“Iraq had been decimated… I really felt for the people”: an interview with former United Nations Weapons Inspector Mike Barley

Zoom seems an unlikely place to be conducting an interview with a former United Nations Weapons Inspector, and further still to be discussing his tours in Iraq in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Yet here we are.

Former United Nations (UN) Weapons Inspector Mike Barley was seconded to Iraq three times in 1996-7 at the request of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). Established in 1990, following the Gulf War, its task was to monitor the elimination of suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and related facilities to ensure Iraq could not renew its efforts to acquire or produce such weapons.

Previously, working as part of the International and Organised Crime Group at Scotland Yard, Mike dealt with an inquiry into an allegation of perjury at a trial at the Central Criminal Court. The prosecution claimed British machine tools manufacturer Matrix Churchill were violating export licensing policy by shipping machines to Iraq to be used in the production of artillery shells and medium range missiles. Having appointed two new directors in 1989 who were working for Iraqi services, it was believed they were supporting the President of Iraq Saddam Hussein’s secret weapons programme. However, after the uncovering of evidence suggesting the Department of Defence had, in fact, advised the manufacturing company on how to sell arms to Iraq, the trial collapsed in 1992 and Matrix Churchill were acquitted. When the UN asked Scotland Yard for an officer to assist them in the interviewing of Iraqi scientists and generals, Mike was deemed to hold the necessary skills and experience for the position – thus started his role within the Special Commission.

Almost instantaneously it seems, he found himself in the back of a Hercules transporter being flown to a Bahrain holding station. Highlighting the striking importance of anonymity, Mike details how the group left behind anything which could identify their names or home addresses. “We were given a blue passport from the United Nations, put in the back of a Hercules, and flown into Baghdad with a: ‘we’ll see you in three weeks’ time’”.

Upon arrival, the situation was dire. The UN Security Council had imposed a comprehensive embargo on Iraq following their invasion of Kuwait and breach of UN Weapons Conventions. Speaking from personal observation, Mike says: “Iraq had been decimated, the infrastructure was poor, the people…”, here he pauses, sighing, “I really felt for the people”. The Iraqi Dinar had been a strong currency prior to the Cold War, but during his stay, he details being able to live on as little as $20 for three weeks. Every day a two-hour propaganda reel was presented on primetime TV, where videos of Saddam Hussein surrounded by happy children were shown alongside citizens singing songs in praise of him; the front pages of newspapers never failed to bear his image in tandem with glorification of his leadership.

Hired under the directive to interrogate, though he is quick to assure me he prefers the term ‘interview’, Mike worked alongside scientists and technicians who “all knew about the technical capabilities, but didn’t really know how to interview people”. Stressing the importance of verifying all the information he gathered in interviews, Mike details the high-level reporting process, through the UN Chief Weapons Inspector Rolf Ekéus, who was later succeeded by Richard Butler, then communicating directly into the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

I enquire as to his feelings on his personal security while touring Iraq, to which he assures me of the apparent nature of a counter-intelligence operation. If ever found on his own, Mike would be approached with the aim of discovering more about his identity; when probed on whereabouts he lived in England, a simple two-word answer would suffice: “just London”. He also recalls being followed whenever the group left the hotel, something which proved useful if they ever found themselves lost; they could ask the individuals following them for directions – invariably, they agreed to show them the way.

Despite being compelled to co-operate with Resolution 687, an order “to accept… urgent on-site inspection and the destruction, removal or rendering harmless as appropriate” of all WMDs, Mike believes the Iraqis stretched the definition of co-operation “to the extreme”. Another branch of his remit was to determine whether the Iraqi government were being deliberately deceptive, which he comments wasn’t all too difficult to work out: “they put hurdles in, they would frustrate us as much as they could”. He offers anecdotal evidence as to this deception, giving a feel for the circumstances under which interviews were carried out: a government advisor sat next to the interviewee would “either tell him the answer, tell him what to say, write it down for him, or answer it himself”.

In 1997, this general lack of cooperation culminated in the sudden redesignation of Iraqi factories and premises as presidential palaces, an area outside of the Commission’s access rights despite being “quite large compounds, capable of storing weapons material”. Iraq eventually barred weapons inspectors from entering the country in December 1998, making allegations they were a cover for American spies; the in-situ inspectors were evacuated and a four-day US and UK bombing campaign ensued. From an insider’s perspective, Mike is of the opinion this decision to bar the UN from Iraq can be partly accredited to a general mistrust of the organisation, but also believes the Commission “were getting closer to the real issues and closer to the real point” – a little close for comfort it seems.

In September 2002, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote a foreword in the ‘September Dossier’, the British Government’s assessment on Iraq’s WMDs, declaring: “the document discloses that [Iraq’s] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. Popular British newspapers ran headlines such as “Brits 45mins from doom” and “Mad Saddam ready to attack: 45 minutes from a chemical war”, thus reinforcing Iraq as a public threat to Britain. However, a year later in 2003, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry Sir John Chilcot produced a damning report condemning Blair for making a conscious decision to blur the lines between his personal beliefs and what he actually knew. Blair later addressed the report stating his decision was taken “in good faith and in what [he] believed to be the best interests of the country”. Speaking on this topic with Mike, he tells me the Commission never found any evidence to support the prime minister’s claims: “I think I’m okay in saying that we never found any evidence of that… we found some of the precursor elements for these weapons, but I wouldn’t say that we found evidence that they could be assembled and delivered within 45 minutes”.

“Why was I, as a policeman, in there?”, Mike shrugs, “allegedly because I knew how to talk to people”. Individuals around the globe were seconded to the United Nations Special Commission with a view to travelling to Iraq to monitor their supposed production of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Speaking on the time span of the tours, Mike is emphatic in telling me: “three weeks was enough, it really was enough, because the work was amazingly intense, not under the best conditions”. Although he maintains it was the most fascinating task he has had to undertake within his police experience, he clearly struggled with the suffering the people of Iraq were forced to undergo. For him, “they were the victims in all this”. Mike labels Iraq at this time as a dictatorship, telling me of stories and rumours surrounding relatives of rebels being tortured and killed. Eventually, people stopped talking out. He saw a country which, through his eyes, was falling apart.

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Dolly Carter

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January 2022
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