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Axis of failure

The war in Iraq has realised Tony Blair's worst fear: the creation of another country where terrorists can easily find weapons of mass destruction

Richard Norton-Taylor
Wednesday November 3, 2004
The Guardian

Early last year, Tony Blair was warned by the joint intelligence committee that invading Iraq would increase the risk of a far greater threat than anything posed by Saddam Hussein: namely international terrorism, and al-Qaida in particular. The JIC also warned, according to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, that "any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology ... finding their way into the hands of terrorists".

The invasion has produced a toxic mix of insurgents, resistance fighters, former soldiers, foreign "jihadists" and bandits, with no shortage of weapons, including thousands of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades - and, we now know, enough explosives to make thousands of bombs, and powerful enough to detonate nuclear weapons.

In May, an International Atomic Energy Agency memorandum warned that terrorists could be helping themselves "to the greatest explosives bonanza in history". The looting became public after the UN agency subsequently told the security council that nearly 380 tonnes of nuclear-related high explosives had gone missing from the al-Qaqaa weapons factory, about 45 kilometres south of Baghdad.

The IAEA had sealed the explosives before the invasion and warned the US of the need to keep them secure. The agency has also warned that machine tools that could be used to make nuclear weapons are missing from other sites in Iraq - sites that before the invasion were known to contain them.

Shortly after the invasion, when US troops were busy protecting Iraq's oil ministry and pipelines, Greenpeace reported that not one soldier was guarding Tuwaitha, a nuclear research base near Baghdad with nuclear equipment that had also been sealed by inspectors. Tuwaitha and al-Qaqaa were well known to the CIA and MI6.

In June last year, a Greenpeace radiation team found looting still going on at Tuwaitha, with villagers taking contaminated materials for house building and barrels that had contained uranium yellowcake for storing food and water. Two months earlier, American soldiers stood by as looters took potentially lethal viruses from an Iraqi laboratory well known to UN inspectors.

Human Rights Watch says that it gave British and US troops precise information about weapons stockpiles in Iraq. The response was that there were not enough soldiers to guard them. Meanwhile, 1,000 inspectors from the CIA's Iraq Survey Group were looking for WMD.

The threat that, before the invasion, Blair said he feared most - terrorists getting their hands on WMD - has increased immeasurably. Even before the full extent of the looting - now exposing British and American troops to greatly increased danger - was known, their military commanders were furious with their political masters and the misjudgments of their intelligence agencies. Britain's commanders had more reason to be angry as Washington dismissed their entreaties that the Iraqi army be encouraged to remain in place to maintain law and order and prevent looting.

A new study spells out the huge dangers to international security of the Bush view of the world. Amitai Etzioni, an American who influenced New Labour's "third way" thinking on the domestic front, argues that Washington's emphasis on "rogue states" is thoroughly misconceived. "Failing states" are the problem, he says. Iraq seems in danger of rapidly falling into this category.

"Much of the attention that is paid to nuclear threats has been focused on the three members of the axis of evil: Iran, Iraq and North Korea. However, nuclear attacks in this day and age are much more likely to be the work of terrorists," says Etzioni in Pre-Empting Nuclear Terrorism in a New Global Order, which is published by the Foreign Policy Centre.

The reason, he argues, is that it is "more difficult to deter suicide bombers than even rogue states".

Though Etzioni concentrates on the nuclear threat, the same may be said to apply to attacks with biological or chemical weapons. Etzioni says that among failing states, Pakistan ranks high as a country from which terrorists are most likely to be able to obtain ready-made weapons, either by toppling the government or by corrupting the guardians of its bombs.

Yet Pakistan is not on the axis-of-evil list. The US ignored the the fact that the leading Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was found to be at the centre of a transnational black market in nuclear materials, because, says Etzioni, it was focusing on capturing Osama bin Laden and Pakistan promised to help.

Russia, where some 20,000 nuclear warheads are sitting in 120 separate nuclear weapons storage sites, is a failing state. So, too, says Etzioni, are Nigeria, Ghana, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, countries that have scores of sites from which terrorists may get their hands on HEU (highly enriched uranium) used for nuclear reactors there. Four tonnes of spent HEU of Russian origin are in 20 reactors in 17 countries. More than 40 tonnes of HEU of American origin are in more than 40 locations around the world.

Over the past decade, according to the IAEA, there have been 18 incidents involving the seizure of stolen highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

Etzioni says that a new global safety authority should be set up with the backing of the UN. Some new authority is needed before the excesses and failings of George Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq are repeated elsewhere.

Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor