In December 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes on specific targets in Iraq after Saddam Hussein reneged on a promise to cooperate with UNSCOM inspections. The missiles targeted sites known or thought to have connections to Saddam’s hidden efforts to continue his WMD development programs, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. These strikes, the second in as many months, put an end to UN inspections until the US threatened an invasion almost exactly four years later.
Clinton told the press on December 18th that the Pentagon had selected the targets carefully, especially the presidential sites. After the invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, however, conventional wisdom has it that Saddam had shelved all his WMD programs, and therefore these strikes must not have hit any R&D assets, but rather just constituted a headache for the dictator. However, at the same time that Clinton held his press conference, Saddam issued orders that seem to indicate a high-level panic about the effects of the strikes (document ISGP-2003-00300134-X):
Republic of Iraq
Administrative office of the Presidency
In the name of God, Most Gracious Most Merciful
Top Secret and Immediate ORDER
The President had ordered,
To form committees from the Health Ministry, Military Industrialization Commission, the Atomic Energy Organization, and the IIS, whose duties will be:
To inspect all sites bombarded by the enemy. To assure that no contamination or radioactivity are present (TN: in the areas that were hit), in particular and with utmost urgency the presidential sites. To collect all debris present, and to coordinate with Dr. Muna Al -Jubori, School of Science instructor at the University of Baghdad.
Ahmed Hussein Khudayr
The Chief of the Administrative Office of the Presidency
The Presidency of the Republic, IIS, Office of the IIS Director, with regards and for the same purpose. These committees will have permission to visit those sites.
The Health Ministry/Office of the Minister, The Military Industrialization Commission, Office of the MIC Director, Atomic Energy Agency, Office of the Agency Director,for the same purpose, with regards.
Also copy to Dr.Muna Al-Jubori , Science instructor at the University of Baghdad, for the same purpose, with regards.
Two possible explanations exist for this memo. One could be that Saddam was afraid we had hit him with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in this strike. It seems a bit farfetched, however, since we had no tactical need to do so; if we wanted to really do damage, we simply could have sent a wave of bombers across Baghdad and hit a lot more targets with conventional weapons. He also had to know that any use of those kinds of weapons by the US would have resulted in a firestorm of criticism and could have caused the fall of the Clinton administration, already hanging by a thread at that point.
The only other explanation was that the missiles really did hit WMD facilities and that our intelligence had selected good targets for the limited missile strikes. The emphasis on the urgency of checking the presidential sites seems to confirm this. Saddam had attempted to exclude a number of facilities on the premise that they were his personal palaces and not subject to UNSCOM inspections. That, in fact, was what caused Saddam to bar inspectors in late 1998, and what prompted the missile attacks.
Someone very high up worried about nuclear and at least chemical contamination at these presidential sites. That anxiety seems to have come from the knowledge of what those sites actually held.
UPDATE: This isn’t the only reference to chemical operations in 1998, either. Document ISGP-2003-00300159-X has a summary of several documents regarding Iraqi Air Force capabilities and training from February 1998, and chemicals come up frequently. Here’s a good representative sample:
A hand written report about a visit on Ali Air Base, dated February 3rd 1998. This report is signed by: Brigadier Haytham Natehk Saleem Imperative Air Force Chemical Detachment.
1. The locations for the base units: …
• Chemical warehouses:
1. The assigned for incoming is good but needs to be organized and maintained.
2. The supply percentage for the protective masks; is higher than the set percentage of 65%, comparing to the number of individuals in the base.
3. The records are available but needs to be maintained, and regularly recorded.
2. The chemical detachment:
• Training side:
1. Training memorandum: A special memorandum has been designed for the chemical detachment; which needs to be classified according to the memorandum of the imperative Air Force Chemical Detachment.
2. Training approaches: Training approaches has been designed for the chemical detachment, and non-chemical units in base.
3. Training area: Well organized.
For a military that had no chemical weapons, they had a lot of activity going on in these “Chemical Detachments”.