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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
WMD: Ask an expert
Simon Henderson
Analyst Simon Henderson answered your questions.



British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush face increasing pressure over allegations that they exaggerated the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Tony Blair returns from the G8 summit in France to growing calls by Labour and opposition MPs for an inquiry into the government's claims, with the prime minister being called to give evidence.

Last weekend, the former International Development Secretary, Clare Short told reporters the Prime Minister Tony Blair had "duped" the country into going to war.

In Washington, the US Congress has ordered an investigation into possible abuse of intelligence information about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

You put your questions to Simon Henderson, energy consultant and expert on Iraq's chemical & biological weapons capability.


Transcript:


George Eykyn:

Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online, interactive forum. I'm George Eykyn. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the US President George Bush have been facing increasing pressure over allegations that they exaggerated the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In Washington, the US Congress has ordered an investigation into possible abuse of intelligence information. But here, Downing Street has ruled out a public inquiry. So were the claims of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction exaggerated, were the public misled? Here to help answer your many questions from the UK and our online audience abroad, is the Middle East analyst and expert on Iraq's chemical and biological capability, Simon Henderson. Simon, welcome to News Online.

A question first of all e-mailed to us from the USA, Chris Kalli, asks: Is there definition of a "weapon of mass destruction"?


Simon Henderson:

I'm not sure if there's a book definition but to my mind a weapon of mass destruction is any weapon which, when it is used by itself, is going to cause not just tens or hundreds of casualties but thousands and potentially tens of thousands. And so in terms of WMD as it is shortened to, what we're talking about is either nuclear weapons, chemical weapons or biological weapons.


George Eykyn:

We've had a question from Lesotho, from M Mokose, who says: Whatever happened to the weapons of mass destruction which were put forth by the British and American governments as a justification for the war and ignoring the authority of the United Nations? The world needs to see the proof of the claim and there should be an inquiry.

What about the absence so far - the failure to find the WMD in Iraq?


Simon Henderson:

Well it's a curious failure but so is the failure to find Saddam Hussein. And to put it bluntly - and I'm not the first person to put it - we haven't discovered Saddam Hussein yet and we know he existed. So just because we haven't found the WMD and to say it never existed.

But the story in short, is that the British and American governments made the assumption that Saddam still had arsenals of this stuff, that he was still trying to develop further quantities of it and still had the intention to use it at some point in the future and London and Washington decided it was necessary to move against him.


George Eykyn:

Not only that but they also didn't say that they were working on the basis of an assumption, did they? In fact, if I remember that Tony Blair told Parliament that Iraq could actually use its weapons of mass destruction within something like forty-five minutes. It was that kind of specific information which gave the impression of a clear and imminent danger to western society.


Simon Henderson:

Yes there is two parts to that. One is that we know and the United Nations knows - and even the UN inspectors of Hans Blix etc. were unable to discover what had happened to all the weapons or the capability of making weapons - the raw materials for it - that we know Iraq had had and Iraq had failed to give a good explanation. Forty-five minutes - I always read that as not as if there was going to be a missile firing at us in forty-five minutes time. That some of this material - chemical and biological, but certainly chemical, was for use on artillery shells, and these artillery shells, equipped in this way, could be distributed to front line Iraqi army units within that time, if necessary.


George Eykyn:

Let's just deal with the technical matter of what sort of a state WMD, weapons of mass destruction, in Iraq would in now because a lot of the hard data is based on the late '80s and the early 1990s when declarations were made. We've had a question e-mailed in from Dominic in the UK who says: The use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the '80s was one of the clearest examples of his WMD. But these weapons were used many years ago. What is the shelf life of the chemical and biological agents that he was reported to have?


Simon Henderson:

Well when it comes down to that level of technical expertise, I don't know it personally but from what I've read, the shelf life is years but no so many years and it rather depends upon the various materials. To say therefore if it has got a five year shelf life and it was more than five years since the Gulf War therefore we shouldn't worry about it is one answer. But what we should worry about and this was the argument put by London and Washington which I think frankly is a convincing argument, that it is up to the Iraqis to explain what happened to that material. Don't tell us they just threw it down the sink because you don't do it in that way. Iraq and as we've since Saddam Hussein was overthrown was a country where everything was written down. Every little thing about dissents who were arrested and then tortured were written down. And so we're quite certain that everything relating to WMD in Iraq was written down as well. Where are the records of it? And are those records convincing? And why don't you show it to us?


George Eykyn:

So it doesn't sound as though you're going to yes to the question, we've had from Allan in Scotland which is: How would you assess the capability of Iraq to threaten the world with chemical weapons just after the inspectors left for the last time? Had Saddam been telling the truth about their having been disposed of all along?

You say no. You say we don't know the answers.


Simon Henderson:

Well we don't know to that but we know the track record of Saddam was that he never told the truth about anything if he could possibly avoid it. And so there was no reason to believe anything of what he has said. And I think it was a reasonable assumption and indeed from everything that people were being told it was logical to assume that he still had them and was still under certain circumstances - and we were never quite sure what those circumstances were - was prepared to use them.

After all, if you're a senior general and you're faced with this sort of threat, you will make your own assessment of it because you have to decide whether your troops are going to have to wear chemical weapon suits, which I'm told are the most unpleasant things you could possibly wear for anything longer than five minutes and you certainly don't want to live in them during the day and you certainly don't want to charge around a very hot desert in them. But troops did, and it must have been because they were convinced this was a real threat.


George Eykyn:

Dr M.V. Diboll, United Arab Emirates asks: Why is it that in the 80s, when it was no secret that he had and was using chemical weapons, Saddam was a tyrant we were more than happy to do business with? Why did Britain and America suddenly decide that Iraq's alleged possession of WMDs was a casus beli - a reason to go to war?


Simon Henderson:

Well I think the questioner there is rewriting history. It's not the way that I remember the 1980s. The 1980s - and I ended up writing a biography of Saddam Hussein in 1990 - I did a lot of work in Iraq in the 1980s and the people who were supplying military equipment to Saddam's Iraq were noticeably the Soviet Union and the other parts of the Soviet bloc - China, France. And Britain and the United States supplied extremely little military equipment to Saddam because we realised what a diabolical regime it was. And so your questioner is pointing his finger in the wrong direction in terms of blame.


George Eykyn:

We've had an e-mail which has come while you were talking from Ralph in the UK who says: If Iraq really did have the forty-five minute capability, why did they not use their weapons on the advancing coalition troops? Surely the three day regrouping pause gave them more than enough time, unless of course there were no weapons for them to deploy in the first place.


Simon Henderson:

In retrospect the weapons might have been dispersed, destroyed or well hidden by that point. And it was a question that I asked military experts, acquaintances, during the war when I was doing a lot of television work and this was one of the questions which was coming up - when do they use them. And the answer I was given was that the greatest danger is when there are concentrations of forces and so the British and American forces were trying to make sure that their precise location was always hidden as much as possible. And they were dispersed as far as possible across the great Iraq desert.

It was surprising to me therefore that Saddam didn't use them at what I saw was the first opportunity, which was when the American forces had got really quite close to Baghdad. But in order to final approach Baghdad, they had to cross just one or two bridges across the Euphrates River and they had to concentrate their forces to do this. That's in military terms - that's when you use chemical weapons - they weren't used. When we find Saddam, when we find some of his generals, we'll be able to ask him.


George Eykyn:

So they weren't used and furthermore since then, we haven't found the weapons of mass destruction. James Patrick, USA asks: Is it possible to completely destroy WMDs and are we looking in the right place?


Simon Henderson:

Well if we haven't found them we're clearly not looking in the right place so far. Iraq is a huge country. For European viewers, I believe it's twice the size of France and France itself is the biggest country in western Europe. It is the size of California, if you are an American. It is huge. It is not difficult to hide things in such places. You don't just pour it into the sand. I suppose some of it might have been hidden in that way but you store in some way and eventually it will be found. There were not just hundreds, there were thousands of technicians, scientists, engineers working on these projects when we knew that existed back in the '80s. Some of them were retained into the '90s and they will have stories to tell. Perhaps they haven't come forward yet, or their debriefings haven't been released. Mr Blair has hinted at that he knows some information and when he's got a bit more he'll tell us. But in political terms a bit of an inadequate answer. But there is information to come out, I'm sure, and we will have a clearer picture of what went on.


George Eykyn:

As you were just touching on, the failure to provide the hard evidence which he has being saying does exist, does present a credibility problem to Tony Blair doesn't it? How important is it that they find evidence of weapons of mass destruction?


Simon Henderson:

I think it is generally important. It's a lacunae in our information - we'd like to know the answer. But I think we have to put it in a certain context. I think it's a big deal here in Britain where it's become a very big British political domestic story. I don't think it's such a big deal in the United States - they're less bothered.


George Eykyn:

One final e-mail that's come in while you were talking from Jan Kennedy talking about the weapons inspectors and he doubts whether there were enough of them. Do you believe there should have been more inspectors deployed during that phase when we were looking with the weapons inspectors?


Simon Henderson:

I think more would have been good. But I think the United Nations was the wrong forum to do it with. And I think the attitude of Dr. Blix and Dr ElBaradei, who was his nuclear counterpart, was wrong.


George Eykyn:

I'm afraid that's all we have time for. My thanks to our guest Simon Henderson, and to you for your many questions. From me George Eykyn, and all of us here at BBC News Online, goodbye.




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