When weapons of mass destruction became weapons of mass deception
On March 20, 2003, the US, then led by President George W. Bush, launched simultaneous attacks on Iraq with a view to removing Saddam Hussein from power. The war was ostensibly launched to eliminate what the US wrongly and misleadingly claimed were Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Iraqi troops went underground and launched a guerrilla war whose destructive effects, 17 years later, are still being dealt with. The resulting confusion led to the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and the rise of Daesh and Iranian militias. All of Iraq suffered because of the American decision to invade the country, and the Middle East has never been the same since.
JEDDAH: What shall we call the 2003 US war in Iraq? The Americans had no problem at all in calling it a liberation. From the Arab perspective, however, it was something completely different. If you flip through the pages of our newspaper in the lead-up to the bombing of Baghdad on the night of March 20, 2003, what will strike you is that many Arabs were opposed to the US war in Iraq because they correctly foresaw that it would lead to giving Iraq on a platter to Iran.
US President George W. Bush was always prejudiced against Saddam Hussein. Bush’s cabinet colleagues and advisers, especially Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and other neocons in the administration, made no attempt to hide their own pathological dislike of Saddam.
There were different theories of how Bush had come to despise him. Some reports said he hated Saddam for having plotted to kill his father during his visit to Kuwait. Whatever the truth, Bush Jr.’s advisers took full advantage of the president’s strong dislike, and fed it with a variety of stories.
The horrific attacks on US soil by Al-Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001, gave Bush and his advisers a reason to take out Saddam. He was portrayed as a supporter of Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, and was thus tarred with the same black brush of Muslim terrorism.
Nobody in the Middle East, however, was taken in by this story, since it was well-known that Saddam hated Al-Qaeda more than anyone else. As a Baathist, he saw a great threat to his rule from Islamist terrorists, a much more powerful threat than from his archenemy Iran.
Saudi Arabia declared yesterday that it will not partake in a US-led war on Iraq under any circumstances and voiced strong opposition to any possible US military occupation of Iraq.
From a staff story on Arab News’ front page, March 19, 2003 edition
The post-9/11 atmosphere, however, was such that it was easy to create any narrative and go for the elimination of any perceived enemy. That is exactly what happened with Saddam. A flimsy case was put together that he was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), based on flawed intelligence.
Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, made an elaborate speech at the UN, complete with maps and pictures of where the WMDs were allegedly hidden. The wider world was nonetheless unconvinced, and the UN — which had sent its own experts to Iraq on a fruitless search for WMDs — refused to approve the war.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal raised serious concerns on “Frontline,” a show on the US network PBS. “What’s going to happen to them (Iraqi soldiers and officials), especially since the army was disbanded and the government fired? And who’s going to rule Iraq if you have that?” he said.
“Saddam Hussein had perhaps 2 million people controlling Iraq. The US and its allies have close to 150,000. How do you make that work?”
Nonetheless, Washington choreographed a plan to attack Iraq. The pages of Arab News are full of how Saudi Arabia advised the US, its closest Western ally, to call for sanctions instead.
Even after Saddam invaded Kuwait in the 1990s and his army was pulverized by the US and Saudi-led liberation forces, Riyadh convinced Washington not to remove Saddam from power. Saudi officials knew his removal would lead to chaos in the region and provide Iran with a golden opportunity to run amok.
As things panned out later, the removal of Saddam led to horrific atrocities, both in Iraq and the wider region. Al-Qaeda, which was given a severe drubbing in Afghanistan, bounced back and found an ideal and very fertile breeding ground in Iraq.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the UN Security Council and provides the rationale for the war on Iraq: The country’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
American aircraft launch a blistering attack on Baghdad. Dubbed “shock and awe,” it knocks out Iraqi anti-missile batteries, aircraft and power installations. The presidential palace is attacked.
US President George W. Bush declares an end to major combat operations. He lands on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in a Lockheed S-3 Viking, and gives a speech in which he announces the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
After spending nine months in hiding, Saddam Hussein is captured.
After a sham trial by the interim Iraqi government, Saddam is executed. Despite prolonged searches by the US, no WMDs were ever found in Iraq.
Much later, Daesh appeared on the scene. Sensing an opening, Iran stepped in and unleashed a sectarian war. Thousands died. Tehran and its many murderous militias used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to devastating effect.
As a senior staff member at Arab News, I was part of the team that would select the front page stories and photos; some of them from that time remain etched in our memories. There was a front page on March 19, 2003, with Bush in a cowboy hat with the headline: “High Noon for Cowboy Era.”
The front page also referred to King Fahd’s address to the nation on March 18, in which he said: “The Kingdom will under no circumstances take part in the war against Iraq, and its armed forces will not enter an inch of Iraqi territory.”
Baghdad would be bombed the next night, after the 48-hour ultimatum given by Bush to Saddam had passed. There was extensive reporting from Kuwait, Jordan, Washington, and of course Baghdad.
Arab News had correspondents on the ground who filed their reports to the newsroom in Jeddah. The March 21, 2003 edition had the headline: “Baghdad set ablaze, palaces, Saddam’s family home targeted in aerial bombardment.”
On the following nights, the US unleashed at least 3,000 satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles at Iraq. There was not an Iraqi WMD in sight. In the “Letters to the Editor” column, readers continued to refer to the elusive WMDs as “the weapons of mass deception.”
“The region continues to suffer the consequences of that war: The increase in terrorism, the political instability and the breeding ground for radicalism. In virtually all cases, the consequences have been much worse than the war itself.”
There was severe criticism in Saudi Arabia, especially because there was no UN approval for the war. In a piece in the March 21, 2003 edition, Adnan Jaber, a Jordanian journalist in Saudi Arabia, was quoted as saying the war “would increase terrorism rather than reduce it since political instability would provide a breeding ground for radicalism.”
His words were profound. The very political instability he mentioned led to many in Saddam’s army, which the Americans had foolishly disbanded, joining Daesh and Al-Qaeda in order to strike a blow against the invaders who had ravaged their homeland for no purpose.
There were, as in all wars, moments of comic relief. All of us would gather around the TV screens in the newsroom to listen to Saddam’s famous information minister, Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, making ridiculous claims when he addressed the media every day.
According to him, Saddam’s army was on the verge of victory, whereas the reality was exactly the opposite. The much-touted American “shock and awe” had led to the melting away of the Iraqi military with no resistance. It was later revealed that Iraqi soldiers had simply given up their uniforms and chosen guerrilla warfare by joining Daesh or Al-Qaeda.
The region continues to suffer the consequences of that war: The increase in terrorism, the political instability and the breeding ground for radicalism. In virtually all cases, the consequences have been much worse than the war itself. Arab News was well situated to report the war and its after-effects, and is proud to continue the same dedicated and responsible journalism today.
- Siraj Wahab is managing editor at Arab News. During the invasion of Iraq, he was a senior member of staff, having joined the newspaper in January 1998.