Former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld reveals in his new book that he urged a US military strike on a suspected chemical weapons site in northern Iraq in 2003, and that he wanted the attack timed to coincide with former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council making the case for war.
In his memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld wrote that the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported a strike, based on what Rumsfeld called extensive, but not conclusive CIA evidence that the site housed an underground facility for testing chemical weapons. He called it a “fairly sizeable terrorist operation.”
The prewar attack never happened, although the site was struck in the opening days of the war that former US president George W. Bush launched in March 2003, about six weeks after Powell’s UN speech.
The US never found substantial evidence of an active Iraqi program to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but Rumsfeld believed that the site near the Iranian border presented the best chance to prove they existed before the war began.
“For whatever reason, the administration never made public these facts about an active WMD production facility run by terrorists in Iraq,” Rumsfeld wrote.
He said he made his recommendation to Bush at a Feb. 3, 2003, National Security Council meeting in which Powell sketched out the presentation he was to make at the UN two days later.
Rumsfeld quotes himself as telling the meeting: “We should hit Khurmal during the speech, given that Colin will talk about it.”
Khurmal is the name of a village near the site. Powell objected.
In his UN presentation, Powell described it as “Terrorist Poison and Explosive Factory, Khurmal.” Rumsfeld said Khurmal was operated by Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who later led the Iraq branch of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Rumsfeld wrote that he wanted to attack the site before Powell finished his presentation in New York, because otherwise the site would be abandoned.
Had Powell not stood in the way, in Rumsfeld’s view, the Bush administration might have gained conclusive evidence that Iraq had an active WMD site.
“As expected, shortly after Powell’s speech was delivered, many of the terrorists fled Khurmal,” he wrote.
A reporter who visited the site a few days after Powell’s speech found a half-built cinderblock compound filled with heavily armed Kurdish men, video equipment and children, but no obvious sign of chemical weapons manufacturing. Much of the site was destroyed by US cruise missile strikes at the outset of the invasion.
Micah Zenko, a political scientist at the Council on Foreign Relations, extensively researched US planning for a military strike on Khurmal in 2002 and detailed it in his book, Between Threats and War. He said in an interview that he was unaware that Rumsfeld had advocated bombing the place while Powell was at the UN.
By that time, the Khurmal camp had been largely empty for months, Zenko said.
The Rumsfeld memoir covers the full span of his 78 years, from growing up in a small town outside Chicago, his Navy days, his years in Congress, a string of staff jobs in the Nixon White House, his first tour as defense secretary under former US president Gerald Ford, a period as a business executive and his return to the Pentagon in January 2001.