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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

UNSCOM Era Apparently Ended by American and British Bombardment


From 16-19 December, US and British forces carried out a sustained aerial bombardment of numerous targets in Iraq, designed to 'degrade and diminish' Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) capacity and infrastructure. The attacks inflicted heavy damage whose long-term impact is hard to predict; it also resulted in civilian and military casualties. The political damage to the international consensus on Iraq policy built up since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 appeared, however, to be drastic: the bombing was strongly opposed by the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council - China, France and Russia - as well as throughout most of the Middle East and many other regions. The future of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), set up in 1991 to oversee and verify the dismantlement and long-term disablement of Iraq's WMD programmes now seems to be in grave doubt, with widespread accusations of the Commission's misuse by US, UK and Israeli intelligence services and the 'provocative' leadership provided by Executive Chairman Richard Butler of Australia. A number of proposals have been submitted to the Council designed to retain, or rebuild, the international consensus while moving it into a new era: these proposals are summarised in Douglas Scott's Opinion & Analysis paper in this issue. It is, however, hard to characterise the Security Council as other than riven by division; or Saddam Hussein's regime as other than politically strengthened, however damaged in other ways, by the bombardment. The irony looms, though it may yet be dispelled, that the main effect of the bombing may be to 'degrade and diminish' the UN's ability to contain Iraq's ability to destabilise the region and the global non-proliferation regime.

Build-Up to the Attacks

A US-UK bombardment was avoided at the last moment on 15 November (see last issue) with an apparently unconditional commitment by Iraq to allow UNSCOM, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), inspectors full access to all sites, and to otherwise comply with the terms of a 23 February Iraq-UN Memorandum-of-Understanding (MOU) which had de-escalated the first major confrontation of 1998. America and Britain immediately made clear that if UNSCOM Chair Richard Butler reported that Iraq was once again not honouring its commitment, air strikes would be launched without warning, without consultation and without negotiation. Butler submitted his report to UN Secretary-General Annan on 16 December - see Documents and Sources. It concluded that his inspectors had not been given the access, documentation and cooperation they required. The most publicised instance of non-cooperation came on 9 and 10 December, when UNSCOM was prevented from inspecting the headquarters of the ruling Ba'ath party in Baghdad. Iraq's position on the incident, according to Oil Minister Amir Muhammad Rasheed (9 December) was that what "happened today is that they violated an agreement with the Iraqi Government" relating to the "modalities of inspections of sensitive sites."

Butler's report received harsh criticism. It was staunchly defended by the author. Speaking on 17 December, Butler insisted his findings had been "honest, factual and objective" and "not constructed to suit US purposes". Butler continued: "It was my report, as promised, on time, and based on the facts... There is no doubt in my mind that the conclusion I came to...that Iraq did not keep its promise of full cooperation is correct... I want to say as simply and plainly as I can: that report was based on the experts of UNSCOM. It danced to no one's tune."

The Attacks - Details

Immediately following the submission of Butler's report, UNSCOM and IAEA inspectors were evacuated from Iraq and the 4-day bombardment - codenamed Operation Desert Fox, successor to the Gulf War's Operation Desert Storm - began: before, controversially and almost bizarrely, the Security Council had time to discuss the Executive Chairman's findings. When the Council did meet, during the first night of bombing, the opinions expressed for and against military action were as follows: Brazil (Celso Amorim), against; China (Qin Huasun), against; Costa Rica (Bernard Niehaus), against; France (Alain Dejammet), against; Gabon (Charles Essonghe), against; Gambia (Baboucarr B.I. Jagne), against; Iraq (Nizar Hamdoon), against; Japan (Masaki Konishi), for; Kenya (Njuguna Mahugu), against; Portugal (Antonio Monteiro), for; Russia (Sergei Lavrov), against; Slovenia (Danilo Turk), for; Sweden (Hans Dahlgren), against; UK (Sir Jeremy Greenstock), for; US (Peter Burleigh), for.

Initial, official US and UK assessments were upbeat about the severity of the damage inflicted during the bombardment. According to President Clinton (19 December): "We have inflicted significant damage on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programmes, on the command structures that direct and protect that capability and on his military and security infrastructure." The same day, Prime Minister Blair told reporters that "our objectives have been achieved. We set out to diminish and degrade Saddam's military capability and we have done so. Substantial damage has been inflicted upon his air defence systems, the command-and-control system for his armed forces, missile production capability and the systems which could be used for chemical and biological warfare. In addition, there has been real damage done to the special Republican Guard organisation, the elite of his armed forces, heavily involved in the weapons of mass destruction programme."

According to Pentagon figures released on 21 December, the US-UK operation as a whole involved 650 aircraft sorties, 32 of which were carried out by British Tornado fighters, and the firing of 425 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 135 more than were fired during the Gulf War. Speaking on 8 January, US Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, the US Commander of Operation Desert Fox, told reporters that the strikes had "damaged significantly" 85% of its targets.

Regarding casualties, no definitive figures were available, but it seemed certain from reports that at least 42 Iraqi civilians lost their lives, while many more members of the armed forces were killed, including - according to Zinni on 7 January - between 600 and 2,000 members of the Republican Guard.

The Attacks - Quotes

US President Clinton's announcement of the attacks, 16 December: "Earlier today, I ordered America's armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq. They are joined by British forces. Their mission is to attack Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological programmes, and its military capacity to threaten its neighbours. Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States and, indeed, the interest of people throughout the Middle East and around the world. Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbours or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons."

UK Prime Minister Blair's announcement of the attacks, 16 December: "Operation Desert Fox was launched at 10 p.m. London time. ... This action...could have been avoided. Since the Gulf War, the entire international community has worked to stop Saddam Hussein from keeping and developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and from continuing to threaten his neighbours. For the safety and stability of the region and of the wider world, he cannot be allowed to do so. If he will not, through reason and diplomacy, abandon his weapons of mass destruction programme, it must be degraded and diminished by military force."

Statement by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, 16 December: "This is a sad day for the United Nations, and for the world. ... It is also a very sad day for me personally. Throughout this year I have done everything in my power to ensure peaceful compliance with Security Council resolutions, and to avert the use of force. This has not been an easy or a painless process. It has required patience, determination and the will to seek peace even when all signs pointed to war. However daunting the task, the United Nations had to try as long as any hope for peace remained. I deeply regret that today these efforts proved insufficient. What has happened cannot be reversed. Nor can any of us foresee the future. All we know is that tomorrow, as yesterday, there will be still an acute need, in Iraq and in the wider region, for humanitarian relief and healing diplomacy."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, 20 December: "We hope in the future Saddam Hussein...will adhere to international legal obligation and continue with the dismantling of any weapons of mass destruction..."

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, 17 December: "Saddam Hussein has brought this crisis on himself."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sun Yuxi, 17 December: "This is a violation of the UN Charter and we condemn this." UN Ambassador Qin Huasun, 16 December: "The leader of UNSCOM played a dishonourable role in this crisis... The reports submitted by UNSCOM to the Secretary-General were unfounded and evasive of the facts. It is difficult for the UNSCOM leader to shed his responsibility over the current crisis."

French Foreign Ministry statement, 17 December: "France deplores the escalation which led to the American military strikes against Iraq and the grave human consequences which they could have for the Iraqi people."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, 17 December: "[The attacks are] the consequence of the obstinate refusal of Saddam Hussein to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza, 17 December: "[This will bring] even more pain and misery for the people in that country."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 17 December: "Israel is outside the dispute, and in any case will take care of itself defending itself if the need arises."

Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, 17 December: "It is deeply regrettable that Iraq failed to cooperate with UNSCOM, which has brought the situation to this pass."

Pakistani Senate Resolution, unanimously adopted, 17 December: "[This is] an attack on humanity and the Islamic world."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 17 December: "By taking unprovoked military action, the United States and Britain have crudely violated the UN Charter and generally accepted principles of international law and the norms and rules of responsible behaviour of States." Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, 17 December: "It is outrageous that the strike was launched at the very moment when the Security Council was still discussing this issue..." Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, 17 December: "Nobody has the right to act on their own in the name of the United Nations and even less to pretend to be the judge of the entire world." UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov, 16 December: "[T]he entire responsibility for the consequences of these actions must be borne by those States who have chosen a unilateral act of force in order to resolve their problems with Iraq." Duma Resolution, unanimously adopted, 17 December: "These activities constitute international terrorism." Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, 17 December: "If the USSR still existed, this wouldn't have happened. ... [We need a] global front against those who are stirring up World War Three."

Swedish UN Ambassador Hans Dahlgren, 16 December: "[My Government regrets] that the [Security] Council was presented with a fait accompli."


The day after the attacks concluded (21 December) Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz made his Government's position regarding the possible return on UNSCOM crystal-clear: "The moment America and Britain launched missiles against Iraq they killed UNSCOM... I cannot give them another life." As for Butler, he was just "a cheap pawn in the hands of the Americans."

On 6 January , the Washington Post reported that Secretary-General Annan had convincing evidence that the United States had used UNSCOM for its own intelligence-gathering purposes, and that UNSCOM had willingly assisted the United States in this regard. The Post story was strongly denied in a statement issued by Annan's chief spokesperson the same day: "We not only have no convincing evidence of these allegations; we have no evidence of any kind. We have only rumours. Neither the Secretary-General nor any member of his staff has access to clarified US intelligence, although UNSCOM does. ... Obviously, were these charges true, it would be damaging to the United Nations' disarmament work in Iraq and elsewhere." The statement concluded: "Finally, the Post says that the Secretary-General is trying to pressure Richard Butler to resign. This is not so. In any case, the issue is not the Executive Chairman; it is how to get on with the work of disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction."

The wake of the bombardment saw almost daily exchanges of fire between aircraft and anti-aircraft sites in the two US-UK regulated 'no-fly-zones' in the north and south of the country; attacks continuing through to the end of January.

Reports: Inspectors barred from Ba'ath office, Associated Press, 10 December; UN inspections in Iraq go ahead despite standoff, Reuters, 10 December; UN arms report criticizes Iraq, Associated Press, 16 December; Secretary-General deeply regrets that United Nations efforts to seek peace in Iraq have proved insufficient, United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6841, 16 December; Statement by the President, The White House, 16 December; Text - Prime Minister Tony Blair on Iraq strike, United States Information Service, 16 December; Security Council meets to discuss military strikes against Iraq - some members challenge use of force without Council consent, United Nations Press Release SC/6611, 16 December; Richard Butler says his report was honest, factual, United States Information Service, 17 December; US, Britain widely condemned on Iraq raids, Reuters, 17 December; Russia, China denounce attack, Associated Press, 17 December; UN Council split on Iraq attack, Associated Press, 17 December; Russian leaders unite against Iraq strikes, Reuters, 17 December; Statement by the [British] Prime Minister, 19 December, United States Information Service, 20 December; Allies welcome end to airstrikes, Associated Press, 20 December; Iraq scorns raids, says UNSCOM dead, Reuters, 21 December; Iraq claims victory after US attack, Associated Press, 21 December; Europe seeks arms control in Iraq, Associated Press, 21 December; Annan suspicious of UNSCOM role, Washington Post, 6 January; Text - UN Secretary-General's statement, United States Information Service, 6 January; CENTCOM Chief briefs on goals, results of Operation Desert Fox, United States Information Service, 7 January; Zinni - estimates of 'Desert Fox' effectiveness revised upward, United States Information Service.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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