that it do so under international supervision. To ensure this could happen, Iraq agreed to allow inspections “anytime anywhere” and to permit the establishment of a monitoring system that would verify that the country had never resumed outlawed weapons programs.

The Security Council appointed two international inspection bodies to oversee these processes: UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based international organization responsible for monitoring compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was given the task of finding and supervising the elimination of Iraq’s nuclear weapons and which established an action team to do this. UNSCOM was the senior partner, as only it could authorize inspections at undeclared sites. While separate, the groups often coordinated their work.

Before the 1991 intervention, there was little firm knowledge about the extent of Iraq’s WMD ambitions. While Iraq’s history of chemical weapons attacks against Iran and its own Kurdish population throughout the 1980s clearly demonstrated that it had chemical weapons and was prepared to break international norms to use them, the international community did not know the full details of the country’s capabilities or whether it had biological or nuclear weapons as well. In fact, while there were suspicions of the latter, the IAEA, during its ongoing work within the tight confines of the NPT monitoring provisions, had not detected any problems before the 1991 war. In fact, the IAEA had affirmed that Iraq’s declared nuclear materials had not been diverted to non-peaceful purposes — widely taken as giving Iraq the all-clear that it did not have a military nuclear program.

The 1991 cease-fire seemingly offered the international community a means to clarify the extent of Iraq’s WMD, and to safely and securely get rid of them. Iraq had clearly promised to declare and destroy its WMD and associated programs and to let the weapons inspectors see anything they needed in order to confirm that the job had been done. Given that Iraq agreed to cooperate — albeit under duress — the expectation was that the whole process would be over quickly.

However, it was immediately clear that this was not going to happen. Iraq lied in its very first declaration, setting an ongoing pattern in motion in which Iraq would initially submit inaccurate and incomplete declarations that it judged to be consistent with what the international community already knew, then grudgingly change the story only when confronted with contradictory evidence. And the country consistently impeded the inspectors, despite the “anytime, anywhere” commitment in the cease-fire.

This typified an awkward three-way wrangling. The Iraqi regime worked to thwart the international inspections while noisily claiming that the international community was violating its sovereign rights, all the while trying to divide the Security Council’s commitment to uphold the terms of the cease-fire. On the ground, the inspectors doggedly persisted but had few options to persuade the Iraqis to comply, beyond their own skills, creativity and opportunistic cunning. (One time, for instance, an inspector fell ill, or perhaps feigned illness, and was sent home with key documents stuffed up his shirt.) Their main support was in New York, from where UNSCOM Executive Chair Rolf Ekéus followed the teams’ work, judging when and how to present their case to the Security Council.

Despite the difficulties on the ground, the international inspectors succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, with the IAEA Action Team inspectors finding proof of an illicit nuclear weapons program within the first few months of inspections and UNSCOM uncovering evidence of Iraq’s well-hidden and extensive biological weapons program a few years later. By 1997 (some say 1995), the inspectors were confident that they had built up a coherent picture of Iraq’s illegal weapons, that these weapons had been destroyed and that the key weapons infrastructure had been eliminated.

But if the weapons were destroyed, how did the United States and United Kingdom build their case to invade Iraq? Given the inspectors’ achievements, it is perplexing that Washington and London were able to claim that Iraq still had illegal weapons of mass destruction, in the public justifications for their 2003 military invasion. Problems started in the late 1990s. Iraq denied entry to the inspectors in 1998 and did not allow them back into the country until 2002, meaning that they were unable to carry out the ongoing monitoring mandated by the 1991 cease-fire. While the inspectors continued their work remotely, without on-the-ground access, they could not be sure that Iraq hadn’t resumed its WMD programs. Iraq’s behavior reinforced the concerns; the Iraqis who were involved with the processes had repeatedly lied in declarations and obstructed inspections from 1991 onward, which led many to believe that they had something to hide. This mistrust continued beyond the 1997 milestone achievements. At the same time, the collective resolve of the Security Council also started to unravel. While the U.S. and U.K. wanted inspections to continue, Russia and France wanted them to end so sanctions could stop and they could resume trade with Iraq.

This combination — the absence of information from on-site inspections, coupled with suspicions of illicit behavior and the collapse of Security Council unity — created an opportunity for incorrect reports to flourish. In making their case for the 2003 invasion, the U.S. and U.K. cited intelligence that was derived from uncorroborated closed sources — some seemingly based on single human testimony. Some former weapons inspectors think that just a very few people from U.S. intelligence agencies were inclined to believe the lies from a very few defectors and misrepresent more accurate accounts, and that these people were given disproportionate credence by decision makers. George W. Bush and Tony Blair convinced themselves of the need for war for various reasons and were able to cherry-pick the intelligence that suited their purpose.

The international inspection processes did not support their views. On March 7, 2003, the IAEA Director General reported to the Security Council that there was no “evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.” The inspectors called out at least two of the detailed claims.

The first concerned documents that suggested that Iraq had imported uranium oxide from Niger from 1999 to 2001, which, according to U.S. and U.K. officials, showed that Iraq had resumed its nuclear weapons program. The nuclear weapons inspectors conclusively showed that the documents had been forged.

The second claim focused on CIA assessments that aluminum tubes found in Iraq were equipment for technology to enrich uranium for a resumed nuclear weapons program, which nuclear weapons inspectors refuted by showing that the aluminum tubes were for permitted small military rockets. But by this stage, the inspectors’ findings did not garner enough visibility to make a difference.

History ultimately proved the international inspections right, while the cited intelligence was wrong. Why the difference? Unlike the misuse of distorted intelligence based on uncorroborated single sources, the international inspections relied on multifaceted data collection and analysis. Prevented from the comparatively straightforward sequential tasks of verifying Iraqi WMD declarations and elimination anticipated by the cease-fire, they devised multiple approaches to find overlapping indicators of illicit weapons programs instead. By collecting and comparing diverse data points, they slowly built up an understanding about Iraq’s ambitions, activities and resources, useful in itself, and in allowing the inspectors to spot gaps and errors in Iraq’s declarations, which in turn signaled other areas to investigate.

The inspection leads provided an invaluable foundation. For example, UNSCOM inspectors frequently acknowledge Rolf Ekéus’s contribution, first in recruiting and managing their diverse teams and in giving them the space and support they needed to solve the problems they faced. They also note the nuance and skills he used in managing the Security Council.

Given the differences in findings between the flawed intelligence and the inspections, it is curious that the inspection teams’ multiple data sources included nationally provided information, including intelligence from France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. and other countries. Moreover, alongside scientific, industry and diplomatic experts, some inspection teams included members that had experience of working within their national intelligence communities. All inspection teams were hybrid, in that they included combinations of permanent paid staff and external experts temporarily assigned by their national governments because of their particular expertise. The exact composition of different inspections depended on their focus: while paid IAEA staff and civilian experts were invaluable in resolving the inventories of nuclear materials found in Iraq, nearly all the specialist nuclear weapons inspectors had experience in working on confidential weapons technologies, which involved access to highly classified intelligence.

However, the international inspector bodies were circumspect in their use of national intelligence. Carefully vetting all incoming sources, they found that while some intelligence was invaluable, a lot was unreliable. Intelligence tips were particularly useful in the early stages of the work, helping both UNSCOM and the IAEA Action Team to identify which sites to inspect and what to look for. For example, the location of the inspection that led to the September 1991 car park incident was based on information derived from U.S. intelligence.

Over time, as the inspection teams built their own expertise on Iraq, these pointers became less useful. Hans Blix, who led both the IAEA (1981 to 1997) and UNSCOM’s successor organization, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) (2000-2003), assesses that, after 1998, national intelligence was the least useful component of the international inspections’ data sources. He reasoned that most of it was based on information from defectors, who had limited knowledge of Iraq’s current weapons program and had a vested interest in saying what they thought intelligence agencies wanted to hear. In many ways, processing intelligence at this time often proved a waste of the inspectors’ time.

While the inspections drew on national intelligence at different times, there are clear concerns about such arrangements. For example, national intelligence may attempt to influence international efforts by supplying inspectors with dubious information or attempt to use them as a cover for espionage. In fact, UNSCOM demonstrated this problem when it became embroiled in much-publicized allegations of spying, which the Iraqi government played up, and was forced to cease operations. Unable to resolve the controversy, UNSCOM was replaced by UNMOVIC in 1999.

There are fundamental tensions that need to be resolved when designing and implementing international anti-WMD endeavors. It is perhaps inevitable that effective anti-WMD-proliferation efforts involve some people with experience of working within national intelligence communities — after all, the necessary portfolio of skills and knowledge needed to find illicit WMD is not widespread and tends to reside in people who have security clearances. But including such people doesn’t automatically lead to good outcomes. It may lead to questions about who they are working with and how they are using the inspection results, and, whatever the answers, these questions may be used to undermine the overall credibility of the undertaking. Further, access to intelligence doesn’t guarantee that it will be good intelligence or that it will be carefully used.

The history of the Iraq inspections from 1991 to 1997 demonstrates a sweet spot in cooperation. National and international understanding of Iraq’s WMD benefited from on-the-ground information contained in the official inspection reports prepared for the Security Council. Meanwhile, carefully managed access to and use of nationally provided information, including some national intelligence, facilitated the effectiveness and accuracy of the international inspections. In finding and getting rid of Iraq’s WMD, the international inspections were able to fulfill their objectives as well as enhance regional and international security.

The international inspectors’ successes are now widely forgotten. Their achievements were neither inevitable nor easily won — they relied on hard work by talented and committed individuals who put themselves in danger to do their jobs. Through all the very real challenges, as well as eliminating Iraq’s illicit weapons, they also built connections and respect for the Iraqis they met through their work, recognizing the difficulties these people faced and their personal integrity. After 2003, former weapons inspectors supported their Iraqi counterparts, including in at least one instance by providing them with a reference that helped them get a job.

On top of this, the inspections leave a lasting legacy in the form of a small but invaluable pool of experience, expertise and experts to draw on in global efforts against WMD. The need is great: The world now faces increasingly intractable threats of WMD proliferation and use in Iran, North Korea and Syria and in the fact that all the world’s nuclear weapons possessor states are modernizing their arsenals. At the same time, the U.S. and Russia are downgrading the Cold War systems of mutual restraint, seen in their withdrawals from painstakingly negotiated arms control and disarmament treaties as well as in Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Understanding and acting to prevent the spread and use of WMD requires people who can track and uncover potential proliferation pathways. This means people who know what to look for and how to look for it in order to get to the truth about obscure and complex secrets, who are prepared to work in difficult circumstances and who won’t exacerbate security risks by revealing sensitive information to the wrong people, including would-be proliferators. The Iraq weapons inspections trained a generation of inspectors who devised and operationalized innovative monitoring techniques. Some of the inspectors continued to play a role in efforts preventing WMD and holding to account the people who have been prepared to acquire and use them.

Among other examples, former Iraq inspectors have been involved in understanding and monitoring developments in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And UNSCOM experiences have informed international investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria, contributing to building the knowledge that enabled the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Arab Air Forces were the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack on 7 April 2018 in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic.”

These achievements are often eclipsed by the long shadow of the 2003 invasion and its disastrous consequences for the whole of Iraq, especially the Iraqi civilians killed and harmed in the conflict, as well as the loss of essential infrastructure and resources, and the ongoing insecurity of the country and its region. But we would do well to remember the lessons of the international weapons inspections about the possibilities and practicalities of cooperative approaches to security that combine multiple paths and span national boundaries. Finding and eliminating Iraq’s WMD was difficult but possible. When they were allowed to get on with their work, the international weapons inspectors corrected damaging misinformation and uncovered and supervised the destruction of Iraq’s illicit weapons.

This essay is one of a series marking the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Read Rasha Al Aqeedi on her vivid memories of the invasion 20 years later as an Iraqi, Ambassador Robert Ford reflecting on his experiences as a former U.S. official in Iraq during the occupation, and Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the “lesson of Iraq” and retreat to fatalism.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy