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The US case for war in Iraq is clouded with propaganda and misinformation

By Phillip Knightley - posted Thursday, 2 October 2003

The rush to war, the momentum for an invasion of Iraq that most us feel powerless to stop, seems to have killed our caution. We are in danger of failing to think for ourselves, failing to ask the right questions and falling prey to the barrage of propaganda and disinformation that is constantly pumped at us. So let's begin at the beginning. Why is the United States so obsessed with weapons of mass destruction?

At the end of the Second World War, the United States came under strong domestic pressure to end the draft. But the Soviet Union still had the world's largest land forces. So Washington decided to rely on the atom bomb - and an air force to deliver it - to assert its military superiority.

Then in 1949, the Soviet Union developed an atom bomb too. With its nuclear monopoly ended, the United States was reduced to trying to prevent other countries that might be future enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons, a policy that, as Immanuel Wallerstein of Yale University points out, can hardly be termed a resounding success.


However, it was one thing for the major western powers to develop their own nuclear weapons - a war between, say Britain and America, was so remote as to be unthinkable - and hopefully India and Pakistan will follow the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction that kept the nuclear peace between America and the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years. But what about Iraq?

There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has been trying for years to build an atom bomb. There is also no doubt that he has failed. One project was levelled by Israeli bombers. One programme was too complex for Iraqi science or technology. Another was destroyed by the International Atomic Energy Agency before it left Iraq in 1998. Norman Dombey, who teaches theoretical physics at the University of Sussex, says that as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Iraq is much less of a threat now than it was in 1991.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies agrees with this assessment and so, to a lesser extent, does Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee. Sir Andrew Green, former British ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, says "Talk of the Saddam threat to the West is, frankly, largely manufactured".

George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard do not want us to believe this and their black propagandists and spin doctors have put a lot of effort into trying to convince us that Iraq is only months away from getting a bomb which it will itself use against the West or will make available to al Qa'ida.

It is instructive to trace the origins of such worrying stories. The main source is Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi defector. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations he said that Iraq would have nuclear weapons by 2005. Elsewhere he reduced the time to a matter of months. (The Times, 16 September 2002).

How does Hamza know this, and if he does not know it, why is he saying it? He has not been in Iraq for eight years, so he cannot have any first-hand information. He says that when he was there he was a "nuclear engineer", but his CV - which is on the web - reveals him to be a specialist in scientific computation and modelling. Dombey describes him as "a glorified computer scientist".


The point about all defectors is that they tend to say what they feel their new hosts want them to say. When they first defect, their residence visa may depend on doing this. When they are established in their new country, their well-being and prospects are linked to their public performance.

For instance, Hamza defected in 1995 after the CIA planted a story in the London Sunday Times while he was visiting Libya. The story claimed Hamza had admitted that Iraq had a secret weapons programme and that he possessed documents which confirmed this. Realising that the story was a death sentence if he returned to Baghdad, Hamza managed to persuade the CIA to take him and his family to the US. Hamza knew that the documents were CIA forgeries but he said nothing when Madeline Albright quoted them to the UN Security Council in order to prevent any relaxation of the sanctions on Iraq.

What about the story that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa? Dombey answers this succinctly: "So what? The IAEA has told me that Iraq already has hundreds of tons of uranium at its disposal. Without enrichment facilities this material is useless for nuclear weapons, though it could conceivably be used in conventional weapons in the same way that depleted uranium is used by the UK and the US."

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This article was first published in The Diplomat, Canberra, February Issue.

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About the Author

London-based Phillip Knightley is the author of The First Casualty (Prion), a history of war correspondents and propaganda.

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