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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 24, March 1998

Conflict Prevented or Postponed? Reflections on the Nearly War in Iraq
By Paul Rogers


The recent crisis with Iraq came close to a war, and was avoided by some rapid diplomacy conducted primarily by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. While war was avoided, there are indications that the causes of the immediate crisis have not been removed and that there is a prospect of further confrontations between the United States and Iraq in the coming months and years. This article seeks to explore some of the underlying reasons for the confrontation, examines some significant aspects of the recent crisis and suggests processes which might make it possible to decrease the risk of future crises.

The Iraqi regime survived the recent crisis intact. It also had time to disperse and conceal key aspects of its biological warfare (BW) infrastructure. Thus, the two core requirements for the regime - regime survival and maintenance of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability - were maintained.

At the same time, the regime was forced to accept the maintenance of an intrusive if somewhat modified inspection regime, and the continuation of sanctions. It is also having to accept an expansion of a tightly controlled UN aid-for-oil programme which by-passes the regime and provides relief for ordinary Iraqis. This is deeply unpopular for a regime which has survived and thrived for several years by controlling illegal oil exports, gaining a considerable income and maintaining its power while the majority of the population has experienced considerable hardship.

More generally though, a highly dangerous war was avoided which had potential for escalation to the use of WMD, being one of the rare examples of a conflict in which both parties could have had access to WMD. This is not to say that the United States and its partners would have had any intention of escalating to WMD use, but there was most certainly a risk, based not least on Gulf War experience, that the Iraqi regime might have escalated to the use of WMD if it felt its survival threatened.

Furthermore, the use of force against Iraq was fraught with considerable military difficulties. These arose from four problems.

a) Target acquisition was proving very difficult, not least because of Iraqi efforts at concealment and dispersal.

b) Military destruction of WMD sites was highly problematic. Whatever the claims of some technical advisers, especially in the United States, the military capabilities did not exist to destroy WMD sites without the risk of release of WMD agents, especially biological weapons.

c) Collateral damage was expected to include up to 1,500 civilian casualties in Iraq over a month of bombing and missile raids. The regional effects of this were likely to be considerable.

d) Most significant, if studiously unpublicised, was the problem encountered with Saudi Arabia. At the time of the Kofi Annan mission, Saudi Arabia was not only refusing to allow US strike aircraft to operate against Iraq from its bases, but was refusing to allow the US to re-deploy these key air assets to other bases in the region. While intensive diplomatic pressure might have ensured a change of policy, this could have delayed military operations by up to four weeks.

The position at the time of writing (late-March) is that UNSCOM is pushing ahead rapidly to test the revised procedures negotiated by Kofi Annan and agreed by the UN Security Council. Early indications are that the Iraqi regime is not inclined to foster a new crisis in the near future - a key inspection was successfully completed on 10 March.

A Further Crisis?

At the same time, all previous experience indicates that Iraq is utterly committed to maintaining and enhancing a BW capability, along with a specialist high toxicity CW capability (principally based on V-agents) and delivery systems. This commitment is second only to regime survival. It follows that if the revised UNSCOM process does, in the coming months, begin to get to grips with core aspects of this programme, then a further crisis will emerge as Iraq confronts this threat to its interests. This may take the form of a modified repeat of interference, prevarication and hindering of UNSCOM which was so apparent from last September through the autumn and winter.

Timing is very difficult to judge - a crisis could emerge suddenly in the coming weeks, but, given past experience, it is more likely to occur at any time from 4 to 12 months from now. This is based on two premises:

a) It is going to be difficult to maintain western forces in the region at current levels, and there will probably be cutbacks within three months. The Iraqi regime would probably prefer a crisis to develop after force levels have decreased.

b) It is likely to take UNSCOM several months to make up the lost ground in terms of inspecting Iraqi WMD sites, given the disruptions of the past few months.

Whenever the next crisis emerges, three features of recent experience will remain. The first is that coalition formation will be difficult, with only Britain providing high profile support for the recent military build-up. Secondly, while military action might damage the capacity of the Iraqi regime to produce weapons of mass destruction, an end result could be the loss of the UNSCOM process, enabling Iraq to re-build and then expand its WMD capability with impunity after the conflict. Finally, military action will entail severe risks especially of escalation to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

It follows that the highest priority should be attached to using the current "breathing space" to good effect, but this should recognise the stable nature of the Iraqi regime. Even if the regime collapsed, it could be replaced by another power group with similar capabilities and attitudes. In particular, in trying to avoid further crises, it is appropriate to assess aspects of the regime's recent survival and development, both at the time of the 1991 Gulf War and in the period since.

Surviving Desert Storm

Iraq had several motives for invading Kuwait in August 1990. Among these were historic claims to the territory and recompense for the perceived Kuwaiti refusal to aid Iraq after the long war with Iran. Iraq also gained much better access to the Persian Gulf but, far more significantly, by occupying Kuwait, Iraq doubled its oil reserves, securing control of some 20 per cent of world reserves.

It was this acquisition of power which resulted in a remarkable and rapid response by the United States and its coalition allies, with an immediate and massive build-up of forces in the Gulf in the immediate aftermath of the occupation of Kuwait.

This, in turn, resulted in Iraq taking numerous political and military actions. While making many attempts to delay coalition military action, the regime put in place a rapid programme of weaponising chemical and biological agents. The latter included, by January 1991, substantial numbers of deployed weapons of mass destruction, an action which may well have been a deterrent to any coalition attempts to overthrow the regime.

Specifically, Iraq's WMD capabilities at the outbreak of Desert Storm included 25 Al Hussayn medium-range missiles fitted with botulinum, anthrax or aflatoxin warheads and 166 R400 spray bombs with a similar weapons fill. The missiles were dispersed to four remote sites in Iraq and authority to launch the missiles was pre-delegated to regional commanders in the event of the destruction of the regime. Furthermore, it is now apparent that most elite Iraqi forces were not deployed to Kuwait, the majority of the Republican Guard remaining in the vicinity of Baghdad.

On the outbreak of the war in January 1991, Iraq immediately began Scud attacks on Israel. Whatever the motive, one effect was partly to divert much of the coalition airpower away from attacks on Iraqi forces, delaying the onset of the ground war. Also on the outbreak of war, Iraqi forces staged a substantial probing raid into Saudi Arabia which was rapidly repulsed by US Marines and regional forces. This may well have enabled the Iraqi leadership to gain a measure of the effectiveness of coalition ground forces and thereby assess the likely outcome of the war.

Mention of these actions should not imply a high level of strategic efficiency on the part of the Iraqi military leadership - there were frequent examples of incompetence throughout the war. At the same time, when the ground war finally started, after several weeks of aerial bombardment and "Scud-hunts", the great majority of Iraqi forces which were still left in Kuwait were probably low-grade forces. The most professional elements of the Iraqi Army had been largely withdrawn and, while the coalition ground offensive was rapid and effective, it only made contact with elements of two of Iraq's eight Republican Guard divisions. It can be argued, therefore, that the core aim of Iraq, once the conflict had started, was not maintaining control of Kuwait, but ensuring survival of the regime. That this was successful was demonstrated by the subsequent repression of the Shi'ite and Kurdish rebellions by the Iraqi Army during 1991.

Iraqi Regime Aims Since 1991

Over the past seven years, the main aims of the regime have been twofold - survival and enhancement. Survival has been an absolute requirement and has been resolutely followed, whatever the cost. It has been achieved by maintaining substantial armed forces and an extensive and rigorously controlled security apparatus. The regime has operated in an environment of apparently severe economic sanctions but these have become progressively patchy. In practice, extensive illegal oil exports by land and sea routes have given the regime a considerable income, maintaining a substantial elite in power.

Regime enhancement has been attempted principally by maintaining a capability to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction. UNSCOM's careful and consistent work has ensured the destruction of the regime's nuclear programme, and most of the missile and CW programme. However, the most modern elements of the CW programme, the V-agents, appear to remain undetected, as may much of the BW programme.

Furthermore, it should be assumed that BW research and development has continued. According to UNSCOM, the pre-1991 programme included weaponisation of anthrax, botulinum and aflatoxin, and work on gas gangrene, tularemia, hemorraghic conjunctivitis (enterovirus 70) and diarrhoeal rotaviruses. Since 1991, it is likely that further BW developments will have been in three main areas, the investigation of other BW agents, improved weaponisation and delivery, including the development of dry powder agents in efficient dispensers to replace agents in liquid form, and enhancing the effectiveness of agents such as anthrax and tularemia. This may possibly have included genetic engineering if sufficient technical competence has been available from indigenous or externally recruited experts.

The WMD programme, especially its BW elements, is one of the core assets of the regime and has led to consistent actions to disrupt UNSCOM investigations. In the six months to the onset of the recent crisis in November 1997, at least ten short-notice UNSCOM inspections were blocked. Since 1991, half of all the 200+ special inspections have experienced Iraqi interference.

It was originally envisaged that UNSCOM might complete its task in six to twelve months. Regime behaviour has prevented this, even though it has stopped the repeal of sanctions and has consequently cost Iraq many billions of dollars in lost oil revenues (notwithstanding illegal exports). This confirms the core importance to the regime of retaining and developing a WMD capability.

Potential Iraqi Responses to Intervention

Because of Iraq's relative military weakness when compared with US forces, the main means of ensuring the survival of key regime assets are dispersal, concealment and protection. Iraq has already taken steps to prevent western intervention disrupting WMD capabilities. In recent years, a concealment coordinating committee has organised a comprehensive programme of concealing WMD capabilities from UNSCOM. Some 1,000 government officials, most notably the Special Security Organization, are devoted to this aim.

The efforts made to hinder UNSCOM are likely to have formed the basis for actions taken after last September to disperse and hide WMD systems. These are reported to include 75 chemical and biological warheads, a number of additional special warheads which may have submunitions, three mobile launchers and an undisclosed number of medium-range missiles. Iraq has previously experimented with pilotless delivery aircraft and drones and has probably developed these further. After the 1991 war, 10 drone aircraft which had been designed and produced to deliver biological weapons were found in the bomb shelter at the headquarters of the Nair State Establishment for Mechanical Industries.

While most WMD capabilities remain in Iraq, there are reports that there have been movements of experts and technologies to friendly States to continue research and development programmes. It is more likely that core R&D teams will have remained in Iraq, but in the run-up to renewed hostilities, they will probably have been moved to safe locations.

Within Iraq, further dispersal of WMD will have been undertaken as the crisis developed, probably involving the use of universities, hospitals and agricultural research stations, among other sites, as locations for stores of WMD and, possibly, limited production facilities. Deep underground bunkers may also have been used.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US could not initially destroy the deepest of these bunkers, and, in an emergency programme, developed an entirely new experimental deep penetrating conventional bomb, the GBU-28, believed capable of penetrating up to 100 feet of soil and subsoil under favourable circumstances. Two were used successfully against a command bunker on the penultimate day of the 1991 war. 25 were produced during the war and 100 more have since been procured, with their performance enhanced. A deep-penetrating Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile warhead is now being developed but will not be tested until 2000, with delivery commencing in 2002.

Iraq's experience of the GBU-28 and other weapons in the 1991 war is reported to have resulted in the building of bunkers which are considerably harder than those which were available then, the intention being to make it impossible for the current generation of US earth-penetrating bombs to destroy them. Although GBU-28s and other experimental weapons would probably have been used in the event of US military intervention, it cannot be assumed that newer bunkers would have been vulnerable.

Furthermore, any release of WMD such as VX or anthrax carries considerable collateral risks. The release of a very small quantity of anthrax spores in April 1979 at Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) in the Soviet Union killed 68 people and resulted in the deaths of animals many miles downwind of the release point.

The only US alternative to conventional "bunker busters" is the recently produced B61-11 tactical nuclear bomb, reportedly with a yield range of 0.3 to 335 kilotons. This entered service in March, 1997 with the B-2A Spirit stealth bomber, although it can be delivered by other aircraft. The B61-11 has been developed over the last three years specifically to give the USAF a capability to destroy deep heavily protected targets which are beyond the reach of conventional weapons. The B61-11 detonates some 20 feet below ground level producing a localised earthquake effect which will destroy any underground structure within several hundred feet. As a "ground-burst" weapon it produces substantial fall-out.

Although US officials refused to rule out nuclear use in the recent crisis, it is unlikely in the extreme that nuclear weapons such as the B61-11 would be used unless the crisis had escalated out of control to the point where Iraq had used biological and/or chemical weapons, causing significant US casualties.

Overall, it is unlikely that western military action could have been more than partially successful in destroying Iraqi WMD capabilities, and the Iraqi regime would therefore have assumed that military action would have been directed at more general military assets, especially those necessary for regime survival. These would include command, control, communications and intelligence systems, key air defence, air force and elite army groups, particularly the 26,000-strong Special Republican Guard, military industries and the national energy and transport infrastructure. Extensive efforts were therefore probably made to disperse and/or conceal as many of these facilities as possible.

The Risk of a Further Crisis

UNSCOM action is currently directed at further uncovering and dismantling the Iraqi WMD capabilities, especially biological weapons. If the importance of these weapons to the regime is as great as it appears, then it is highly likely that a further crisis will ensue and that this could extend to a military confrontation with the United States and some allied States. In these circumstances, the regime's principal war aim is to survive, preferably with some WMD capabilities intact. Given regional attitudes, a major western bombing campaign would certainly aid sanction-avoidance, and regime survival could also entail the eviction of UNSCOM, allowing a post-conflict process of re-building and enhancing WMD capabilities. This would not, of course, be acceptable to the United States.

Since regional antagonisms are dangerous, military action by the regime would therefore most likely be directed almost entirely at attacking forces and those directly supporting them, rather than at more general targets in surrounding States. It may well be that attacks on Israel, for example, would not be forthcoming, though this is the one exception to this analysis, as the entry of Israel in any war against Iraq would probably increase regional support for the regime.

The main military response to a future western air offensive would be the deployment of air defences, especially around Baghdad, but they are limited in extent and are largely absent from the rest of the country. Other responses would depend on the effectiveness of the western air strikes and, in particular, the risk to the regime itself.

As in the recent crisis, Western forces are likely to be limited to sea-based forces in the Gulf, together with air assets on Diego Garcia and at the air bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, with the El Jaber Air Base in Kuwait assuming a particular importance. While it would have comprehensive area and point defences against aircraft and missiles, Iraq should be expected to attempt to attack it with surface-to-surface missiles, possibly fired from urban areas. US defences, and ATACMS based counter-attack potential may control this, but this cannot be guaranteed.

Iraqi special operations forces (SOF) or surrogate SOF (SSOF) may be used to attack this and other military targets in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region. Facilities in Bahrain would be of particular significance, bearing in mind the social unrest experienced in Bahrain in recent years. It is just possible that such attacks could take place outside the region. It is also possible that Iraq may have attempted to rebuild a limited mine-laying capability. Mines damaged several US warships in the 1991 conflict.

One basic consideration in the minds of Iraqi military planners would be the effect of US casualties on US domestic opinion - what has been crudely called "the body-bag effect". It follows that attacks on US facilities in the region could be particularly important, with SOF/SSOF actions a priority for the regime.

Even so, the use of substantial US forces equipped with advanced weapons against a weak and often inefficient opponent indicates that the balance of power, in the strict military sense, would lie very much with the United States. This raises a further question.

If western military operations in a new confrontation were sufficiently substantial and protracted to put the very survival of the regime in question, then more drastic responses should be expected from the regime. During the Gulf War, the regime was prepared to use chemical and biological weapons to ensure its survival, and, under these circumstances, this would again be likely.

Actual use of WMD is an immensely serious step with hugely dangerous consequences, but it should be recognised that in the inefficiency and chaos of a major conflict, the use of WMD may not easily be controlled, especially if there has been predelegation of launch authority, as was the case in 1991. This is one of the features of both the recent crisis and any further crisis that makes the situation particularly dangerous.

WMD delivery might involve conventional systems or the use of SOF or SSOF, with the latter having potential for action outside the region. It is possible that these capabilities are available and may already be in place in countries such as the United States.

Avoiding War

It is possible that, following the recent crisis, Iraq might accept the actions of UNSCOM, unreservedly and transparently give up all its weapons of mass destruction and then be party to the lifting of sanctions. All instances of previous behaviour suggest otherwise, indicating that the Kofi Annan initiative has served mainly to allow time for seeking alternatives to highly risky and potentially counter productive military action.

There is no complete answer to the present dilemma, but there are three broad areas of action which would be of value. Firstly, it is vitally important that progress is made in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. While the US might insist on the lack of a connection, there is considerable linkage seen throughout the Arab world, if not at the level of leadership then certainly throughout the wider population. The Iraqi regime has skilfully and persistently exploited this connection. Current EU initiatives are important, but every means should be found to encourage the United States to use its considerable influence with Israel.

Secondly, a further expansion of controlled sanctions release should be advocated, but this should clearly be in the context of aid to ordinary Iraqi people which does not strengthen the regime. The aid-for-food scheme warrants even more expansion than has recently been agreed, even though it does involve heavy UN personnel commitments in Iraq. Finally, it is going to be necessary to find means of exerting pressure on the regime itself in a manner which causes minimal harm to the wider Iraqi population.

The regime is broadly similar to the old nomenclatura of the Soviet Union in that there is a substantial community, maybe 5% or more of the population, which is benefitting well from the current circumstances and has a very strong interest in regime survival.

The means must be found of putting this elite under increasing pressure - actions which cumulatively threaten its well-being are the actions most likely to force it to accept the UNSCOM process. In the final analysis, from the regime's perspective survival without a WMD capability is preferable to the fall of the regime, but this needs to be achieved without major military action because of the other dangers that it entails.

It will be necessary to focus on a number of options, including overseas financial activities, travel and transport restrictions and control of specialised imports. This will require strong regional cooperation which will only be forthcoming if there is wider progress in the Israeli/Palestinian process.

Furthermore, if any problems develop with UNSCOM operations, an immediate response might be a total no-fly zone across Iraq, an action which would require enforcement but would put strong and direct pressure on the regime itself.


There are no easy answers to the Iraq situation, but there are two broad conclusions to be drawn. The first is that crises involving weapons of mass destruction acquired by intermediate States are likely to occur in the coming years. Iraq is, in a sense, a model for future crises, and as with Iraq, it should not be assumed that such crises are readily amenable to military solutions.

Secondly, given that weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, constitute a formidable problem for the future, every effort should be made to build internationally accepted regimes for their control.

Paul Rogers is Head of the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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