Ex-Weapons Inspector In Iraq Hoped 'There Would Not Be A War'

Mar 19, 2013
Originally published on March 19, 2013 10:42 am
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Ten years ago, missiles burst over Baghdad, lighting up the night sky as the aerial bombardment of Iraq began. It was the start of a U.S.-led invasion that would topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

INSKEEP: The military occupation would last more than eight years, costing nearly 5,000 American lives. Tens of thousands of fighters and civilians also died. The invasion's aim was to rid Iraq of its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, of which it turns out there weren't any.

MONTAGNE: In a moment, we're going to talk about Iraq today. But first, to reflect on how the war began, we spoke to Hans Blix. He's the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA. And in the years between 2000 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was the chief weapons inspector for the United Nations. He joined us from Stockholm.

Good morning. And thank you for joining us.

HANS BLIX: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: At the time, did you believe Saddam Hussein could really have weapons, or even did have weapons?

BLIX: In the fall of 2002, I did not think there could be any nuclear weapons. But on the chemical dossier and the biological dossier, and perhaps with the missiles, there could be. And I, like everybody else, thought that yes, there probably were some, because why should I otherwise have stopped the inspectors many times. However we didn't say that. It was not our job to say what our gut feelings were. Our job was to investigate and that's what we did.

MONTAGNE: Although there were those in the Bush administration, and advisors to the administration, who, sort of, accused you of not really be able to do that job. That there were so many places these chemical weapons, especially, could have been hidden, that it would be like a needle in a haystack - you would never be able to find what he had, if Saddam didn't want you to find it.

BLIX: Well, if they had simply said that, that you will not ever be able to be absolutely sure, but they went much beyond that. They asserted that there were weapons. Now, we didn't exclude - even in the last moment - that there could be some weapons. But as inspections proceeded, then we became more doubtful. And, as also the evidence that they submitted from the Bush administration and from the U.K. fell apart in large measure, then our doubts increased.

MONTAGNE: When you say fell apart, that's a kind way of saying what some critics have said...

BLIX: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...was offered as evidence.


BLIX: Yes. I mean the most scandalous item was, of course, the alleged contract between Iraq and Niger for the import of uranium. Well, this had been forged by an Italian journalist and it was cited by President Bush in his State of the Union message in 2002. The IAEA eventually got a copy of the document and it took them less than a day to establish that this was a forgery.

MONTAGNE: On this night, 10 years ago, when you, I imagine, would've been watching like so many other people were, Shocked and Awe - the bombing of Baghdad, what were you feeling?

BLIX: Well, the war started on a Wednesday. And I was in my office on the Sunday when I was called up by another Secretary of State to ask to evacuate the inspectors. And my first feelings then, was a fear that the Iraqis might take them hostage. However, the Iraqis turned out to be quite helpful. I felt a great relief at that. Now that was one aspect of my feelings. The other was rather a sort of emptiness.

Here we have accelerated our work and I was hoping that there would not be a war. So I felt an emptiness that this work that had been intense and skillful, that it had not really had the effect it should have.

MONTAGNE: Then, of course, it was easy enough after the war to go through Iraq and look for these weapons. And there were none. That was proven, officially. Ten years later, have you thought: I told you so?

BLIX: No, I think there's more broader reflections about the honesty in public policies. I mean, we know that in politics people have to simplify and there's a certain amount of spin, and we accept that. But when it comes to building the basis for such things as sending soldiers into the field, I think you demand more than just simple spin that you have in day-to-day politics.

And I think that the politicians who took part have smarted from that, and rightly, because it was somewhat frivolous, I think what they - bad judgment. I have not said that they were in bad faith. But I think they showed poor judgment and they certainly did not exercise critical thinking that they should have done before sending Iraq to war and Americans in the field.

MONTAGNE: Hans Blix was the head of the United Nations Weapons Inspection Team from 2000 to 2003. He has been reflecting for us on the lead up to the Iraq War, 10 years after that invasion.

Thank you very much.

BLIX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.