ON THE eve of war in March 2003, Saddam Hussein’s goal was tantalisingly close. United Nations’ sanctions designed to curb Saddam were disintegrating in a sea of bribery and corruption; $2.6bn a year was flooding from the black market into Saddam’s coffers; the Iraqi dictator had weapons experts ready to go back to work.
America was on Saddam’s tail, but he had been bribing Russian intelligence officers and French government officials to thwart them in the UN. He had even been assured in May 2002 that France would use its UN veto against the US.
Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s deputy, was upbeat: he assessed Iraq could build weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within two years of sanctions collapsing. Saddam’s strategy, we now know, was clear: accumulate a war chest from fiddling UN sanctions, then use allies in the UN, such as France, China and Russia, to end the sanctions, and then take on Iran in a WMD arms race - after that he would see where things stood.
This is the devastating story from the US-led Iraq Survey Group (ISG), whose report came out last Wednesday. The media in Britain and America concentrated mainly on the obvious headline finding: Saddam had no WMD. For politicians who claimed the opposite (such as Tony Blair and George Bush) this disclosure was indeed deeply embarrassing. But no more so than it was in the autumn of last year, when the ISG first delivered the news.
By last December the insurgency was so bad in Iraq that the physical hunt for weapons was abandoned. The ISG mission changed: it started to debrief captured officials (including Saddam himself) and to translate millions of Iraqi documents from Arabic. To say there were no WMD in Iraq (which, incidentally, the ISG report doesn’t) is to miss the point, perhaps wilfully, of this 2,200-person, two-year mission. It was also intended to tell the truth about Saddam - and the people he bought.
We can now see that WMD were Saddam’s foreign, military and national security policy. They were his equivalent of a nuclear deterrent: he believed they saved him during the Iran war, deterred the US-led coalition from invading in 1991 after liberating Kuwait and allowed him to crush internal Kurdish and Shi’ite revolts.
WMD were essential to his survival in the face of foreign and internal threats, he believed. So he told only a few senior military chiefs - and not until December 2002 - that he was actually telling the truth: he really didn’t have any WMD. He had even bluffed his own ministers and intelligence service, which perhaps makes the mistakes of British and American intelligence more understandable.
In the days when Saddam had WMD he was of a mind to use them. Among documents uncovered by the ISG is an audiotape which records Saddam sounding as paranoid as Richard Nixon. The conversation took place during the first Gulf war. Hussein Kamil, his son-in-law and WMD tsar, was asking where germ warfare should be deployed. "I want Riyadh and Jeddah, which are the biggest Saudi cities with all the decision-makers, and the Saudi rulers live there. This is for the germ and chemical weapons...also, all the Israeli cities, all of them."
"Sir, the best way to transport this weapon and achieve the most harmful effects," says Kamil, "would come by using planes, like a crop plane, to scatter it. This is, sir, a thousand times more harmful." "May Allah help us do it," Saddam replies. "We will never lower our heads as long as we are alive, even if we have to destroy everybody."
This is the regime which Britain and America are now being attacked for bringing down. Revealing the brutality and murderous intent of Saddam’s regime seems to have gone out of fashion, replaced by the familiar plea that by the time of the invasion there were no WMD. But thanks to documents unearthed by the ISG we now know that, until Kamil defected in 1995, Saddam wanted to keep his weapons and outwit the UN inspectors. However, when Kamil went, Saddam’s secrets were spilled, a watershed in Saddam’s world-view; he decided to play the UN game, betting it would be over soon.
Contrary to later Western assumptions, he genuinely agreed to disarm. "I say that such a claim is palpably absurd," Tony Blair told the House of Commons in March 2003. But it wasn’t. Saddam was indeed dumping his WMD, certain he would be able to resume production soon. This is why, in 1997, some 500 Iraqi WMD scientists were gathered together to swear they would "hide neither equipment nor documents" - some on pain of death. Saddam wanted nothing to delay the UN inspectors’ departure. "Iraq was to destroy everything apart from knowledge," said the ISG report: the documents would be burnt, but Saddam told officials to "keep the brains of Iraq’s scientists fresh".
Iraq’s economy was also at rock bottom. Its GDP per capita had plunged to $495, down from $2,300 in 1989. Hyperinflation was eliminating its middle class. A country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves was facing economic implosion. So in May 1996 Saddam reluctantly agreed to adopt the oil-for-food programme. He soon realised this was open to corruption and could be used as a tool to have the UN dance to his tune - and tie the hands of America.
The penny had taken time to drop. "In the early 1990s, Saddam and his advisors had failed to realise the strategic trade (and thereby political) opportunities that the oil-for-food programme offered," says the ISG report. But in 1997 Aziz approached Saddam with a bribery policy: they should sell oil only to "friendly" countries. Mohammed Rashid, Iraq’s former oil minister, told the ISG that this meant "those nations that would help get [UN] sanctions lifted".
Russia, Iraq’s old ally, became the number one beneficiary, with almost 30% of oil deals, then France (15%) and China (10%). By no coincidence, all three hold power of veto over war in the UN Security Council. After these countries came what Rashid called "individuals who were influential with their government leaders". Countries were bribed collectively but so were key figures personally. Of the top three oil recipients, Russian politicians occupy the top three slots. Then comes Patrick Maugein, a French financier considered "a conduit to French President [Jacques] Chirac".
An Iraqi intelligence paper prepared for Saddam said his agents in Paris were "assessing possibilities for financially supporting one of the candidates in an upcoming French presidential election". The ISG spares French blushes and does not say which one. It does go on to say that "a number of French individuals" were also targeted whom "the Iraqis thought had close relations to French President Chirac". They included the official spokesperson of Chirac’s 2002 re-election campaign, two reported "counsellors" of Chirac and two well-known French businessmen with links to the president.
What did the French get in return? "The primary motive for French continued support and co-operation with Iraq in the UN was economic," says the ISG, citing Iraqi sources. According to Aziz "French oil companies wanted to secure two large oil contracts". The deal with the Devil was done: in May 2002, 10 months before crucial war votes in the UN, Iraqi intelligence reported meeting a senior French politician who assured Iraq that "France would use its veto in the UN Security Council against any American decision to attack Iraq".
Chirac duly delivered in February 2003. The French were not alone in dealing with the Devil. The ISG report shows that, by the eve of war, Russia’s oil companies (and, therefore, its entire economy) had a vested interest in Saddam’s survival. These companies were being promised the world. In 1997, Lukoil won a $3.7bn contract to develop one of Iraq’s 73 oilfields over 23 years. In April 2001, Zarubezhchneft and Tatneft, two more Russian oil giants, secured an $11.1bn contract to drill in three other oilfields. So close were the Iraqi-Russian relations that a "female colonel in Russian intelligence" agreed a payment of between $15m and $20m in the year before war. Payments were to start in September 2002.
At roughly the same time, a $350bn contract was being dangled by Iraq to begin exploration of the vast Nahr Umr oilfield over a 10-year period. The deal was dependent on UN sanctions being lifted and agreement was struck with Rosneft and Zarubezhchneft. Little wonder that President Putin, desperate for every cent of oil revenue for his cash-strapped government, was not too keen on a US government likely to revoke such deals. By October 2002, when Blair visited Moscow pleading for a UN resolution to enforce war, he was told that Putin would also use his veto. Saddam had France and Russia in the bag.
But Saddam’s most brazen act of bribery was to target Benon Sevan, who was running the $64bn oil-for-food programme. Vouchers over some 11 million barrels of oil were put down in his name; weapons inspectors found seven million marked "lifted". Sevan, who is currently under investigation, never did so himself. The ISG quotes a "high-level source" in the Iraqi oil ministry saying that the work was done by a Swiss-based company and collected by the African Middle East Petroleum Company, registered in Panama.
As Saddam went about bribing those who could help him in the UN to deter America and encourage the eventual dumping of sanctions, the UN sanctions regime was already in freefall. Some claimed last week that, because Saddam had no WMD, sanctions had been working - ergo there was no case for war. The evidence presented by the ISG shows the opposite to be true. Containing Saddam through sanctions was not just failing by 2002; the whole sanctions policy was on the brink of collapse. As Saddam said in 2000: "We have said with certainty that the embargo will not be lifted by a Security Council resolution but will corrode by itself." Even three years before the war, there was every sign of this happening.
From 1999, Saddam started investing heavily in arms imports, finding a reliable group of countries and companies willing to ignore the UN restrictions for the right price. Some were Russian, most were Syrian, many were Jordanian. By 2000, "prohibited goods and weapons were being shipped into Iraq with virtually no problem," says the ISG. "Major items had no trouble getting across the border, including 380 liquid-fuel rocket engines."
The full extent of this is shown in the receipts. In 1998, Iraq’s illicit earnings were $283m. By 2002, they had soared tenfold to $2.66bn - thanks to underhand deals with Syria, Jordan and Turkey which the UN was, by then, incapable of stopping. The Baghdad International Trade Fair in 2001 was attended by hundreds, in the widespread assumption that sanctions were close to collapse. Money was flowing freely into Saddam’s coffers: the budget for the Military Industrialisation Committee - the weapons budget - was ballooning and hit $500m by January 2003. By then, planners were proceeding as if there were no sanctions at all. Major items, such as the 380 liquid-fuel rocket engines, had no problem getting across the border. By 2001, Iraq’s rocket designers were assuming that banned material was readily available.
So what was Saddam going to do? Square up to Iran, says the ISG. The most fascinating part of its report comes from interviews with Saddam himself and his four main lieutenants whom he called the "Quartet", all given from their prison cells. Far from planning to attack British bases in Cyprus, as Blair absurdly suggested in his infamous September 2002 dossier, Saddam didn’t even see as far as his own Arab neighbours. "The Quartet was not pan-Arabist like Nasser or Ghaddafi," says the ISG. Its obsession was "losing an arms race with Iran, a hostile larger neighbour". Saddam "believed the US had achieved all it wanted in the Gulf after Desert Storm and that a continuing ‘Vietnam syndrome’ about casualties precluded a full invasion". This was why Iraq was, to Western eyes, pursuing an almost suicidal strategy by bluffing over WMD. Saddam genuinely considered President Bush to be all bluster. Clearly he "misunderestimated" the American president as much as Bush and Blair misunderstood him.
Opponents of the war will predictably jump on the ISG disclosure that Saddam wanted WMD primarily to confront Iran rather than the West. But this is of little comfort. Saddam, after all, was a man who was not so long ago talking about spraying Israel and Saudi Arabia with germ warfare agents; ignoring him would hardly have led to stability in the region. Saddam’s curious decision to bluff his own generals on WMD means that, if Britain or America had captured the head of the Iraqi military in November 2002, he would have said - in all honesty as far as he was concerned - that Iraq had such weapons. Little wonder the outside world was misled.
So what’s the moral of this largely untold story? Not that Iraq was certified WMD-free. The ISG says its powers of search were "in most ways more limited than that of the UN inspectors", and that after last December, insurgency stopped its staff visiting much of Iraq. Indeed, they did find "numerous examples of Iraq’s disregard for UN sanctions", helped by various French and Russian companies.
But even if Saddam had no WMD last year, we know from the ISG documents and the interviews that he would have had them sooner or later. Sanctions were collapsing so fast that, had the war on terror slid a couple of years, it may have been too late. America and Britain may have gone to war for the wrong reasons but a detailed study of the ISG suggests other, good reasons for going to war nevertheless. That is some consolation for Blair and Bush.
But there is no good news whatsoever for the UN. The ISG reveals in damning detail how an organisation which purports to promote peace and democracy can be easily manipulated and undermined by a dictator with money to spend and venal politicians to corrupt.