Focus on Iraq: Powell’s UN speech dissected

Above: Colin Powell (Reuters)

US media had suggested that Secretary of State Colin Powell was playing down what he would present to the UN Security Council about Iraq’s alleged deceptions, weapons of mass destruction, and support for terrorism, so that when he made his revelations, they would have all the greater impact. Having heard Powell’s presentation, it is now clear he was playing things down because his hand was in fact so weak.

Powell’s multi-media presentation was a rag-bag of old allegations, which the United States has been making for years, some of them based on information Iraq has itself provided to UN inspectors. Other claims were based on audio recordings and satellite images, and still more were based on unverifiable claims from unidentified human witnesses and “defectors.” Powell all but admitted the weakness of his case by continually saying “these are facts, not assertions,” at moments when he was providing the most sensational yet least supported claims. He also resorted to the comic book tactic of calling Saddam Hussein an “evil genius” for having succeeded in hiding what the US says is a vast arsenal, not only from UN inspectors, but from the world’s only super power. Let’s look more closely at some of the “new” elements in the American case for an immediate attack on Iraq:

The Audio Tapes

Powell played what he said were intercepted conversations between Iraqi officers who were discussing ways to conceal prohibited materials from UN inspectors. None of the three recordings, if real, amounted to a “smoking gun.” If they were real, they could be incriminating in a certain context, but they could also have been taken out of a context in which they were entirely innocent.

The evidentiary value of the alleged recordings is close to nil. The recordings could easily have been faked, as the United States has a history of doing. In 2001, US public radio’s “This American Life,” broadcast recently declassified tapes from a clandestine radio station set up by the CIA in the 1950s to help provoke a coup against the democratically-elected government of Guatemala. The radio station, which broadcast completely fake “opposition” voices, is credited with helping bring a repressive American client regime to power. (Program broadcast on 30 November 2001. See for details.)

More directly related to current events, New York’s Village Voice newspaper reported late last year how, during the 1990s, a Harvard graduate student celebrated for his convincing impersonation of Saddam Hussein was hired by the high-powered, US government-linked public relations firm, the Rendon Group, to make fake propaganda broadcasts of Saddam’s voice to Iraq. The student received three thousand dollars a month for his troubles. “I never got a straight answer on whether the Iraqi resistance, the CIA, or policy makers on the Hill were actually the ones calling the shots,” the report quotes the ersatz Saddam saying, “but ultimately I realized that the guys doing spin (sic) were very well funded and completely cut loose.” (“Broadcast Ruse: A Grad Student Mimicked Saddam Over the Airwaves,” The Village Voice, 13-19 November 2002)

In 1990, another Washington public relations firm, hired by Kuwait, helped win support for the first Gulf War by fabricating claims, presented to Congress, that Iraqi troops threw Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. (see “The Lies We Are Told About Iraq,” The Los Angeles Times, 5 January 2003)

Those taken in by that deception, will want to be more skeptical this time around. It also doesn’t help US credibility that the Pentagon has repeatedly over the past two years stated that it would use deception and black propaganda to achieve its policy goals.

Satellite Imagery

Powell relied on satellite images in order to support the claim that Iraq is still producing and hiding chemical weapons. He said, for instance, that some of the images he showed were of the Iraqis “sanitizing” the “Al-Taji chemical munitions storage site” before UN inspectors arrived

Again, it is impossible to tell if the satellite photos displayed by Powell are real, fake, old or new. But even if they are real, current photos of Iraq, they are by themselves of no conclusive value. The New York Times reported that American officials recently gave the UN inspectors satellite photos of “what American analysts said were Iraqi clean-up crews operating at a suspected chemical weapons site.” But when the inspectors went to the site, they “concluded that the site was an old ammunition storage area often frequented by Iraqi trucks, and that there was no reason to believe it was involved in weapons activities.” (“Blix Says He Saw Nothing to Prompt a War,” The New York Times, 31 January 2003)

For all we know the incident referred to in The New York Times is probably the same used goods Powell tried to sell to the Security Council. Only the inspectors can tell us otherwise.

Mobile Units

Powell claimed, based on uncorroborated hearsay from “defectors,” that Iraq has an elaborate system of mobile laboratories used for producing biological weapons. With no hard evidence, Powell was reduced to displaying “artists impressions” of what these laboratories supposedly look like, a tactic routinely used by American supermarket tabloids to produce pictures to accompany the latest stories of landings and abductions by space aliens.

In an interview with The New York Times, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, denied US claims that the inspectors had found that Iraqi officials were hiding and moving illicit materials within and outside of Iraq to prevent their discovery (“Blix Says He Saw Nothing to Prompt a War,” The New York Times, 31 January 2003). Blix , who unlike the United States, has hundreds of staff on the ground in Iraq, is in a much better position to know than Powell.

Iraq’s links with Al-Qaida

Powell claimed that Iraq has close links with Al-Qaida and based this largely on the alleged movements of the threateningly unshaven gentleman Abu Musab Zarqawi. Prior to Powell’s presentation, The Washington Post noted that Zarqawi, a Jordanian, “appears to be the only individual named so far to make the link to Iraq after more than a year of major investigations in which ‘a good deal of attention has been paid to what extent a connection may exist between al Qaeda and Iraq,’” (“U.S. Effort to Link Terrorists To Iraq Focuses on Jordanian,” The Washington Post, 5 February 2003)

To make up for the flimsiness of the case, Powell resorted to building Zarqawi up into a frightening figure in exactly the way the US in previous years built up Usama Bin Laden. It seems that Usama, who is still on the loose, and who did not feature as a topic of Mr. Powell’s address, has been replaced in American affections.

Powell claimed that Zarqawi (who has now been promoted by the Americans to the status of “The Zarqawi Network,” complete with flow charts) was training terrorists in a poison-making camp in northern Iraq. Powell skipped dismissively over a very pertinent fact. Since the 1991 Gulf War, northern Iraq has been out of the control of Saddam Hussein’s government.

The United States and United Kingdom have been cruelly bombing the illegally-declared northern and southern “no-fly zones” for twelve years, largely to limit the influence of Iraq’s government to the center of the country. Northern Iraq has been ruled by competing Kurdish factions with United States backing. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the CIA has been operating freely in northern Iraq, and the United States recently acknowledged that its special forces are operating in that part of the country. Powell showed what he said was a satellite photo of the “terrorist camp.” If the United States knows where such a camp lies, and has forces in the region, why has it not bombed it or attacked it, as it has bombed so many other installations in northern Iraq? An attack on a “terrorist” installation in northern Iraq requires anything but an invasion of the entire country. Furthermore, if the camp even exists, why would the United States give its occupants notice that it knows where it is, rather than just taking it out, as, say, it took out a car load of alleged “terrorists” in Yemen last year? It just doesn’t add up.

That the US is claiming that Al-Qaida-linked terrorists are operating in the part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein rather undermines the argument that Saddam is backing such people. Powell’s only answer to this major problem in his case was to offer more unsubstantiated claims that one of Saddam’s secret agents is in charge of the whole operation.

In the days prior to Powell’s presentation, numerous reports appeared in the American and British press that senior intelligence officials from the FBI, CIA and even the Israeli Mossad maintain there is no evidence to tie Iraq to Al-Qaida in any meaningful way. The BBC reported on 5 February that a top secret, official British intelligence report given to Prime Minister Tony Blair and leaked to the BBC states that there are no current Iraqi links with al-Qaida. The BBC added that the intelligence document “said a fledgling alliance foundered due to ideological differences between the militant Islamic group and the secular nationalist regime.” (“UK report rejects Iraqi al-Qaeda link,” BBC News Online, 5 February 2003)

At the present time, it appears that there is a much stronger case on US-Al-Qaida links dating back to the days when the Reagan Administration helped recruit men from all over the Arab and Muslim world to join what it called the “Afghan freedom fighters,” than anything to incriminate Iraq. Mr. Powell said not a word about that.

Underlining the weakness of the Anglo-American case, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC before Powell’s address, that he had “seen no evidence which directly links Iraq to al-Qaeda, but I would not be surprised if it exists.” Is this the sort of shabby thinking on which decisions about war and peace are made? More importantly, the Pentagon has brushed aside the lack of evidence, and, to the dismay of senior CIA and FBI officials, has exaggerated evidence for purely ideological and political purposes. It is the result of these political deceptions, not evidence, that was presented to the Security Council by Mr. Powell.

Even if there were evidence of an Al-Qaida connection, the US claims that it wants to go to war to enforce UN resolutions. But no UN resolutions regarding Iraq say anything about Al-Qaida. Hence, even the attempt by the US to link Iraq to Al-Qaida must be interpreted as an act of desperation by an administration that knows it has not made its case on alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq and the United States

Closing his speech, Powell sought to “remind” the Security Council that Saddam has been a horrible monster for more than two decades. He cited Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds in 1988 as “one of the twentieth century’s most horrible atrocities.” He forget to mention, however, that at the time the United States, which was supporting Saddam in his war with Iran, instructed its diplomats to implicate Iran. Powell also forgot to mention that among the long history of cooperation between the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were the several meetings that once and future Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held with Saddam at the request of President Reagan, one of them on the same day that Iraq was reported to be using chemical weapons against Iran.

Nor did Powell point out that the same sort of satellite evidence that he now uses to indict Iraq was once gladly handed over to Saddam by the United States to help Iraq deafeat Iran. And in claiming that there is not a frightening disease in the pharmacology that Iraq is not capable of creating, Powell forgot to mention that the seed stock to make anthrax, E. Coli, botulism and other biological agents was exported to Iraq from a company based near Washington, DC, called the American Type Culture Collection, under contracts approved by the United States Goverment in the 1980s. These sales continued even after Iraq was reported to have used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. (see Iraq Under Siege, South End Press, 2000, p.39)

Powell also sought to “remind” the Security Council about Iraq’s horrible human rights record. He failed to explain, however, when the United States found its conscience on this matter which never troubled it in all the years that it was allied with Saddam. Such naked cynicism may yet fool some in an American public whose knowledge of history is notoriously shallow, and whose mass media scarcely dare challenge any administration’s foreign policy, but it will not fool anyone else.

Powell was also cynical to criticize Saddam Hussein for allegedly supporting Palestinian groups. Whether this was simply an attempt to grasp at further “evidence” is unclear. There are no known links at all between Palestinian groups fighting Israel’s repression and Al-Qaida, despite the Sharon government’s attempts to manufacture them for American consumption. What is certain, however, is that in the Arab world, the attempt to use any alleged support for the Palestinian cause as a justification to invade Iraq can only further alienate and inflame public opinion.


Taken together, the smorgasbord of old allegations, show-and-tell and hearsay that Powell presented would fall disastrously short of proving a case against an accused person in an American court of law, where the standard of proof must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The flashy presentation did not conceal holes in the American case that a U.S. Navy battlegroup could sail through with room to spare. The Americans have argued that the Security Council is not a court of law, and that the standards of proof are different, and need not be beyond a reasonable doubt. But early in his presentation Powell himself used judicial language when he claimed that Iraq had earlier been “found guilty” of “material breaches” by the Security Council.

The American legal system, often held as an example to the world, applies such strigent standards in order to protect a single accused person from being wrongly denied his freedom or life. If the United States attacks Iraq, not one accused person, but thousands of innocent people may lose their lives. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that 600,000 people may be forced to flee their homes, and millions more may well be exposed to hunger, illness, danger and chaos for years to come. Is all of this worth it, when, as France’s President Chirac once again underlined on 4 February, that a perfectly viable, non-violent alternative exists? In response to a reporter’s question about criticisms that one hundred UN inspectors cannot possibly disarm a country the size of Iraq, Chirac pointed out that the first inspection regime destroyed more Iraqi weapons than all of the deadly American firepower directed at that country in 1991 and since. The solution to any shortage of resources, if the inspectors should complain of one (so far they have not), said Chirac, is to increase those resources.

Powell said that by passing Resolution 1441 putting in place the inspections last November, the Security Council has given Iraq a “last chance” to disarm. It appears that it was the United States that had a last chance to convince the world that what is needed instead is a US-led invasion of Iraq that could devastate the whole region for years to come.

The early indications, judging from the speeches of the Chinese, Russian, French and other foreign ministers seated around the Security Council table, are that the world remains convinced that inspections should be given a chance to work, Iraq, which presents no immediate threat to anyone, should urgently do everything possible to cooperate, and as President Chirac said, “war is always the worst solution.”

Let us hope that someone in Washington is listening.