‘Baghdad Diaries’ and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction

As in the case of Baghdad Diaries, none of the accounts I have seen refer to the long history and extraordinary efforts made by the Iraqis to develop such weapons.

 Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein addresses the court at his trial in 2004. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein addresses the court at his trial in 2004.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

With corona-related restrictions partially lifted and library shelves accessible again, I came across a book titled Baghdad Diaries – A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile by Nuha Al-Radi.

Al-Radi, who died in Beirut in 2004, was an Iraqi artist who wrote about her experiences in Baghdad during the First Gulf War of 1991, as well as her experiences in Jordan and Lebanon and elsewhere after leaving Iraq, which she refers to as her exile. Published by Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Group, the book was originally published in 1998 and reissued in 2003 with a postscript. It has received widespread attention, including reviews in academic journals such as Middle East Report and Meridians.

The diary provides a description of the hardships experienced by the residents of Baghdad during the 42-day bombing campaign carried out by the American-led coalition in 1991, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The entries describe the limited supply of food, water and electricity, as well as the terrifying effects of the aerial bombardment (aimed at the Iraqi infrastructure) itself. Moreover, the shortages experienced by the citizens of Iraq continued for years after the fighting ended and Kuwait was liberated. This was a result of sanctions imposed on Iraq by the coalition to force the regime to surrender its chemical weapons, a process made difficult because of the cynical shell game played by Saddam Hussein, without regard to the welfare of the people of Iraq.

While the author of Baghdad Diaries provides a compelling description of her experiences, she also makes it clear that she and her family were a part of the Iraqi elite – a family of professionals largely trained abroad. She spent part of her childhood in India, where her father was the Iraqi ambassador. Al-Radi and her family were able to hunker down during the bombing of Baghdad at their home in an “orchard paradise” in the northern outskirts of Baghdad. The privations she writes about include the need to consume freezers full of food before the contents were spoiled by electricity blackouts, while drinking champagne and arak cocktails, and eating truffles and smoked salmon: “The truffles are magnificent this year and I am eating them with everything. Just had them mixed with olive paste and tomatoes – delicious.”

 Official portrait of Colin L. Powell as US secretary of state taken in 2001. (credit: US STATE DEPARTMENT/WIKIPEDIA) Official portrait of Colin L. Powell as US secretary of state taken in 2001. (credit: US STATE DEPARTMENT/WIKIPEDIA)

The 24-year dictatorial and tyrannical nature of the Saddam Hussein regime is mentioned only tangentially. In one example, clearly a reference to Saddam Hussein’s penchant for murdering real or imagined political opponents, Al-Radi writes “…all heads of departments and government offices were collected by bus and taken to Tikrit (Saddam’s home base). All were very nervous... but when they arrived... they were given buckets and spades and told to go and collect truffles!”

Al-Radi’s account provides virtually no historical context to the war she describes. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the primary cause of the 1991 Gulf War, is mentioned only in passing. There is no reference to Iraq occupying Kuwait for eight months before the start of the bombing; that there were thousands of military and civilian Kuwaiti casualties; and that the Iraqi regime ignored repeated calls to withdraw from Kuwait by the international community.

In fact, to Al-Radi, Iraq is the victim of the Gulf War, a small country subjected to the bullying tactics of the US and its allies. She rails against the double standards employed: what about the Russian invasion of Chechnya, or the Turkish invasion of Cyprus?

But she reserves her most vitriolic and defamatory comments for Israel, mentioned 12 times in this 200-page book. Israel “kills pregnant women and children and razes houses with people still inside…” And yet, she does not mention that Iraq fired 42 scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Israel was a non-combatant, and these attacks were meant to provoke an Israeli reaction and disrupt the American-led coalition fighting to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This is almost half of the total number of scuds used by Iraq during the war, and while they were ‘only’ armed with conventional warheads (not chemical or biological ones), they still caused the deaths of 74 Israelis and damaged thousands of buildings.

Iraqi efforts (as well as those of other Arab countries such as Egypt) to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) go back to the 1960s. An Iraqi nuclear reactor, built with French assistance, was nearing completion in 1981 when an Israeli air raid destroyed it.

During the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-’88), which was initiated by Iraq, the Iraqis used chemical weapons against the Iranians as well as against Iraqi Kurdish civilians. This long and futile war resulted in the estimated deaths of one million soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians, on both sides. Toward the end of the war, in 1988, the Iraqi army used mustard gas and sarin gas against civilians of the Iraqi city of Halabja. Between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians, mostly Kurds, were killed and thousands more injured. Three-quarters of the victims were women and children, and this episode ranks as the worst example of the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population.

Ironically, UN inspections carried out after the 1991 Gulf War revealed that Iraq’s nuclear expertise was quite advanced, and had Saddam Hussein (president of Iraq from 1979 until 2003) not attacked Kuwait, he could have achieved his nuclear goal.

Saddam Hussein clearly threatened to destroy Israel. In material obtained by Haaretz (Saddam Hussein’s Dreams of an End to the Zionist Nightmare, 2012), Hussein expressed the view, as early as 1978, that it was essential for the Arabs to have nuclear weapons, while an article in The Los Angeles Times in 1990 quoted Hussein as saying that he had nerve gas, the means to deliver it, and that he could destroy half of Israel.

Perhaps the most bizarre story concerning Iraq and WMDs concerns a Canadian academic and scientist named Gerald Bull, who was interested in the development of a super gun that could shoot satellites into space at a cost far less than that of conventional multi-stage rockets.

This approach, reminiscent of the 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, attracted the interest of the Canadian government and the US Army and several trials were carried out. American interest waned after a time, and in the 1980s Bull ended up working for Saddam Hussein. Some of his efforts were directed toward improving the accuracy and range of existing Scud missiles. But the focus of Bull’s work was the development of the largest gun ever built: Big Babylon. With a bore of one meter and a length of 150 meters, the gun would have had the capacity to shoot a projectile 1,000 kilometers and easily reach Israel. The gun was never completed because Bull was assassinated in Brussels in 1990, possibly by Israeli agents, although the killers were never identified.

The recent (October 18, 2021) corona-related death of Colin Powell, former US secretary of state, has led to a slew of opinion pieces about the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and whether Powell knew that there were no WMDs in Hussein’s arsenal, the primary justification for the invasion.

As in the case of Baghdad Diaries, none of the accounts I have seen refer to the long history and extraordinary efforts made by the Iraqis to develop such weapons, nor that such weapons were actually used by them, nor that Israel has been a primary target.

In fact, efforts to produce nuclear weapons in the Middle East continue.

In 2007, a secret nuclear reactor, under construction in Syria with North Korean assistance, was destroyed by Israeli warplanes. Today, it is Iran that poses the gravest nuclear threat to the Middle East, and while the Iranian leadership claims that its nuclear intentions are peaceful, it has also repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel.

In a song released in 1965 by the master satirist Tom Lehrer about nuclear proliferation titled Who’s Next, Lehrer goes through a list of countries with “the bomb,” starting with the US, then the Soviet Union and so on, and then… “Egypt’s gonna get one too, Just to use on you know who.” 

Yes, we know who.   ■

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo