United Nations Security Council and the Iraq War

Colin Powell holding a model vial of anthrax while giving a presentation to the United Nations Security Council.
M1A1 Abrams pose for a photo in front of the "Hands of Victory" in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, Iraq.

In March 2003 the United States government announced that "diplomacy has failed" and that it would proceed with a "coalition of the willing" to rid Iraq under Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction the US insisted it possessed. The 2003 invasion of Iraq began a few days later.

Prior to this decision, there had been much diplomacy and debate amongst the members of the United Nations Security Council over how to deal with the situation. This article examines the positions of these states as they changed during 2002–2003.


Prior to 2002, the Security Council had passed 16 resolutions on Iraq. In 2002, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441.

In 2003, the governments of the US, Britain, and Spain proposed another resolution on Iraq, which they called the "eighteenth resolution" and others called the "second resolution." This proposed resolution was subsequently withdrawn when it became clear that several permanent members of the Council would cast 'no' votes on any new resolution, thereby vetoing it.[1] Had that occurred, it would have become even more difficult for those wishing to invade Iraq to argue that the Council had authorized the subsequent invasion. Regardless of the threatened or likely vetoes, it seems that the coalition at no time was assured any more than four affirmative votes in the Council—the US, Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria—well short of the requirement for nine affirmative votes.[2]

On September 16, 2004 Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, speaking on the invasion, said, "I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal."[3]


Following the passage of Resolution 1441, on 18 November 2002, weapons inspectors of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission returned to Iraq for the first time since being withdrawn by the United Nations. Whether Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction or not was being investigated by Hans Blix, head of the Commission, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Inspectors remained in the country until they withdrew after being notified of the imminent invasion by the United States, Britain, and two other countries.

In early December 2002, Iraq filed a 12,000-page weapons declaration with the UN. After reviewing the document, UN weapons inspectors, the US, France, United Kingdom and other countries thought that this declaration failed to account for all of Iraq's chemical and biological agents. Many of these countries had supplied the Iraqi regime with the technology to make these weapons in the 1980s during the Iran–Iraq War. On December 19, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that Iraq was in "material breach" of the Security Council resolution.

Blix has complained that, to this day, the United States and Britain have not presented him with the evidence which they claim to possess regarding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.[4]

Colin Powell's presentation

Computer-generated image of an alleged mobile production facility for biological weapons presented by Powell at the UN Security Council. Absence of more substantial proofs undermined the credibility of Powell's presentation. Russian experts have always questioned the likelihood of such mobile facilities, which are extremely dangerous and difficult to manage

On February 5, 2003, Powell appeared before the UN to prove the urgency to engage a war with Iraq. Although the presentation failed to change the fundamental position of the Security Council, including France, Russia, China, and Germany, Powell succeeded in hardening the overall tone of the United Nations towards Iraq. Powell also noted that Iraq harbored a terrorist network headed by al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (in a small region controlled by Ansar al-Islam). Powell also claimed that Iraqis visited Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and provided training to al-Qaeda members, although thousands of Arabs from many countries did the same. US intelligence agencies have found no evidence of any substantive collaboration between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. While Colin Powell's statement to the UN may have been accepted as proof by many in the US, this was not the case in Europe.

Powell himself stated later:[5] "I, of course, regret the U.N. speech that I gave," he said, "which became the prominent presentation of our case. But we thought it was correct at the time. The President thought it was correct. Congress thought it was correct." In a February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council, Powell alleged that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction from inspectors and refusing to disarm. However, after the U.S. had invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein, no weapons of mass destruction were found. "Of course I regret that a lot of it turned out be wrong," he said. In an unbroadcast interview for Frontline (U.S. TV series) in May 2016, Powell said, "at the time I made the speech [to the UN]...the President [George W. Bush] had already made this decision for military action."[6]

Report of Hans Blix on February 14

UN Chief Inspector Hans Blix, on 14 February 2003, presented a report to the Security Council. Blix gave an update of the situation in Iraq, and he stated that the Iraqis were now more proactive in their cooperation. He also rebutted some of the arguments proposed by Powell. Blix questioned the interpretations of the satellite images put forward by Powell, and stated that alternate interpretations of the satellite images were credible. He also stated that the Iraqis have in fact never received early warning of the inspectors visiting any sites (an allegation made by Powell during his presentation). International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohammed ElBaradei also said that he did not believe the Iraqis have a nuclear weapons program, unlike what Powell had claimed.

This report of February 14 and the protests of February 16 appear to have created reluctance in some of the members of the Security Council over the proposed war on Iraq. A second resolution was being drafted with the intention that it would find Iraq in "material breach" and the "serious consequences" of Resolution 1441 should be implemented.

Report of Blix on March 7

On 7 March 2003, Blix made his twelfth quarterly report on the status of UNMOVIC's efforts to verify Iraq's disarmament. A transcript of his presentation is available at CNN.[7]


As George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to leave power, the UN pulled out all the inspectors from Iraq. Days later the invasion began.

Positions of Security Council members


According to Britain, a majority of the UN Security Council members supported its proposed 18th resolution which gave Iraq a deadline to comply with previous resolutions, until France announced that they would veto any new resolution that gave Iraq a deadline. However, for a resolution to pass, a supermajority of 9 out of 15 votes are needed. Only four countries announced they would support a resolution backing the war.[9]

In the mid-1990s, France, Russia and other members of the UN Security Council asked for sanctions on Iraq to be lifted. The sanctions were criticized for making ordinary people suffer and being the cause of a humanitarian catastrophe leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.[10]

The Institute for Policy Studies published a report[11] analyzing what it called the "arm-twisting offensive" by the United States government to get nations to support it. Although President Bush described nations supporting him as the "coalition of the willing", the report concluded that it was more accurately described as a "coalition of the coerced." According to the report, most nations supporting Bush "were recruited through coercion, bullying, and bribery." The techniques used to pressure nations to support the United States included a variety of incentives including:

In addition to the above tactics, the British newspaper The Observer published an investigative report revealing that the National Security Agency of the United States was conducting a secret surveillance operation directed at intercepting the telephone and email communications of several Security Council diplomats, both in their offices and in their homes. This campaign, the result of a directive by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, was aimed primarily at the delegations from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan. The investigative report cited an NSA memo which advised senior agency officials that it was "'mounting a surge' aimed at gleaning information not only on how delegations on the Security Council will vote on any second resolution on Iraq, but also 'policies', 'negotiating positions', 'alliances' and 'dependencies' - the 'whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises'."[12]

The story was carried by the European and Australian press, and served as a further embarrassment to the Bush administration's efforts to rally support for an invasion of Iraq. Wayne Madsen, who was a communications security analyst with the NSA in the 1980s, believes the memo is authentic and believes the memo was aimed at other nations who are part of the ECHELON intelligence network, namely Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Additionally, a member or Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Katharine Gun was charged under the Official Secrets Act 1989 in connection with the leaking of the memo. She stated her intention to plead not guilty on the grounds that her actions were justified to prevent an illegal war. The case against her was dropped after the prosecution declined to present any evidence at her trial.[13]

Clare Short, a British cabinet minister who resigned in May 2003 over the war, stated in media interviews that British intelligence regularly spied on UN officials. She stated that she had read transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations.

Powell retraction

In 2004 and 2005 Colin Powell acknowledged that much of his 2003 UN presentation was inaccurate:

I looked at the four [sources] that [the CIA] gave me for [the mobile bio-labs], and they stood behind them, ... Now it appears not to be the case that it was that solid. At the time I was preparing the presentation, it was presented to me as being solid.[14] April 3, 2004
I feel terrible ... [giving the speech] ... It's a blot. I'm the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It's painful now.[15] Sep 8, 2005

See also


  1. Iraq war illegal, says Annan BBC 16 September 2004.
  2. Blix urges US and UK to hand over Iraq evidence Guardian Dec 20 2002.
  3. The Daily Show, 13 Jun 2012
  4. "Colin Powell: U.N. Speech "Was a Great Intelligence Failure"". pbs.org. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  5. Transcript of Blix's UN presentation CNN March 7, 2003.
  6. "China adds voice to Iraq war doubts". CNN. Beijing, China. 23 January 2003. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  7. Bennett, Ronan (March 8, 2008). "Ten days to war". The Guardian. London. Retrieved March 28, 2010.
  8. http://web.amnesty.org/pages/iraq_summary
  9. http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/coalition_of_the_willing
  10. http://www.observer.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,905899,00.html
  11. "GCHQ translator cleared over leak". BBC News. February 26, 2004. Retrieved March 28, 2010.
  12. AFP (April 3, 2004). "Pre-war data given to UN 'not solid': Powell". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2007-07-24.
  13. "Colin Powell on Iraq, Race, and Hurricane Relief". ABC. 2005. Retrieved 2013-09-24.
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