Would US opt for chemical warfare?
By George Monbiot
LONDON: When Saddam Hussein failed to shower US troops with chemical weapons as
they entered Iraq, thus depriving them of a retrospective justification for this
war , the American generals explained that he would do so as soon as they
crossed the "red line" around Baghdad. Beyond that point, the
desperate dictator would lash out with every weapon he possessed.
Well, the line has been crossed and recrossed, and not a whiff of mustard gas or
VX has so far been detected. This could mean one of three things: Saddam's
command system may have broken down (he may be dead, or his troops might have
failed to receive or respond to his orders); he is refraining, so far, from
using chemical weapons; or he does not possess them.
The special forces sent to seize Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have found
no hard evidence at any of the 12 sites (identified by the Pentagon as the most
likely places) they have examined so far. As Newsweek revealed in February,
there may be a reason for this: in 1995, General Hussein Kamel, the defector
whose evidence George Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell have cited as
justification for their invasion, told the UN that the Iraqi armed forces,
acting on his instructions, had destroyed the last of their banned munitions.
But, whether Saddam is able to use such weapons or not, their deployment in Iraq
appears to be imminent, for the Americans seem determined on it.
Chemicals can turn corners, seep beneath doors, inexorably fill a building or a
battlefield. They can kill or disable biological matter while leaving the
infrastructure intact. They are the weapons that reach the parts other weapons
They are also among the most terrifying instruments of war: this is why Saddam
used them to such hideous effect, both in Iran and against the Kurds of Halabja.
And, for an occupying army trying not to alienate local people or world opinion,
those chemicals misleadingly labelled "non-lethal" appear to provide a
possibility of capturing combatants without killing civilians.
This, to judge by a presidential order and a series of recent statements, now
seems to be the US government's chosen method for dealing with Iraqi soldiers
sheltering behind human shields, when its conventional means of completing the
capture of Baghdad have been exhausted.
It makes a certain kind of sense, until two inconvenient issues are taken into
account. The deployment of these substances would break the conventions designed
to contain them; and the point of this war, or so we have endlessly been told,
is to prevent the use of chemical weapons.
Last week Bush authorized US troops to use teargas in Iraq. He is permitted to
do so by an executive order published in 1975 by Gerald Ford, which overrides,
within the US, the 1925 Geneva protocol on chemical weapons. While this may
prevent Bush's impeachment in America, it has no standing in international law.
The chemical weapons convention, promoted by George W's father and ratified by
the US in 1997, insists that "each state party undertakes not to use riot
control agents as a method of warfare". Teargas, pepper spray and other
incapacitants may be legally used on your own territory for the purposes of
policing. They may not be used in another country to control or defeat the
For the past two months, US officials have been seeking to wriggle free from
this constraint. In February, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, told
Congress's armed services committee that "there are times when the use of
non-lethal riot agents is perfectly appropriate". He revealed that he and
the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Richard Myers, had been "trying
to fashion rules of engagement" for the use of chemical weapons in Iraq.
Rumsfeld, formerly the chief executive of GD Searle, one of the biggest drugs
firms in the US, has never been an enthusiast for the chemical weapons
convention. In 1997, as the senate was preparing to ratify the treaty, he told
its committee on foreign relations that the convention "will impose a
costly and complex regulatory burden on US industry".
Enlisting the kind of self- fulfilling prophecy with which we have since become
familiar, he maintained that it was not "realistic," as global
disarmament "is not a likely prospect". Dick Cheney, now
vice-president, asked the committee to record his "strong opposition"
Last month Victoria Clarke, an assistant secretary in Chemical Donald's
department, wrote to the Independent, confirming the decision to use riot
control agents in Iraq, and claiming that their deployment would be legal. Last
week the US Marine Corps told the Asia Times that CS gas and pepper spray had
already been shipped to the Gulf. The government of the US appears to be on the
verge of committing a war crime in Iraq.
Given that the entire war contravenes international law, does it matter? It
does, for three reasons. The most immediate is that there is no such thing as a
non-lethal chemical weapon. Gases that merely incapacitate at low doses, in
well-ventilated places, kill when injected into rooms, as the Russian special
forces found in October when they slaughtered 128 of the 700 hostages they were
supposed to be liberating from a Moscow theatre. It is impossible to deliver a
sufficient dose to knock out combatants without also delivering a sufficient
dose to kill some of their captives.
The second reason is that, if they still possess them, it may induce the Iraqi
fighters to retaliate with chemical weapons of their own. At the same time, it
encourages the other nations now threatened with attack by Bush to start
building up their chemical arsenals: if the US is not prepared to play by the
rules, why should they?
The third reason is that the use of gas in Iraq may serve, in the eyes of US
citizens, to help legitimize America's illegal chemical weapons development
programme. As the US Sunshine Project has documented, the defence department and
the army are experimenting with chemicals which cause pain, fear, convulsions,
hallucinations and unconsciousness, and developing the hollow mortar rounds
required to deliver them. Among the weapons they are testing is fentanyl, the
drug which turned the Moscow theatre into a gas chamber. Since March 2002, the
government's "non-lethal weapons directorate" has been training the
Marine Corps in the use of chemical weapons.
The deployment of chemicals in Baghdad could be the event which finally destroys
the treaties designed to contain them, and this, in turn, would be another step
towards the demolition of international law and the inception of a bloody and
brutal era, in which might is unconstrained by universal notions of right.
You cannot use chemical weapons to wage war against chemical weapons. They are,
as the convention makes clear, the instruments of terrorists. By deploying them,
the US government would liquidate one of the remaining moral distinctions
between its own behaviour and that of the man it asks us to abominate.-Dawn/The
Guardian News Service.
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