The Guardian's weekly roundup on Iraq 

Link is here.

Dozens of mortar rounds believed to be armed with mustard gas have been discovered buried in Iraq, Danish troops said yesterday.
If confirmed, the find will be the first discovery of chemical munitions in Iraq by coalition forces scouring the country for the weapons of mass destruction used as justification for the US-led invasion.

'All the instruments showed indications of the same type of chemical compound, namely blister gas,' the Danish Army said in a statement on its website. Final test results will be announced within two days.

However, the find of a small amount of mortar shells is unlikely to satisfy a growing chorus of criticism that the much-touted weapons of mass destruction either never existed or were destroyed years ago. The Danish team has found only 36 mortar rounds buried in desert about 45 miles from Al Amarah, a southern town. But it added that up to a 100 more could still be hidden at the location. The rounds were in plastic bags and some were leaking. It seems they had been buried for at least 10 years.

The mustard gas shells were in plastic bags? Seems kind of odd to me. If the Iraqi military buried them and intended to use them again, I'd think they would have been better preserved. Maybe they were intended to be recovered in a short amount of time but were forgotten.

Even coalition military spokesmen said the weapons were likely to be a leftover from the Iran-Iraq war fought during the Eighties when mustard gas was widely used. The gas blisters the skin painfully and can be lethal if it is breathed in. Victims die in excruciating agony.

The discovery of the banned weapons will be greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters as it marks a rare success for those working with the coalition's Iraq Survey Group to find weapons of mass destruction. The US-led mission has been under heavy fire for failing to turn up any weapons. Instead its reports have focused on the existence of clandestine weapons development programmes, rather than actual weapons production.

Earlier this month the US pulled out a 400 strong military team from Iraq, which specialised in disposing of weapons of mass destruction. That move caused outrage as it was seen as a tacit admission that significant numbers of armaments were unlikely to be found.

Critics of the war got a further boost yesterday when a former senior official in President George Bush's administration claimed plans for invading Iraq were hatched just days after Bush came to power - and long before the terrorist atrocity of 11 September 2001.

In leaked excerpts from a TV interview to be broadcast tonight former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said Bush's team began laying the groundwork in early 2001. 'From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,' O'Neill told the 60 Minutes programme.

And yet one of the planks in the Bush platform during the 2000 campaign was that he was not in the business of nation-building, probably a response to the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Obviously Bush changed his mind in late 2001, but to hear O'Neill claim that the Iraq invasion had been planned shortly after Bush took office is puzzling.

O'Neill, sacked by Bush in December 2002, also attacked the 'Bush doctrine' of pre-emptive strike that has come to the fore of US international strategy since 11 September.

His comments were attacked immediately by Bush officials. 'It appears that the world according to Mr O'Neill is more about trying to justify his own opinions than looking at the reality of the results we are achieving on behalf of the American people,' Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

With a presidential election looming later this year the Bush administration is keen to move away from the Iraq issue and towards domestic problems.

With Iraq generating support for Democrat frontrunner Howard Dean, senior Republicans have instead focused on more voter-friendly topics such as relaxing immigration laws and a manned space mission to Mars.

This is a believable interpretation of current events vis-a-vis Bush's presidential campaign, but also kind of strange. It's only been a month since Saddam Hussein was captured, so I don't buy the notion that the failure to find WMDs has caused significant numbers of voters to flock to the Dean camp. As far as I can tell, Dean's constituency still consists mainly of staunch leftists who have opposed the invasion of Iraq from day one.

I don't really know if putting a man on Mars will really impress voters, but I do know that there are other things that deserve higher priority on our shopping list right now.

Then again, this image of the surface of Mars is fascinating.

UPDATE: About Bush's planning for postwar Iraq:

What former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and other Bush administration blabbermouths failed to mention when leaking NSC documents and the like for the forthcoming book O'Neill worked on, is that the Clinton administration had many of the same documents prepared laying out plans for a Iraq post-invasion Iraq.

"We had the same stuff," says a former senior Clinton Administration aide who worked at the Pentagon. "It would have been irresponsible not to have such planning. We had all kinds of briefing material ready should the president have decided to move on Iraq. In fact, a lot of the material we had prepared was material that the previous Bush administration had left for us. It just isn't that big a deal. Or shouldn't be."

Finally, at one of the 2000 debates both Bush and Al Gore talked about trying to overthrow Saddam.

(Hat tip: InstaPundit, again.)


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