Australian troops fighting in Iraq were told in an official briefing days before entering the country that Saddam Hussein did not have the capability to launch weapons of mass destruction against its neighbours.
Roger Hill, Australia’s most experienced weapons inspector, yesterday told The Age that Iraq had possessed the remnants of weapons of mass destruction but its ability to use them on the battlefield was “almost zero”.
“There is no question Iraq possessed materials, documents and possibly products,” Mr Hill said. “But it did not have the ability to conduct attacks on its near or regional neighbours,” he said. “I told our troops that. I also told people in the other coalition forces. But I was a lone voice.”
In March last year, shortly before the war, Mr Howard told Parliament: “We are determined to join other countries to deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, its chemical and biological weapons, which even in minute quantities are capable of causing death and destruction on a mammoth scale.”
Mr Hill said Australia should have had a closer look at the intelligence information it had received before committing troops to the US-led invasion.
Asked if the Australian Government was aware at the time of his assessment of Iraq’s capabilities, Mr Hill said: “If they had asked me, I would have told them.”
Mr Hill, who is widely acknowledged as Australia’s top expert on Saddam’s weapons programs, said that during the eight years he spent travelling to Iraq as a senior UN weapons inspector he was asked only once to brief officials in Canberra about the threat posed by Saddam.
The Australian Defence Force sent him to the Middle East to advise the 100-strong squadron of Perth-based SAS soldiers who conducted covert operations inside Iraq during the first weeks of the war. Mr Hill, a career army officer, had served in the SAS and led the last UN inspection team that went to Iraq in November 1998.
But none of Canberra’s intelligence agencies asked for his assessment of the Iraq threat before the Government made its decision to send the troops.
Prime Minister John Howard yesterday left open the question of whether Australia would follow the US and Britain and have its own independent inquiry into the intelligence used to determine whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Hill was not asked to testify before a seven-member parliamentary committee that was set up last year to look into Australia’s intelligence services. That committee’s report is due to be released later this month.
Mr Hill said most of Iraq’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were destroyed or hidden before the war. But he said that Saddam did not have the missile systems to deliver them anyway.
“It is all very well having weapons of mass destruction, like a chemical round, but you still have to have the ability to deliver them,” Mr Hill said. “They had not been able to bring the systems out of storage, to practise with them or to transport them,” he said. “None of these sorts of things were functioning.”
Mr Hill said the Government would be negligent if it did not hold an independent inquiry into the intelligence it received before the war, focusing on the quality of the information and obtaining a better understanding of the sources of information.
“Was there a conspiracy or was it just poor assessment? That is the issue,” Mr Hill said. “I am still not sure.”
Mr Hill said he did not believe there was any particular flaw in Australia’s intelligence agencies, but that “it appears we got it wrong”. He added: “But that is at this stage.”
Mr Howard said this week that information that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was one of the principal justifications for sending Australian troops to war.
Only days before the invasion he said in a televised speech that the prospect Saddam could arm terrorists with weapons of mass destruction was a “direct, undeniable and lethal threat to Australia and its people”.
Mr Howard had told Parliament several weeks earlier the Government had information that Iraq possessed both chemical and biological weapons and had the capacity to build a nuclear arsenal.
Mr Hill said after the first war in the Gulf Saddam set up a committee that arranged material on weapons of mass destruction to be hidden and ordered that no records be kept. “They will be digging up stuff for years to come. I guarantee it.”
Mr Hill said the SAS soldiers he briefed days before they went to war would not have slept easier because of what he told them.
“When I say the Iraqis didn’t have enough weapons of mass destruction to threaten any of their neighbours, that is true,” Mr Hill said.
“But did they have enough to kill soldiers? Yes,” he said.
The Australians played a pivotal role in the first strike on Iraq, launching a secret raid on Scud missile sites in western Iraq a day before US President George Bush declared the invasion had begun. The missiles had the capability to reach Israel but it is not known if they were able to be fired at the time.