by George Monbiot
When Saddam Hussein so pig-headedly failed to shower US troops with chemical weapons as they entered Iraq, thus depriving them of a retrospective justification for this war, the American generals explained that he would do so as soon as they crossed the "red line" around Baghdad. Beyond that point, the desperate dictator would lash out with every weapon he possessed.
Well, the line has been crossed and recrossed, and not a whiff of mustard gas or VX has so far been detected. This could mean one of three things: Saddam's command system may have broken down (he may be dead, or his troops might have failed to receive or respond to his orders); he is refraining, so far, from using chemical weapons; or he does not possess them.
The special forces sent to seize Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have yet to find hard evidence at any of the 12 sites (identified by the Pentagon as the most likely places) they have examined so far. As Newsweek revealed in February, there may be a reason for this: in 1995, General Hussein Kamel, the defector whose evidence George Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell have cited as justification for their invasion, told the UN that the Iraqi armed forces, acting on his instructions, had destroyed the last of their banned munitions. But, whether Saddam is able to use such weapons or not, their deployment in Iraq appears to be imminent, for the Americans seem determined on it.
Chemicals can turn corners, seep beneath doors, inexorably fill a building or a battlefield. They can kill or disable biological matter while leaving the infrastructure intact. They are the weapons that reach the parts other weapons can't. They are also among the most terrifying instruments of war: this is why Saddam used them to such hideous effect, both in Iran and against the Kurds of Halabja. And, for an occupying army trying not to alienate local people or world opinion, those chemicals misleadingly labeled"non-lethal" appear to provide a possibility of capturing combatants without killing civilians.
This, to judge by a presidential order and a series of recent statements, now seems to be the US government's chosen method for dealing with Iraqi soldiers sheltering behind human shields, when its conventional means of completing the capture of Baghdad have been exhausted. It makes a certain kind of sense, until two inconvenient issues are taken into account. The deployment of these substances would break the conventions designed to contain them; and the point of this war, or so we have endlessly been told, is to prevent the use of chemical weapons.
Last week Bush authorized US troops to use teargas in Iraq. He is permitted to do so by an executive order published in 1975 by Gerald Ford, which overrides, within the US, the 1925 Geneva protocol on chemical weapons. While this may prevent Bush's impeachment in America, it has no standing in international law.
The chemical weapons convention, promoted by George W's father and ratified by the US in 1997, insists that "each state party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare". Teargas, pepper spray and other incapacitants may be legally used on your own territory for the purposes of policing. They may not be used in another country to control or defeat the enemy.