Eyewitness to a failure in Iraq
IN 2003 I went to tell Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz what I had seen in Baghdad in the days following Saddam Hussein's overthrow. For nearly an hour, I described the catastrophic aftermath of the invasion -- the unchecked looting of every public institution in Baghdad, the devastation of Iraq's cultural heritage, the anger of ordinary Iraqis who couldn't understand why the world's only superpower was letting this happen.
I also described two particularly disturbing incidents -- one I had witnessed and the other I had heard about. On April 16, 2003, a mob attacked and looted the Iraqi equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control, taking live HIV and black fever virus among other potentially lethal materials. US troops were stationed across the street but did not intervene because they didn't know the building was important.
When he found out, the young American lieutenant was devastated. He shook his head and said, "I hope I am not responsible for Armageddon." About the same time, looters entered the warehouses at Iraq's sprawling nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha on Baghdad's outskirts. They took barrels of yellowcake (raw uranium), apparently dumping the uranium and using the barrels to hold water. US troops were at Tuwaitha but did not interfere.
There was nothing secret about the Disease Center or the Tuwaitha warehouses. Inspectors had repeatedly visited the center looking for evidence of a biological weapons program. The Tuwaitha warehouses included materials from Iraq's nuclear program, which had been dismantled after the 1991 Gulf War. The United Nations had sealed the materials, and they remained untouched until the US troops arrived.
The looting that I observed was spontaneous. Quite likely the looters had no idea they were stealing deadly biological agents or radioactive materials or that they were putting themselves in danger. As I pointed out to Wolfowitz, as long as these sites remained unprotected, their deadly materials could end up not with ill-educated slum dwellers but with those who knew exactly what they were doing.
This is apparently what happened. According to an International Atomic Energy Agency report issued earlier this month, there was "widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement that has taken place at sites previously relevant to Iraq's nuclear program." This includes nearly 380 tons of high explosives suitable for detonating nuclear weapons or killing American troops. Some of the looting continued for many months -- possibly into 2004. Using heavy machinery, organized gangs took apart, according to the IAEA, "entire buildings that housed high-precision equipment."
This equipment could be anywhere. But one good bet is Iran, which has had allies and agents in Iraq since shortly after the US-led forces arrived.
This was a preventable disaster. Iraq's nuclear weapons-related materials were stored in only a few locations, and these were known before the war began. As even L. Paul Bremer III, the US administrator in Iraq, now admits, the United States had far too few troops to secure the country following the fall of Saddam Hussein. But even with the troops we had, the United States could have protected the known nuclear sites. It appears that troops did not receive relevant intelligence about Iraq's WMD facilities, nor was there any plan to secure them. Even after my briefing, the Pentagon leaders did nothing to safeguard Iraq's nuclear sites.
I supported President Bush's decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. At Wolfowitz's request, I helped advance the case for war, drawing on my work in previous years in documenting Saddam's atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons on the Kurds. In spite of the chaos that followed the war, I am sure that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein.
It is my own country that is worse off -- 1,100 dead soldiers, billions added to the deficit, and the enmity of much of the world. Someone out there has nuclear bomb-making equipment, and they may not be well disposed toward the United States. Much of this could have been avoided with a competent postwar strategy. But without having planned or provided enough troops, we would be a lot safer if we hadn't gone to war.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, is a fellow at the Center For Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. In the 1980s, he documented Iraqi atrocities against the Kurds for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.