On July 30, 2001, former U.N. weapons inspector chief Rolf Ekeus told Swedish Radio that the U.S. manipulated the inspections in the 1990s. Ekeus led the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) from 1991-97. He said that the U.S. spied upon the Iraqi security forces, tried to find the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, and wanted to create crises that would justify American military action against Baghdad. At first, the U.S. was interested in disarming Iraq, but a year into the process as Saddam continuously refused to cooperate Washington decided to exploit the regime for its own purposes.
As early as the spring of 1992 the Americans began using the inspections to collect intelligence on the Iraqis. It started off by placing eavesdropping devices within the U.N. communication system to monitor the Iraqi military. Another opportunity arose in March 1996 when inspectors installed video cameras at WMD sites. The Americans added their own devices to the network so they could spy on the Iraqis. Things quickly escalated that year as Washington hoped to exploit UNSCOM to get rid of Saddam.
In the summer of 1996 the U.S. attempted a coup that involved the U.N. In June, the inspectors demanded access to Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard sites in and around Baghdad. A new UN team was to conduct the searches that included 9 CIA officers. The plan was to instigate a crisis with the Iraqis that would facilitate a U.S. military strike that would then start the coup. The Agency was also working with a former Iraqi general Abdullah al-Shawani who had several sons in the Republican Guard, and who was connected to Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA). The sons would use their units to overthrow Saddam after Baghdad was hit. The CIA agents within the inspection teams contacted the plotters to tell them that things were moving ahead and the coup would happen in June. Unfortunately, Iraqi intelligence captured one of the INA operatives and rounded up everyone involved. On the date of the planned putsch, the Iraqis called the CIA to tell them that the plan had failed and that they should go home.
Not satisfied, the Clinton administration was still hoping it could at least bomb Baghdad to punish Saddam. In 1997, the Iraqis refused to allow U.S. inspectors or American U2 spy plane overflights correctly claiming they were being used by the CIA. Washington threatened military action, but it got no support and backed down. In 1998, the Americans decided to try to instigate things by pushing UNSCOM searches at sensitive sites. In March, a new group of inspectors arrived and visited several Special Republican Guard and Special Directorate sites, the Defense Ministry, along with presidential palaces hoping to cause a confrontation, but nothing happened. During one of those inspections the Iraqis even told the UNSCOM team that they knew what the White House was trying and would not give them an excuse for a strike. Beforehand, the administration sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to drum up support for its plan in the Gulf States, but only got Kuwait’s backing. With no crisis and its regional friends not cooperating Washington shelved its idea. It would have to wait until December when UNSCOM finally ended to launch Operation Desert Fox and bomb Iraq. At the time, it was highly controversial as it came in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky affair leading to a wave of criticism. It was generally considered a failure, but after 2003 it turned out to have led the Iraqis to give up any hope of restarting their WMD programs. Ironically, having failed to get rid of Saddam in 1996 Clinton was able to end Iraq’s weapons program two years later. The problem was the U.S. didn’t know at the time, because the inspections were over in part because Washington had infiltrated and exploited them.
Cockburn, Andrew & Cockburn, Patrick, Out Of The Ashes, The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, New York: Harper Collins, 1999
Gellman, Barton, “U.S. Spied On Iraqi Military Via U.N.,” Washington Post, 3/2/99
Hiro, Dilip, Iraq, In the Eye of the Storm, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002
Ritter, Scott, “The coup that wasn’t,” Guardian, 2/27/05
Smolowe, Jill, “Boxing in Saddam,” Time, 8/31/92