In many ways this is old news:
From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.
In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
I've blogged on this since we were fighting in Iraq. This isn't new. (NOTE: Although the scale is on an order of magnitude greater than previously thought.)
Nor is blaming the West and America for this:
Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.
There is no claim that we provided the design to Iraq. Indeed, later the article explains that a European company sold the American-designed warhead. Western European involvement was well known at the time. I won't defend any of that.
I'll just say that an Iranian victory in that Iran-Iraq War would have been worse. I have no problem with the non-WMD support we gave to Iraq to prevent an Iranian victory.
And the urge to blame Bush is strong:
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims.
Our intelligence agencies and those of our allies believed Saddam was hiding chemical weapons. Bush acted on that intelligence. Just as Clinton had in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox by launching attacks on Iraq's WMD infrastructure.
Also, the NYT inverts the requirement. Saddam was interfering with inspectors. And Saddam was required to demonstrate to those inspectors that he had disarmed--the ceasefire did not require the inspectors to prove Saddam had not. This is one of the most frustrating errors that the anti-war side continues to make.
Indeed, I could jump on this part of the article:
Chemical munitions can resemble conventional munitions — a problem compounded by Iraq’s practice of mislabeling ordnance to confuse foreign inspectors and, with time, by rust, pitting and dirt.
Inspectors were a post-1991 factor. If all of Iraq's WMD were pre-1991, why would Iraq mislabel ordnance to confuse foreign inspectors?
I attribute this to writer sloppiness--just as failing to understand the responsibilities of the inspections program is sloppiness--rather than being a smoking gun of Saddam's WMD arsenal post-1991.
I'm being harsh, I know. In many ways it is a good article. It's just that basic misunderstanding of the inspections process clouds the framing of the article.
Even infrastructure survived the 1991 war--and 2003 war--as the article acknowledges:
Many chemical weapons incidents clustered around the ruins of the Muthanna State Establishment, the center of Iraqi chemical agent production in the 1980s.
Since June, the compound has been held by the Islamic State, the world’s most radical and violent jihadist group. In a letter sent to the United Nations this summer, the Iraqi government said that about 2,500 corroded chemical rockets remained on the grounds, and that Iraqi officials had witnessed intruders looting equipment before militants shut down the surveillance cameras.
This is "just" a storage facility now, that was supposed to be "entombed" to seal everything in. But it is an example of infrastructure surviving the 1991 war (as it must have since we struck more in 1998, recall).
Yet the article isn't so much about Saddam failing to abide by the 1991 WMD disarmament provisions as the basis for war in 2003 as it is blaming us for not following rules:
Nonproliferation officials said the Pentagon’s handling of many of the recovered warheads and shells appeared to violate the Convention on Chemical Weapons. According to this convention, chemical weapons must be secured, reported and destroyed in an exacting and time-consuming fashion.
Got it? Saddam's failure to account for 5,000 warheads as he was required to do (and the continued existence of WMD facilities, which ISIL now controls) isn't the issue--our failure to fill out the right paperwork is the issue.
There was fighting going on. We had other things to do. And surely we did not want to highlight that there were WMD rounds hidden around Iraq when insurgencies and terrorism were rampant. People could have panicked and terrorists could have focused on finding those rounds.
And Lord knows what the anti-war side would have shrieked--I can imagine them charging the military with justifying a failed war with false WMD evidence just as our Senate was close to refusing to fund the war, distracting us from actually winning the war.
It is an issue if our people were not treated for chemical exposure. That is unacceptable. I don't understand why we failed to do that. Amends must be made both in medical care and in recognition.
But even if all the chemical warheads were old and pre-1991, don't forget that Saddam had the facilities, staff, and raw materials to restart chemical weapons production rapidly. Indeed, the chemical weapons disarmament deal with Syria a year ago included in its WMD disarmament "success" types of raw material that Saddam had possessed at the time of the invasion in 2003 that somehow don't count as WMD.
And I still wonder if all those intelligence agencies were wrong. Just as this is being heralded as a new development, what new developments will we find in the years ahead? What else was buried in Iraq or otherwise hidden?
Remember, as the NYT article reports, somebody was trying to recover Saddam's WMD three years into our occupation in summer 2006:
Even as the Senate committee worked, the American Army made its largest chemical weapons find of the war: more than 2,400 Borak rockets.
The rockets were discovered at Camp Taji, a former Republican Guard compound, when Americans “running a refueling point for helicopters saw some shady activity on the other side of a fence,” said Mr. Lampier, who lived at the camp at the time.
An Iraqi digging with a front-end loader ran away when an American patrol approached, leaving behind partly unearthed rockets. ...
The rockets appeared to have been buried before American airstrikes in 1991, he said. Many were empty. Others still contained sarin. “Full-up sloshers,” he said.
We ended Iraq as a WMD threat (well, other than ISIL holding a chemical weapons facility). So far the issue isn't as clear as shiny new WMD captured in the invasion, but left to his own devices, Saddam would have rebuilt and used his WMD arsenal--again. Just as Assad has used chemical weapons despite President Obama's "successful" WMD deal with Syria.
UPDATE: This effort to deny we had reason to destroy Saddam's regime over WMD is just sad:
[On] Septmeber 12, 2002, President Bush described a different threat while making the case for the 2003 Iraq invasion: “Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons.” The Times' investigation doesn't mention any findings of biological weapons.
He went on, “The regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons.”
According to the investigation, the chemical weapons discovered by U.S. soldiers after the 2003 invasion were all manufactured before 1991.
He also notes that we did not get a UN Security Council resolution to attack Iraq.
The NYT article is about chemical weapons we found in Iraq, so the bio weapons statement by the president is irrelevant. But the fact is, in the mid-1990s we discovered that Saddam had a bio weapons program. Since bio weapons programs are small and can be conducted in facilities meant for non-weapons programs, it would have been folly to assume there was no bio program, given intelligence indications--especially since he had the knowledge that the much-harder-to-hide nuclear program of Saddam was much more advanced in 1991 than we suspected when we drove Saddam's army from Kuwait that year.
The fact that the warheads discovered in Iraq during the Iraq War were pre-1991 manufacture does not refute the assessment that Saddam was improving facilities to allow for future chemical weapons production. That capability was long known and confirmed after the war.
And the lack of UN authorization for the 2003 war has nothing to do with whether Saddam had chemical weapons capabilities or production capabilities in 2003.
So strike three on what the anti-war side still says is a slam dunk about our reasons for war.
UPDATE: Related thoughts.
And let me again repeat that prior to the 2003 war, even opponents of the war believed that Saddam had chemical weapons. It's just that they didn't think going to war over that was justified--or even thought that the defeat of Saddam would lead to chemical weapons getting loose either as a revenge policy by Saddam or in the chaos after defeating Saddam, so it was safer to let Saddam keep them secured.
So claiming that "only" thousands of pre-1991 chemical warheads discovered prove the war was unjustified involves a dramatic re-write of history.