Assessing the Risks: Two Recently Published Reports Set out to Assess the Extent of the Threat Iraq Presents to the West. (Iraq)

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In recent weeks two important documents on Iraq have been published, both of them intended to inform the debate on whether or not a US attack on Iraq is desirable. On 25 September the British government published its long-awaited intelligence dossier on Iraq, which presents the government's case for joining the US in military action against Saddam. This was preceded on 9 September by Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: a Net Assessment, by the highly respected London-based think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which aims to set out known information rather than advocate any course of action. The dossiers make fascinating reading.

The UK government dossier received a mixed reception in the parliamentary debate that followed its release. Nearly 70 MPs registered opposition to war after the debate, including 53 from the ruling Labour party; while a number of others recognised the threat but expressed strong reservations about extending this to justify `regime change'. For Prime Minister Tony Blair, the dossier should represent a crucial vindication of his policy of backing the US in its aggressive stance. He is personally associated with it, saying in his signed preface: "The case I make is that the UN Resolutions demanding he (Saddam) stops his WMD programme are being flouted; that since the inspectors left four years ago he has continued with his programme; that the inspectors must be allowed back in to do their job properly; and that if he refuses, or if he makes it impossible for them to do their job, as he has done in the past, the international community will have to act." Yet it seems that it has achieved little in this direction. Perhaps the main reason is that it is inherently awkward to publicly release intelligence information. The necessity of protecting sources and not revealing the capabilities and uses of aircraft, satellite and electronic surveillance methods introduces a rather vague tone to some of the material.

Another problem is the `dual use' syndrome. As the dossier acknowledges `almost all components and supplies used in WMD and ballistic missile programmes are dual use'. Without inspectors on the ground, `dual use' facilities can potentially provided an open-ended casus belli against countries with a history of WMD production. The report cites and shows a photograph of Project Baiji in north-west Iraq, which `intelligence reports indicate will produce nitric acid which can be used in explosives, missile fuel and in the purification of uranium'. Given the context, this is not an outlandish claim. Yet it is unwise to automatically accept such assessments. In August 1999 when US cruise missiles struck the Al Shiffah pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Peter Burleigh, the US Deputy Ambassador to the UN, responded to Sudanese demands for a UN investigation of the attack, saying "I don't see what the purpose of the fact-finding study would be. We have credible information that fully justifies the strike we made on that one facility in Khartoum." A subsequent investigation by the US detective agency Kroll, accepted by the US government, found that the Al Shiffah factory was indeed not involved in WMD, and that the intelligence leading to this assessment was deeply flawed. The dossier is published under the aegis of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which co-ordinates the efforts of the UK's entire intelligence apparatus, and some opponents, especially those on the left, have questioned the reliability of intelligence information. This is perhaps missing the point; what is most interesting about the dossier is that it appears not to make inflated claims about Saddam's capabilities--in a nutshell it paints a picture of greatly degraded WMD and delivery capabilities after the Gulf War, UNSCOM inspections and a decade of isolation. The dossier then concentrates on future threats given Saddam's proven enthusiasm for getting his WMD schemes back on track. …