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[casi] The Guardian and why weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998

Dear CASI list

I sent the following to Helena Smith and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian.

Best wishes

Eric Herring

Dear Ms. Smith and Mr. MacAskill

I am writing to you regarding your article in The Guardian today
(November 19) titled 'As arms inspectors arrive, row erupts over US
smears'. I wrote the following to the letters page:

'Helena Smith and Ewen MacAskill state today (Front page, November 19)
that 'The inspectors <HORIZONTAL ELLIPSIS> abandoned Baghdad in December 1998, claiming
Iraqis were obstructing their work.' This misleadingly implies that
Iraqi obstruction caused the withdrawal. Richard Butler, chief UN
weapons inspector, US Ambassador to the UN Peter Burleigh informed him
that the US was about to bomb Iraq and advised him to remove the
inspectors. Without even informing the UN Security Council, Butler
'told him that I would act on this advice and remove my staff from
Iraq.' According to Rolf Ekeus, chief UN weapons inspector 1991-97,
members of the Security Council (read US and UK) were trying to
provoke a confrontation with Iraq and succeeded.'

I would like to elaborate on that letter. The Butler quote is from
his memoir 'Saddam Defiant' p. 224 and Ekeus is quoted in Milan
Rai's 'War Plan Iraq' p. 51. Your article was certainly an improvement
on the mistaken assertion that Iraq 'expelled' or 'threw out' the
weapons inspectors (I have appended a useful piece on this below).
However, your article was still misleading. The confrontation which the
United States in cooperation with Butler managed to engineer in 1998
involved a coordinated violation of agreed UN inspection procedures.
This is detailed very well by Scott Ritter in 'War on Iraq' pages 51-54
and by Milan Rai in 'War Plan Iraq' pages 47-56 and especially pages
51-54. This material on the engineering of the confrontation was not
available to Lecturer in Politics at Cambridge University Dr. Glen
Rangwala when he wrote the piece below and hence it is more favourable
to Butler than the facts now warrant.

While there was much Iraqi obstruction, the inspectors' own reports in
October and December 1998 showed that they had been able to eliminate
all of the nuclear programme and most of  the ballistic missile,
chemical and biological programmes. See
For a very useful commentary see

The United States was opposed to continuation of the weapons
inspections not because of their failure but because of their success.
US official policy then as now was, in violation of the UN Security
Council resolutions with which Iraq is meant to comply, to keep
sanctions until Saddam is gone. The United States was faced with the
prospect of the completion of the inspectors' mission and thus the
lifting of the sanctions. Even Butler admitted in December 1998: 'we
might have a satisfactory account of Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction
programmes within six to eight weeks' (quoted in Rai p. 64).  And now
the United States is seeking to wreck the weapons inspection process
because it wants war. See my article 'The Choice on Iraq' on my website, Milan Rai's book, and

Hence, in comparison to your article, a more accurate but wordier
formulation would be 'Without UN Security Council authorisation and
despite the near-completion of their disarmament mission, chief UN
weapons inspector ordered his staff out of Iraq so that they would not
be present during the illegal US and British bombing of Iraq.'

At the very least I would suggest:  'The inspectors left Baghdad in
December 1998 in order to not be present when the United States and
Britain bombed Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.'


Dr. Eric Herring
Senior Lecturer in International Politics
University of Bristol

Iraq and the exit of the UN weapons inspectors in December 1998

In April 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, the United Nations Security
Council established an ad hoc Special Commission, UNSCOM, to carry out
on-site inspections of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile
capabilities, and to destroy (or monitor the Iraqi destruction of) any
facilities that were found. UNSCOM carried out inspections
intermittently in Iraq until December 1998. During this period, UNSCOM
often complained that the Iraqi authorities were obstructing its
monitoring work. Iraq, in turn, claimed that UNSCOM was overly
intrusive, especially in its attempts to search so-called "presidential
sites" without giving any prior notice; and that its arms inspections
teams included US "spies".

On 15 December 1998, Richard Butler, the Executive Chairman of UNSCOM,
reported to the Security Council that Iraq had failed to grant UNSCOM
full and unconditional access to (at least) four sites in Iraq. In
anticipation of the airstrikes that the US and UK governments were
threatening, Butler ordered weapons inspectors to be withdrawn on the
following day, December 16. Airstrikes - "Operation Desert Fox" -
immediately followed.

These events were reported accurately at the time by most major media
outlets. For example, Josh Friedman wrote in the New York Times on 17
Dec 1998:

"While the 133 [UN humanitarian] workers had been left behind, more
than 185 others, most of them arms inspectors, had been evacuated
yesterday by air to neighboring Bahrain and by car to Jordan ... Butler
abruptly pulled all of his inspectors out of Iraq shortly after handing
Annan a report yesterday afternoon on Baghdad's continued failure to
cooperate with UNSCOM".

The chronology on UNSCOM's own website reports this event:

16 Dec 1998: The Special Commission withdraws its staff from Iraq.

In withdrawing the arms inspectors, Richard Butler acted unilaterally:
he did not wait for the Security Council to assess his report and to
make any decisions in consequence of it. Instead, Peter Burleigh, the
US ambassador to the UN, "advised" Butler to withdraw his staff from
Iraq and Butler did not consult other Security Council members. The
events are recounted in more detail in Butler's book, The Greatest
Threat (2000), p.210 (or in the altenate edition,Saddam Defiant ,

"I received a telephone call from U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh
inviting me for a private conversation at the US mission [...] Burleigh
informed me that on instructions from Washington it would be 'prudent
to take measures to ensure the safety and security of UNSCOM staff
presently in Iraq.' [...] I told him that I would act on this advice
and remove my staff from Iraq."

Given that the chain of events is so well established, it is surprising
that many commentators and politicians have claimed since 1999 that
Iraq "expelled" the weapons inspectors in December 1998. This mistake
has been made not only by hawks such as President George W. Bush in his
State of the Union address ("the axis of evil" speech), Dick Cheney
(before he became vice-president), Alexander Rose, the Canadian
right-wing Washington correspondent of the National Post, and the
editorial writers of the Sunday Times. It has also been repeated by
those who have shown concern for the humanitarian situation in Iraq,
such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Liberal Democrats
foreign affairs spokesperson Menzies Campbell, and the usually superb
Guardian Middle East editor Brian Whitaker. The BBC often makes this
mistake, and usually acknowledges its error when it is pointed out to

Even the US Department of State's "Myths and Facts About Iraq"
acknowledges that this claim is mistaken. It reports:

"The inspectors were not thrown out of Iraq."

It was hardly unpredictable that the Iraqi regime would refuse after
December 1998 to re-admit the arms inspectors who had been withdrawn so
that Iraq could be bombed. Ironically, Iraq has been giving the same
reason that the US offered in December 2001 for refusing to sign up to
a convention that would be effective in prohibiting biological weapons:
on-site inspectors are unacceptable because they would spy.

In the present climate of tension in relations between Iraq and other
countries - with widespread speculation that the US will justify
military attacks on Iraq in terms of the absence of arms inspectors - a
valid account of the events that led to that absence would seem
especially important.

Dr. Eric Herring
Department of Politics
University of Bristol
10 Priory Road
Bristol BS8 1TU
England, UK
Office tel. +44-(0)117-928-8582
Mobile tel. +44-(0)7771-966608
Fax +44-(0)117-973-2133

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