The quintessential question

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By Ryan Kennedy

Since 1980, Iraq has almost constantly been mired in war. First, with neighbouring Iran, then against a U.S.-led coalition of nations. And as tensions between the Middle Eastern nation and the United States once again take centre stage in the world forum, another conflict appears to be imminent. Although a new United Nations resolution seeks to avoid confrontation, American policy has been veering towards the concept of a pre-emptive strike. The logic is that attacking Iraq while it is still rebuilding its arsenal is justified in saving the lives of Iraq’s neighbours and American civilians, who could be put in harm’s way if Iraq were to possess weapons of mass destruction.

Once an ally of the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein is now public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of the Bush government and many of the country’s citizens. Although the atrocities committed by Hussein and his government against the Kurds who live in Iraq, as well as the invasion of the neighbouring country of Kuwait in 1991 are well documented, many in the West wonder what Hussein has done recently to draw Bush’s ire.

Is an invasion of Iraq justifiable?

“No. The simple answer is ‘no’,” says Dr. Colin Mooers, a politics professor at Ryerson. Mooers believes that an invasion of Iraq would only promote the establishment of U.S. dominance in the Middle East using the “war on terror” as the guise.

“The context now is the aftermath of 9/11,” notes Mooers. Linking Iraq to al-Qaida would be a perfect way to get the public’s support, but as Mooers points out, “the connection between Iraq and al-Qaida is so tenuous, it’s almost non existent.”

In order to understand the current situation in Iraq, as well as America’s insistence on a pre-emptive strike, it is important to look at a few key issues.


In August of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait in a territorial dispute over oil. The world quickly responded in defense of Kuwait in a U.S.-led war dubbed “Desert Storm” under former president George Bush. After a quick and effective assault, Iraq was expelled from Kuwait, and bombed mercilessly by the allied forces spearheaded by the U.S.

More tonnage of bombs were dropped on Iraq in 45 days than was used in all of World War II, and an estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed, versus nearly 300 American. Despite the victory, the forces were unable to overthrow Hussein and his secular Baathist party government, and he remains in power today.

Under the terms of Iraq’s surrender, the United Naitons stipulated that Iraq completely disarm and scrap all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, as well as long-range missiles. Harsh economic sanctions were also levied on Iraq, mainly concerning how much oil it can export and what it can import.

In the years following the Gulf War, UN inspectors entered Iraq in order to enforce the disarmament, but were met with opposition from Iraqi officials or soldiers. The Iraqis accused the Americans and British of planting spies among the inspectors, and therefore refused them entry into any buildings they deemed ‘sovereign.’

Scott Ritter, an ex-marine and U.S. inspector for the UN, would later admit that they were in fact spying on the Iraqis, but maintained that in order to analyze the data properly, it had to be looked at by photo interpreters who understood it. The fact that the people trained to do that work were government agents, and that the ones used were Israeli, irked the Iraqis.

In the years following the war, inspectors have had varying degrees of success in Iraq, but the resistance put up by Hussein and his government (inspectors have not been allowed in since 1998) has become a target for president George W. Bush and his “war on terror.”

The Bush government claims that Iraq has rebuilt its arsenal and could pose a threat to not only the Middle East, but perhaps America as well.

But even those who accept that Iraq has these weapons wonder about the logic behind an invasion. “There are many countries that have nasty weapons,” notes Dr. James Reilly, a historian with the University of Toronto’s Near Middle Eastern Civilizations program. “Chemical and biological weapons are currently held by both Egypt and Syria,” he adds, also listing states such as North Korea, Pakistan and India as holders of nuclear weapons.

Iraq’s potential holdings are as follows:


Much of the information surrounding Iraq’s cache of weapons of mass destruction are still speculative. The CIA liberally uses the word “probably,” when referring to Iraq’s weapons program. What is evident is that Iraq is trying to acquire or build these weapons, but not unequivocally to a stage in which they pose a threat to the U.S. In fact, the CIA’s own data shows that Iraq’s missiles wouldn’t reach the United Kingdom, much less the United States.

There are three types of weapons that pose more of a danger than any others; nuclear, chemical and biological.

A CIA report says that Iraq has been “aggressively seeking” high-strength aluminum tubes, which could be used to develop the weapons-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon. With tens of thousands of these tubes, Iraq could build several nuclear weapons a year, but they would still need outside help.

“If Baghdad acquires sufficient weapons-grade missile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year,” notes the report, but adds that without that outside help, it could take Iraq up to 10 years.

Iraq has used chemical agents such as mustard gas and nerve agents on both the Iranians and Kurdish rebels in the past, and their current stockpile could include VX and Sarin gas (used by terrorists to kill commuters in Japanese subways).

Unfortunately, many of the buildings that may house these chemicals are “dual-use infrastructures,” meaning they also have legitimate civilian purposes, such as the Fallujah II chlorine and phenol plant near Baghdad. Chlorine can be used to make chemical weapons, but also purifies water of diseases.

In 1995, Iraq was forced to admit that it had weaponized biological agents after the former director of military industries Husayn Kamil defected. Even if Iraq has biological and chemical weapons, Ritter noted that these agents have shelf lives that expired sine last checked in 1998. Whether new agents have been created in the meantime remains to be seen.

Proponents of attacking Iraq cite information such as this when making their case for war. Hussein’s regime has been aggressive in the past, and the stockpiling and experimentation with weapons of mass destruction is certainly disturbing, but this has not been enough evidence for most.

Unlike his father, President Bush is finding it hard to find allies for another Gulf War, not only in the international community (Canada is still not committed to any action), but at home as well. Comments by leading democrat Tom Daschle suggested that Bush would have an easier time getting support at the UN than he would in congress. Critics, such as Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham, point out that if the illegal stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction is criterion for an invasion, then Israel would be the most guilty party, and therefore a target.

“Who prevents Ariel Sharon from upgrading with nuclear weapons the Israeli program of ‘pre-emptive assassination,’ …” wrote Lapham.

Bush, however, would not attack an ally, and has recently focused his campaign on Hussein himself, saying that the dictator, who has run the country with an iron fist for more than 20 years, must be overthrown.

The fact that Hussein was once an ally of the U.S. has attracted the attention of many critics. “They’ve used Saddam for their own purposes, of weakening Iran and Iraq,” says Abdel Takriti, president of U of T’s Arab Students Association.

In recent weeks, American rhetoric has reached a fevered pitch, with White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer suggesting that a conflict could be avoided with “just one bullet,” insinuating an assassination bid.

Weaponry aside, Iraq is still a country in shambles. “The country has been brought to its knees since ’91,” says Mooers. UNICEF reports that one in four Iraqi children are malnourished, and that the nation that boasted a pre-Gulf War health care system covering 93 per cent of its people now has a caloric intake lower than the impoverished African nation of Mali.

The use of depleted uranium by American forces during the war has also had long-term effects. Depleted uranium, which is basically nuclear waste, is used to coat bullets and other armaments, and gives off radioactive dust upon impact. Estimates of the amount used during the war range from 320 to 700 tons. Towns bordering Kuwait, such as Basra, have seen birth abnormalities triple since the war, and oncologists have put Iraqi cancer rates at anywhere from four to seven times higher than before the war.

The UN’s Oil-for-Food program, intended to aid Iraqi civilians, didn’t kick in until 1997, six years after the war ended, and evidence suggests that supplies intended for civilians (including 5 million kg of chlorine) are being siphoned off to the military.

As threats of an attack have become louder, Iraq has begun to relax on issues such as inspections, but President Bush’s resolve seems strong: without a regime change in Iraq. In order to justify this, the U.S. is trying to establish Hussein as “a boogeyman, or a new Hitler,” says Mooers, while Reilly sees the exercise as one of “empire management” in the tempestuous Middle East.

Whether Bush can convince the world to see things this way remains to be seen.

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