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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 July, 2003, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
A retreat on Iraqi weapons?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online World Affairs correspondent

The admission to the BBC by British government officials that actual weapons of mass destruction are unlikely to be found in Iraq is a moment of great political significance - but technically it is an acceptance of a reality which had become evident to many in the field some time ago.

Even now officials are saying that it doesn't mean that the weapons did not exist - simply that they were destroyed or hidden or dispersed in advance of the invasion.

Students gather at an abandoned surface-to-surface missile inside the campus of Baghdad College
Downing Street talks about finding weapons 'products'
However, that claim sounds like the reason given by armies throughout history to cover a retreat - "retiring to prepared positions".

Evidence will have to be found of that process of destruction or dispersal if this latest claim is to have substance.

And Downing Street has brought forward a new word to describe what they hope to find instead of the weapons - "products" of weapons programmes.

Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI) said that he was not "not hugely surprised" by the admission.

The British government used the wrong arguments to justify the war and was swayed too much by Washington
Daniel Neep
Royal United Services Institute in London

He told BBC News Online: "The British government used the wrong arguments to justify the war and was swayed too much by Washington.

"It should have concentrated on the humanitarian and cruelty issues in order to appeal to the British public and its own left wing.

"It took on board too much the American agenda of linking Iraq to al-Qaeda.

"It could have justified the war by pointing to Iraqi failure to cooperate under the terms of resolution 1441. It mishandled the issue."

'Weapons programmes'

Gradually the "prepared positions" have fallen. The language changed. Weapons became materials, which then became capabilities, then programmes and now products.

The retreat became open when Tony Blair spoke to MPs about his confidence of finding "evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes" and when President Bush himself also used the word "programme" when he spoke at a news conference in South Africa.

But what constitutes a "programme"?

This question, too, must be answered if that line of defence is to hold.

According to Daniel Neep, a "programme" means that no actual material need to be found but instead other indications would have to be established:

  • Evidence from Iraqi scientists of plans to make illegal weapon or their constituent parts.

  • Evidence that there was sufficient knowledge and capability both among the scientists and in the industrial systems, i.e. that Iraq knew how to manufacture the materials and could in practice do so.

  • Evidence of procurement networks, order documents, perhaps from imports, etc., to show that materials were available or could be made so. If, for example, equipment was found for the enrichment of uranium.

    The American and British investigators working in Iraq under the title of the Iraq Research Group are currently interviewing scientists.

    Dossiers

    They have been told by one of them that he was ordered to hide blueprints for a gas centrifuge separation unit for enriched uranium in his garden but it is unclear as to whether that was a left over from the days of the first Gulf war or part of an active contingency plan for the regime to restart a nuclear programme.

    As for the destruction or disposal of the "missing" weapons, it could be argued by the British and US governments that this was not a particularly hard task for the Iraqis to undertake.

    The UN weapons inspectors and the British and CIA dossiers on Iraq all listed material which had been unaccounted for in previous inspections but the destruction of which would not present insurmountable problems.

  • 360 tonnes of bulk chemical warfare agent, including 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent

  • 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals

  • Growth media for biological weapons including more than 25,000 litres of anthrax

    However, other items would be harder to dispose of secretly.

    It was also alleged that Iraq had not accounted for more than 30,000 chemical or biological bombs.

    Intelligence

    The case that material had been destroyed is weakened by the failure of other parts of the charges against Iraq to stand up - the 45 minutes deployment capability, the aluminium tubes said, by the US in particular, to be for centrifuges, the uranium from Niger, a British allegation, the 12-20 Scud missiles Iraq was said to have retained, the upgrading of manufacturing plants for illegal production.

    The Bush administration has suggested that some weapons have been spirited away to Syria - but the Syrians have denied this and there is no evidence for it.

    Behind all this lies another key issue for future consideration.

    If no weapons of mass destruction can be found, or evidence that they were destroyed, what reliance can be placed on the work of the intelligence?




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