Many people will remember Colin Powell’s historic speech to the UN Security Council describing Iraq’s mobile production facilities for making biological weapons. Many will also remember that shortly after this, in March 2003, George W. Bush and Tony Blair went to war against Iraq on the basis of these “biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails”and Iraq’s illicit nuclear and chemical weapons—only to later find that these claims were incorrect, that the intelligence had been misrepresented, and that, in fact, Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This revelation—that there were no WMD despite intelligence findings to the contrary—has come to dominate collective consciousness. Yet, it overlooks the long and complicated history of Iraq’s acquisition and use of outlawed weapons and overshadows the work of international inspectors who successfully uncovered and destroyed these weapons in the decade leading up to 2003.
This special issue highlights this history, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), the organization set up after the 1991 Gulf War to oversee the elimination of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and the long-range missiles that could disperse them. It focuses on UNSCOM’s work to uncover Iraq’s large, hidden biological warfare preparations and includes articles and interviews from people serving the range of UNSCOM roles—including its executive chair, deputy chair, commissioners, chief inspectors, spokesperson and official historian. Together, the collection captures memories, insights and lessons from some of the key people involved in this unique disarmament undertaking. It does not aim to be a comprehensive account; rather it captures important viewpoints that add to the existing literature and analysis.