Saddam's fatal false move: not telling the outside world he really had scrapped WMDs
Published 07/07/2016 | 02:30
The Anglo-American decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was not made on a whim. To understand why this happened, you have to turn the clock back another 12 years to Saddam Hussein's defeat in the previous Gulf War.
In February 1991, Saddam's occupation of Kuwait was ended by one of the largest military coalitions in history, led by the United States but embracing countries as diverse as Pakistan, Egypt and Syria.
Later, on April 3, 1991, the United Nations passed Resolution 687 containing peace terms for a defeated Iraq.
Its most important demand was that Saddam must relinquish his entire stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Soon afterwards, United Nations inspectors were sent to Iraq to oversee Saddam's disarmament. The idea was that this process would be completed quickly, allowing the UN to certify that Iraq was free of WMD. Once this vital confirmation had been issued, then sanctions could be lifted.
But the UN's certification never came. The inspectors entered Iraq and oversaw the destruction of large quantities of chemical and biological munitions between 1991 and 1994.
During this period, they also dismantled a covert nuclear weapons programme.
Yet there were unexplained holes in the information supplied by Iraq; in particular, there were often discrepancies between the quantity of poison gas that Iraq said it had manufactured and the amount that inspectors were able to destroy.
Somehow, the figures never quite added up. So the UN could not give Iraq a clean bill of health and declare that all the WMDs had gone.
The oddity is that we now know that all of the WMDs were gone. Iraq had, in fact, relinquished all of its poison gas and deadly germs.
While the UN was destroying the weapons that Saddam chose to disclose, the evidence suggests that his regime was, at much the same time, carrying out its own secret and parallel process of disarmament, getting rid of the weapons that were hidden from the inspectors.
Having completed this covert disarmament - the first such process in modern history - Saddam's acolytes then employed elaborate ruses to deceive the UN experts, even though there was actually nothing to hide.
Put simply, the regime behaved rather like a passenger who empties his pockets of all suspicious items before entering an airport - and then adamantly refuses to pass through the metal detector at security.
The obvious question has never been satisfactorily answered: why did Saddam scrap his WMDs in secret?
Given that he disarmed anyway, why not come clean?
If Saddam had disposed of his WMDs under United Nations supervision, then the inspectors would have certified that Iraq was free of its banned arsenal, removing the legal basis for sanctions - and, later, for war - with one stroke.
Without this confirmation from the UN, America and Britain operated on the assumption that Iraq still possessed its WMDs. So the sanctions stayed in place, imposing huge suffering on ordinary Iraqis.
This extraordinary impasse persisted for more than a decade. In fact, Saddam had secretly complied with his obligation to disarm, but his enemies kept all of their suspicions and their crippling embargo remained in place.
This equilibrium might have lasted for many more years if al-Qaeda had not attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
This event changed everything. From then onwards, the George W Bush administration was not willing to take the risk of tolerating an enemy regime with - so the White House believed - stockpiles of poison gas and deadly germs.
It was the previous president, Bill Clinton, who had declared Saddam's downfall to be the official goal of US policy. After September 11, Mr Bush decided to make this aim a reality, supported by Tony Blair.
The vital decision should be seen in the context of the events of the previous 12 years.
In brief, the UN had told Iraq to disarm - and Saddam had obeyed. But he chose to obey in such a way that no-one outside his regime could be sure that he had complied.
From this monumental miscalculation, everything else followed.