This set the stage for the return of UN weapons inspectors, who previously had been thrown out. Saddam had to show compliance to avoid war, but he wanted to leave open the possibility that he had the weapons, to deter invasion and to keep his own people in line.
Real divisions began to show at the Prague NATO Summit in late November, particularly as Britain began to lean in favour of invasion.
Bill Graham: At the Prague summit, I had a conversation with [British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw at the gym one morning, and he said the British didn’t see any international legal constraints to using force – like Kosovo, when we’d gone in without a Security Council resolution but with NATO support, a legitimate rather than legal intervention. I call this the “Kosovo cop-out.” […]
The French and Germans were totally opposed to that interpretation. … I went to Moscow to meet with Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, who wanted to know what was going on in Washington. Everybody assumed that Canadians knew what was going on in Washington better than anyone else.
The mood in Canada became more feverish and polarized, with students protesting and much of the business community and some in the Defence Department on the other side. The U.S. Ambassador in Ottawa, Paul Cellucci, was overtly trying to sway public opinion. Meanwhile there was the upcoming provincial election in anti-war Quebec, which everyone pretended was not the obsession of the Prime Minister’s Office.
For my part, after nearly a month in Damascus trying to get into northern Iraq – the Syrians had closed the border after a CNN crew filmed themselves crossing it, ruining it for the rest of us – I finally got a visa and flew into Baghdad just as UN weapons inspectors began working. Soon the Iraqis released 12,000 pages of documents to comply with resolution 1441.
Bill Graham: What was Baghdad like then?
Patrick Graham: Nothing like what you would have seen, except the river. Even the Old City had been mostly destroyed by the building boom from petro-dollars in the 1970s and 1980s. The one similarity was that it was incredibly paranoid.
BG: Could you follow the weapons inspectors?
PG: We’d show up at their hotel in the morning and try to catch the inspectors as they raced off. It was a game, something of a cross between an Easter Egg hunt and a NASCAR rally. The inspectors wore blue baseball caps and looked like aging camp counsellors. After they left a site – say, an old insecticide factory – the Iraqis would let us in to poke around. We were terrified of stepping into a vat of some chemical weapon.
BG: Could you tell whether Iraq had any?
PG: We didn’t have a clue. We might have been on Mars; the Iraqi government controlled us so closely. What was the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, telling you?
BG: Blix was a very cautious international civil servant. Colin Powell used to refer to him as his Volvo – reliable and sturdy. … At one point, [Blix] told me to be very suspicious of anything that intelligence services told me. This was because a lot of this information was … obtained by satellites and other information-gathering systems.
Our position was that the context of that information required diplomats and other experts to interpret it. But the Americans relied on raw data and used it every time they could to bolster their case.
So what did you learn in Baghdad, besides the quality of the masgouf?
PG: You always learned something, but facts were hard to come by. I could tell the Iraqi government had almost given up on the Americans and now saw their only hope to stop an invasion was splitting the British and everyone else away from them using public opinion.
And there was the arrival of [Hollywood actor] Sean Penn, who tried to bum drinks from me. He’d come to Baghdad to “see the situation for himself.” I’d dropped by his room to ask about an interview and he was waving empty airplane bottles around saying, “There won’t be war, I’m certain.” Of course, he was pretty hammered, so maybe he sobered up later on.