LIBYA: More 'weapons of mass distraction' uncovered

21 January 2004

Norm Dixon

On January 4, while addressing British troops in Basra, British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to defend his government's participation in the US-led war against Iraq. In an embarrassing Freudian slip, Blair referred to “weapons of mass distraction” as the justification for the illegal war. On December 19, the US and Britain revealed that similar weapons had been uncovered in Libya.

On that day, the Libyan government issued a statement that announced that — after months of secret talks with agents of the British and US governments, which included visits to at least 10 sites in Libya — it had agreed to get rid of “substances, equipment and programs that could lead to [the] production of internationally banned weapons”.

In almost simultaneous announcements on December 19, Blair and US President George Bush sought to present Tripoli's decision as the direct result of, and a further justification for, the US-led war on Iraq. “In word and action, we have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries”, Bush declared. “And when leaders make the wise and responsible choice, when they renounce terror and weapons of mass destruction, as [Libya's leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi] has now done, they serve the interest of their own people and they add to the security of all nations.”


Associated Press reported on December 20 that a “senior Bush administration official”, who briefed reporters at the White House “on condition of anonymity”, claimed that Libya “had a program intended for use in nuclear weapons” and that Libya's “nuclear effort” was “more advanced than previously thought”.

Libya, the anonymous White House official claimed, also “acknowledged having chemicals that could be used to make nerve agent” and admitted to “contacts with North Korea, a supplier of long-range ballistic missiles”.

In another December 20 Associated Press report, anonymous “senior [US] intelligence officials” claimed that Libya had “built a working centrifuge for uranium enrichment”. Significant amounts of enriched uranium are required to make a nuclear bomb.

The December 20 New York Times reported that an anonymous British official told journalists in London that Libyan scientists were “developing a nuclear fuel cycle intended to support a nuclear weapons development”. While Libya did not have nuclear weapons, “it was close to producing one”, the official said.

However, it soon emerged that Washington and London — as with Iraq previously — were blatantly exaggerating the true extent of Libya's weapons programs and capabilities. International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Mohammed ElBaradai said on December 28, while he and IAEA inspectors visited the country, that Libya was far from producing nuclear arms.

IAEA inspectors found hundreds of unused imported centrifuges still in their unopened crates, apart from a few dozen devices. Thousands of such devices (known as a “cascade”) are required to produce sufficient enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear weapon.

“We haven't seen any industrial-scale facility to produce highly enriched uranium”, ElBaradai said. “We haven't seen any enriched uranium.” Speaking on CNN on December 29, he added that a small cascade was “developed years ago as a pilot and that has been dismantled now, and they haven't developed an industrial or large-scale cascade”. Most of Libya's nuclear equipment was “quite dismantled”, he said.

An unnamed Western diplomat told the December 30 Washington Post that Libya did not systematically shop for equipment, but picked up pieces where and when it could at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars; a concerted drive to attain nuclear weapons would have cost billions, the diplomat noted.

A diplomat also told Associated Press on December 30 that Libyan scientists interviewed by the IAEA inspectors “swore up and down they never had any weapons activities. They said they were never told to develop a weapon, they were only told to develop enrichment capability”.


Washington and London are hyping the significance of the removal of Tripoli's phantom weapons — in order to claim another victory for the Bush gang's massive post-9/11 drive to dominate the world in the name of fighting “terrorism”, eliminating WMDs and containing “rogue states”.

By playing along with Washington's latest WMD pantomime, the Qadhafi regime hopes to reestablish cordial relations with the US government and big business.

Libya became a “rogue state” in Washington's eyes when on September 1, 1969, military officers led by Qadhafi overthrew the pro-Western monarchy. Libya was the site of the largest US air base in Africa and US oil companies had a large stake in the country's lucrative oil industry. In 1973, Libya played a leading role in the Arab countries' oil embargo against the US.

Inspired by Egyptian President Abdul Nasser's radical-nationalist capitalist regime, Qadhafi's government set out to develop Libya outside the control of the imperialist powers, particularly the US. This political course was made possible by friendly political and trade ties with the Soviet Union.

The Qadhafi regime nationalised foreign banks and oil companies. Libya's nationalised oil wealth funded an impressive range of welfare provisions for Libya's citizens, including free health care and education.

This attempt at independent political and economic development incensed Washington, especially as it coincided with a wave of similar attempts in Third World countries in the 1970s and 1980s. The Qadhafi regime made links with a diverse range of anti-imperialist and national liberation movements throughout the world.

Under President Ronald Reagan, the US labelled Libyan support for freedom struggles in Palestine, southern Africa and Central America “terrorism” and embarked on a campaign to achieve “regime change” in Libya.

In 1986, US warplanes bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in an attempt to assassinate the Libyan leader, murdering around 100 people including Qadhafi's infant daughter.

Washington imposed unilateral sanctions on Libya that same year, which forced US oil companies out of the country (joint ventures with Libya's National Oil Company were producing 850,000 barrels of oil a day at the time) and froze more than US$1 billion worth of Libyan assets in the US (these sanctions were made even tougher in 1996 to penalise US partners of European firms trading with Libya).

In 1991, US investigators abruptly accused Libya of the 1988 downing of Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that took the lives of 270 people. (Washington had previously believed the Syrian government was the prime suspect. What changed? Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad backed Washington's 1991 war against Iraq, whereas Qadhafi opposed the war and campaigned for a peaceful settlement. Assad was owed a favour by Washington, so Libya became the patsy.)

In 1992, after Tripoli refused to extradite two of its citizens to stand trial in Scotland, the UN Security Council imposed onerous sanctions on Libya.

The cumulative impact of US and UN sanctions, which by 1999 had cost Libya more than $33 billion, compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, forced Libya to seek peace with Washington or face ruin.

Today, oil production — Libya's main source of income — is about 1.4 million barrels a day, less than 50% of what it was in 1970. This is largely because sanctions, which banned the sale of oil equipment and technology, prevented the proper maintenance and modernisation of oil facilities.

Growing poverty and up to 30% unemployment also fuelled support for an al Qaeda-linked opposition movement (ironically, such links did not prevent Britain's spooks from plotting with the group in 1996 to stage an assassination attempt on Qadhafi).

In April 1999 the Security Council suspended UN sanctions after Libya agreed that the two men accused of the Pan Am bombing be tried in a juryless court in the Netherlands, presided over by Scottish judges. Bizarrely, even though the prosecution's star witnesses performed abysmally on the stand and despite “evidence” that verged on the ludicrous, one of the accused was found guilty on January 31, 2001, and jailed.

The suspension of UN sanctions resulted in a flood of foreign investment from Europe, led by Italian, German, Spanish and French firms.

Under pressure from US oil interests fearing that Europe would take the lion's share of Libya's low-cost, high-quality hydrocarbons, Washington signaled that relations with Libya were to gradually improve. For its part, Libya assured Washington that US oil companies were welcome to return to their leases. However, this progress stalled with the election of Bush and his war hawks.

Libya has announced $35 billion economic plan that is heavily reliant on Western investment, including the privatisation of more than 300 state-owned firms. “The program calls for the privatisation of heavy industry, particularly steel mills, chemical plants, truck and bus assembly lines, textile and shoe factories, as well as state farms”, Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem said in November.

Investment laws have been introduced that allow tax holidays and full profit repatriation for foreign business. Free-trade zones are also planned. According to an October 2003 International Monetary Fund staff report, Libya had agreed with IMF advice that a “drastic reduction in the dominant role of the public sector” was now required. However, Tripoli's desire for a neoliberal “people's capitalism” is hindered by Washington's sanctions.

While Tripoli continues to deny that it ordered the Pan Am bombing and protests its jailed citizen's innocence, it agreed last year to accept “responsibility” for the bombing and pay the Lockerbie victims a whopping $2.7 billion in compensation. In return, the Security Council finally lifted UN sanctions on Libya in September.

But, Washington is demanding far more. It wants nothing less than Libya's total abandonment of its previous commitment to economic and political independence domestically, and support for anti-imperialist causes (“terrorism”) internationally.

While Bush indicated on December 19 that the Libyan government would be rewarded for its decision to “disarm”, US State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli told the BBC on January 3: “We've made it clear that as Libya moves forward in fulfilling its commitments to divorce itself from any connection to terrorism and to abjure and dismantle its WMD programs, we would be willing to discuss bilateral relations. But it hasn't got to that point.”

From Green Left Weekly, January 21, 2004.
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From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #567 21 January 2004.