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Myths and misconceptions about Iraq

By Bryan Keefer, Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan
March 20, 2003

As war begins in Iraq, this column is intended to serve as a resource. It highlights major fallacies and disproven and highly debatable claims from the debate over US policy toward Iraq. Please note we can only deal with issues that have been conclusively or near-conclusively addressed on the public record. Claims about the future (what will happen in Iraq or the U.S.) or about motives (why President Bush, Congressional leaders and others are making the choices they are) are non-falsifiable in almost every case; they cannot be conclusively proven or disproven by available information. For this reason, we do not generally address these types of statements except in cases such as obviously absurd predictions or cheap soundbite-style attacks on motives. Similarly, we cannot take positions on factual disputes involving murky intelligence-related issues.

There are, however, a number of myths and misconceptions on both sides of this debate that can be fairly addressed. Below, we note and analyze some examples that we believe are important and clear-cut cases of deception, misrepresentation, and faulty logic.

Was Iraq connected to the September 11 attacks?

A debate continues to rage over whether and to what extent Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq is connected to Al Qaeda. Experts disagree about the evidence of such a connection. However, several of the specific instances cited by US and British officials as evidence for such a link have apparently not held up to close scrutiny, though the matter remains unresolved.

It is clear, however, that there is no evidence of a supposed Iraqi connection to the September 11 terrorist attacks . Yet a significant percentage of the American public appears to believe, falsely, that Iraq or Iraqis were involved. In fact, none of the hijackers were Iraqi citizens, and even the most ardent backers of war with Iraq have not presented evidence that Saddam was involved in any way with the attacks or attackers themselves.

Polls have also repeatedly found that much of the public thinks Saddam contributed to the September 11 attacks. Forty-two percent of those surveyed in a February New York Times/CBS poll said they believed Saddam was "personally involved" in the September 11 attacks (down from the 51 percent who believed so this September 2002). A January Knight Ridder poll found that roughly one-fourth of the public believe that President Bush has released evidence showing that Iraq helped plan and fund the attacks. Yet no evidence has been presented by any source to suggest that Saddam had any involvement whatsoever with the September 11 hijackers.

Many also believe that some of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqis. The January Knight Ridder poll found that just over half of those surveyed answered, incorrectly, that at least one of the hijackers was an Iraqi. In fact, none of them were. Most are believed to have been Saudi citizens; Mohammed Atta, the alleged leader of the group, was Egyptian.

Did a 1998 IAEA report say Iraq was six months from developing a nuclear weapon?

It is currently unknown whether Iraq has an ongoing nuclear program or what the extent of any such program might be. But many of the claims that have been made about Saddam's nuclear ambitions have been misleading or false.

First, as we have demonstrated, President Bush and his representatives repeatedly dissembled last year with regard to Iraq's nuclear capabilities. On Sept. 7, 2002, Bush said, "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied -- finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], that they were six months away from developing a [nuclear] weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."

That statement implied that the IAEA report issued in 1998 (when the inspectors were "finally denied access") concluded that Iraq was within six months of developing a nuclear weapon. But the IAEA report released in that year actually said that Iraq was six to twenty-four months from developing a weapon before the Gulf War in 1991. In response to questioning, Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan claimed that the president was referring to an apparently nonexistant 1991 IAEA report (which the organization denies issuing) and suggested a reporter consult two newspaper stories that fail to corroborate Bush's statement. Then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told the Washington Post that the claim was based on US intelligence before finally stating that "it was in fact the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) that issued the report concluding that Iraq could develop nuclear weapons in as few as six months." However, the IISS report was issued on September 9, 2002 - two days after Bush's original statement - and does not mention any such six-month estimate.

Did Iraq try to obtain aluminum tubes to produce fissile material?

A second claim that the Bush administration has made in its attempt to prove Iraq is building nuclear capability is that Iraq tried to buy anodized aluminum tubes that could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. As the President stated in his speech to the United Nations last September 12, "Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year." There is significant cause to doubt this claim, however. As recent pieces in the Washington Post and The New Republic noted, the IAEA found that the tubes Iraq attempted to purchase were "not directly suitable" for enriching uranium and IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei said it was "highly unlikely" the tubes could be used for that purpose. Specifically, the tubes are the wrong size for uranium enrichment and the IAEA has secured extensive documentation proving that Iraq has been trying for years to purchase such tubes for use in artillery rockets.

Did Iraq attempt to purchase uranium from Niger?

The Bush administration has also cited documents that purportedly showed that Iraq tried to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger. But, again, as The New Republic and Washington Post, amongst others, have noted, the documents, which Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations in a February presentation, have also been found to be false by the IAEA. As Peter Beinart stated in The New Republic, the documents were in fact revealed to be "crude forgeries." Despite apparent concerns in the intelligence community over the authenticity of the documents, President Bush cited them in his State of the Union address in January as if they were fact, saying "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Was it Iran, rather than Iraq, that used poison gas on Kurdish civilians?

Another persistent myth in wide circulation is that Iraq never used poison gas against Kurdish civilians, a point often cited by those opposed to war. The main source of this myth is a series of articles, including a January New York Times op-ed by former CIA Iraq analyst Stephen Pelletiere (who, along with two co-authors, has also written a book on the subject). The argument centers on a 1988 attack on the northern Iraq village of Halabja in which thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed. Pelletiere contends that it was Iranian gas rather than Iraqi gas which killed the Kurds, a point he substantiates by citing a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report produced shortly after the attack which reaches that conclusion. His key piece of evidence is that "The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent - that is, a cyanide-based gas - which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time." In a letter to the New York Review of Books, Pelletiere and two other authors go even further, denying that Iraq ever used gas against Kurdish civilians.

Pelletiere's claims are contradicted by an overwhelming body of evidence from multiple sources. Eyewitness accounts, including those cited in a 1993 Human Rights Watch report and survivors quoted in a 2002 New Yorker article, point to Iraqis as the source of the gas. In addition, as Spencer Ackerman of the New Republic has pointed out, survivors of the gas attack had symptoms consistent with exposure to mustard gas or the nerve gas Sarin. And - in direct contradiction to Pelletiere - a 1991 DIA report noted that Iraq did, in fact, possess hydrogen cyanide gas (though it is not likely that they used it at Halabja).

Other less direct evidence also points to the likelihood that it was Iraq, not Iran, who gassed the Kurds in Halabja. Human Rights Watch obtained a tape of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Iraq commander in charge of the campaign, telling Iraqi politicians in 1987 or 1988 that "I will kill them all [the Kurds] with chemical weapons!" Moreover, Iraq waged a brutal campaign against Kurdish civilians in 1987 and 1988, killing at least 50,000, according to Human Rights Watch. And Physicians for Human Rights has proven conclusively through chemical analysis of soil samples that Iraq used Sarin against Kurdish civilians on at least one occasion.

Is this a war for oil?

One argument against the war, presented by those on the left who question Bush's motives, is that it is intended to capture Iraq's petroleum resources. While there is no way to assess to what extent these resources are a strategic factor in Bush's calculations, those who assert a simple link between oil and the war almost always fail to deal with a number of inconvenient facts. First, if the US wanted its oil companies to have access to the Iraqi market, it could have simply pressed the United Nations to drop sanctions against Iraq. Also, oil is a commodity whose price is set on the world market, as Peter Ferrara points out on National Review Online. Since Iraq has been allowed to sell oil in order to purchase food and other key commodities, it is already contributing to the world supply of oil and thereby lowering the price Americans pay. Finally, as energy expert Daniel Yergin argues, Iraq has only three percent of world production capacity, and to double that "could take more than a decade. In the meantime, growth elsewhere would limit Iraq's eventual share to perhaps 5 percent, significant but still in the second tier of oil nations."

Doesn't the war in Afghanistan prove that a war in Iraq will kill thousands of civilians?

Some critics of the war have also touted discredited figures about civilian casualties from the war in Afghanistan in an effort to suggest that war in Iraq will also carry a heavy civilian price. While it is likely that a number of Iraqi civilians may be killed, those using this as an argument against war have often done so through faulty logic and statistics. To take one example, while arguing against a US invasion of Iraq in a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, actress and war opponent Janeane Garofalo stated that "about 6,000 or 7,000 Afghani civilians" were killed in US attacks on Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime. These figures are even higher than those touted in a widely-cited study by University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold, which claimed that about 3,700 civilians died in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Herold's figure was deemed particularly notable by some commentators in that it was higher than the number of people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But as Matt Welch noted in Canada's National Post, Herold's methodology was sharply criticized by many who looked at his figures. Critics pointed out that his work suffered from double counting and a reliance on data provided by the Taliban. Herold has since revised his study to correct for double counting, but relying on the same sources he reaches a figure of between 3,100 and 3,600 civilian deaths. As he himself notes, though, many other studies by news sources such as Reuters and the Los Angeles Times estimated significantly lower civilian casualties of around 1,000. There are certainly no firm figures on the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but citing Herold's figures when opposing war in Iraq should be taken with a large grain of salt unless the controversy over the figures is noted.

Is this a "unilateral" war?

Some opponents of the Iraq invasion have blithely called it a "unilateral" war, implying that the U.S. is without international allies. Former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, for instance, recently said in a speech at the convention of the California Democratic Party, "What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the president's unilateral intervention in Iraq!"

On its face, this statement is obviously untrue, as the United States is entering this war with the active support of thirty named partners including Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom (the Bush administration has also said fifteen nations privately support the war). It is possible to argue, of course, that by not working with the United Nations, the U.S.'s policy is essentially unilateral since the U.N. is the world's key multilateral institution. But people like Dean and American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner who casually refer to "[Bush's] unilateral war on Iraq" don't make this case - they imply that the U.S. is conducting this war alone, which is simply not true.

Did a majority of Americans approve of the present course of action at the time President Bush announced his final decision?

The answer to this depends on how the question was asked. As of last weekend, while rising proportions of Americans supported an invasion of Iraq, approximately half opposed such action without a second vote in the United Nations. However, this did not stop some pundits from distorting these numbers to suit their own agendas. Andrew Sullivan claimed, for example, that a "USA Today poll shows the highest levels supporting an invasion of Iraq - 64 percent - since November 2001, a jump of five points from two weeks ago... Americans see the danger; and they want to act." This is technically accurate, but, as Bob Somerby noted in the Daily Howler, Sullivan omitted a key finding reported in the same story about the specific course of action ultimately pursued by the President: "[H]alf of all Americans would oppose going to war if the president decided to attack without taking another U.N. vote." (In these circumstances, 47% said they would support an invasion.)

Reporting on the same poll, which was jointly conducted by CNN, Gallup and USA Today, analyst Bill Schneider claimed on CNN's "Inside Politics" that:

Americans are now rallying behind President Bush. Just since the beginning of March, the number of Americans who favor an invasion of Iraq with U.S. ground troops has jumped from 59 to 64 percent. That 64 is the highest level of public support since just after the 9/11 attacks a year and a half ago. In other words, the public is saying, let's roll.

Later, Schneider only briefly mentioned that "Americans are split about the idea of going in if there is no vote at all."

And, as Media Whores Online pointed out, a Saturday Associated Press story by Will Lester headlined "Poll: Bush Has Solid Support for War" only later concedes that "[a]lmost four in 10, 37 percent, said the United States should [invade] only with full support of the Security Council; 13 percent said the United States should not take military action even if the Security Council agrees." (Note: Since Bush's announcement Monday, public opinion has rallied around the president as conflict has drawn near and polls such as one conducted by the Washington Post indicate much higher levels of support.)

Update 3/20 11:30 PM EST: A section previously in this article titled "Did Mohammed Atta meet with an Iraqi intelligence agent?" has been cut. A reader noted that there have recently been new reports casting doubt on previous assertions that Atta, the leader of the September 11 hijackers, never met an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague.

The section about whether the U.S. is conducting a unilateral war should have mentioned that only the United Kingdom and Australia are contributing military support to the invasion. This is noteworthy, although it doesn't support the simplistic labeling of the U.S.-led war against Iraq as "unilateral."

Update 3/26 9:40 PM EST: Marc Herold has responded to this column in a letter to Spinsanity.

Update - 3/27 9:31 PM: We would like to briefly respond to a common theme in criticism of the section above regarding "war for oil." Readers (and others) have argued that Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world and that the US wants direct control of that oil for three reasons: 1) to lessen dependence on Saudi Arabian oil, freeing the US to put pressure on the kingdom's rulers; 2) to increase production, drive down the price of oil and thereby weaken the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel; and 3) to gain access to lucrative development contracts for American oil companies. All of these could be motivations for the war - they are essentially non-falsifiable - but they are not necessarily implied by suggestions that the war is "for oil," which as we described above could have been obtained easily from Iraq on the world market. These arguments describe (unproven) strategic calculations that extend significantly beyond oil. Moreover, the burden is on those who blithely assert hidden motivations for war to make a reasoned argument as to why President Bush would launch a war and create a major international controversy simply for control of oil reserves that will not be effectively tapped for years to come.

Also, to further clarify the point regarding the attack on Iraq being putatively "unilateral," a small group of Polish commandos are apparently actively participating in the war in Iraq, fighting in Umm Qasar and securing an Iraqi oil platform in the Persian Gulf. In addition, Denmark has deployed a submarine nearby to gather intelligence and other countries have troops in the region to assist in the response to biological or chemical attacks. But as Mike Allen wrote in the Washington Post today, only Britain and Australia are providing "substantial military contributions in Iraq" to the US-led effort, which we point out above.

Finally, for more details on the story of the forged Niger documents, please see Seymour Hersh's report in the New Yorker.

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Related links:
-Cheap attacks on war opponents (3/13/03)
-Making Bush tell the truth (11/8/02)
-Spinsanity on the debate over Iraq (through 10/15/02)

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