Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN Security Council on Wednesday is likely to be strong on quantity and weak on quality – with little or no new information, and little or no actual proof of the presence of WMDs in Iraq, or links between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda. There will be lots of photographs, charts, and barely-audible sound-bites ostensibly demonstrating links between Iraq and al Qaeda or other terrorists.

Powell will likely try to apply the Pentagon’s new favorite battlefield strategy of “shock and awe” to the Security Council, overwhelming the foreign ministers and ambassadors present (as well as the global television audience) with massive amounts of material.

To answer Powell’s presentation, challenges will likely need to focus on:

  • Photographs of people cleaning a “suspect site” do not equal proof of hidden weapons
  • Satellite photos of trucks with equipment on the back do not equal proof of “mobile WMD production facilities”
  • Snippets of intercepted telephone conversations of such remarks as “can you believe they missed that one?” or the equivalent do not prove links with al Qaeda or proof that Iraqis are trying to hide WMDs from inspectors
  • U.S. officials admit some of their “evidence” comes from interrogation of detainees held incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay. The Washington Post (Dec. 26) quoted Bush administration officials suggesting detainees held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, some of whom may now be in Guantanamo, have been tortured or threatened with being sent to countries which routinely practice torture. Any information resulting from torture (or threat of torture) is not only illegally obtained but of questionable veracity.

Other challenges to the U.S. claims:

  • UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix himself has denied recent Bush administration claims of Iraqi violations, some of which officials claimed were based on the inspectors’ reports. He denied Powell’s claim that Iraqi officials were hiding and moving WMD material inside and outside Iraq, saying inspectors had not found any such incidents. He said he had not seen convincing evidence Iraq was sending scientists out of Iraq. He denied Bush’s State of the Union claim that Iraqi agents were posing as scientists and the claim that UNMOVIC had been penetrated by Iraqi agents. Crucially, Blix said he had “seen no persuasive indications of Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda.” (New York Times, 1 Feb. 2003)
  • Both the CIA and FBI have questioned the veracity of Bush administration claims that intelligence backs up their claims of Iraq-al Qaeda links, or of clear WMD presence in Iraq:

    “Some analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency have complained that senior administration officials have exaggerated the significance of some intelligence reports about Iraq, particularly about its possible links to terrorism, in order to strengthen their political argument for war, government officials said. At the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some investigators said they were baffled by the Bush administration’s insistence on a solid link between Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s network. ‘We’ve been looking at this hard for more than a year and you know what, we just don’t think it’s there,’ a government official said. …

    “Mr. Bush asserted in his State of the Union address this week that Iraq was protecting and aiding Qaeda operatives, but American intelligence and law enforcement officials said the evidence was fragmentary and inconclusive.” -New York Times, 2 February 2003

  • Most important: even actual evidence of Iraqi violation(s) of UN resolutions, including 1441 or the original disarmament/sanctions resolution 687, do not represent a basis for war.

Next Steps

The U.S. and Britain have agreed to a “good cop/bad cop” formula, with Britain taking the lead urging a second Security Council meeting as provided for in resolution 1441, and some version of a second resolution aimed at gaining UN support for war on Iraq.

The timeline will likely look something like this:

  • FEBRUARY 5 — Powell presentation to Council, prepared responses from Council members.
  • FEBRUARY 14 – Blix & el Baradei present next interim reports on inspectors’ findings.
    At that meeting or soon after, Council will accept British proposal for setting an ultimatum for Iraqi compliance, without specifying what the consequences would be for non-compliance. Deadline will likely be 30 days. This vote might be close to unanimous; the language will refer to “severe consequences” again, but not explicitly authorize a military response.
  • FEBRUARY 28 – Next UNMOVIC & IAEA interim reports to Council. They will likely still be equivocal. Council may determine at that meeting Iraq still not in full compliance. They will likely call on Baghdad to comply with the demands of the ultimatum.
  • MID – MARCH – The last UNMOVIC & IAEA interim reports to Council. If reports do not confirm full Iraqi compliance, the U.S. & Britain will claim a free hand to attack Iraq under authority of the February 14 ultimatum resolution, claiming there is no need for any further authorization. France, Germany, Russia, China (and several other Council members) will state that the Feb. 14 resolution does NOT authorize a military strike. They will then stand aside, allow the U.S. and Britain to attack Iraq, while telling their respective outraged publics that they do not endorse military action. They will make no move to challenge the U.S.-British war in the Council. Inspectors will be pulled out of Iraq “for their own safety.” (One question to be raised is whether this time the UN’s humanitarian staff will be withdrawn as well, or left under the bombs as they were during Washington’s Desert Fox bombing campaign in December 1998.)
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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