United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)

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Commission charged with eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

After the end of the first Gulf War (1991), the United Nations Security Council passed several resolutions concerning Iraq. Resolution 687, which was passed on 3 April 1991, was the most important one. It set forth the continuation of the sanctions and the embargo on Iraq until it dismantled its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, which included all ballistic missiles with a range of 90 miles (150 km), and all chemical, biological, and nuclear facilities. Resolution 687 also banned the development of such weapons in the future. A related resolution, 715, adopted on 11 October 1991, called for the establishment of a long-term comprehensive monitoring system covering all current and future facilities related to weapons of mass destruction.

The United Nations Security Council created a special commission, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), which it charged with eliminating Iraq's nonnuclear WMD covered by Resolution 687. Also, UNSCOM would assist with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in the nuclear area. UNSCOM was given sweeping powers to do on-site inspections of Iraq's biological, chemical, and missile capacities, to remove and render harmless all chemical and biological weapons, to supervise the destruction of all ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 90 miles (150 km), and to verify Iraq's compliance with Resolution 687.

With a great deal of reluctance, the Iraqi government accepted Resolution 687 in May 1991. The government did not have much choice, as the resolution had passed the Security Council unanimously. Furthermore, the United States and Britain were ready to implement it and they were willing to use force if necessary.

UNSCOM operations lasted about eight years. The commission was first chaired by Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish career diplomat. From the beginning, the relationship between UNSCOM and Iraq was strained and shrouded in suspicion. On many occasions, Iraq acted in bad faith by delaying and hesitating to fulfill both the letter and the spirit of Resolutions 689 and 715. When Iraq tried to prevent UNSCOM inspectors from using their aircraft for security and political reasons, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 707 on 15 August 1991, calling for Iraq to give full access to UNSCOM inspectors, full disclosure of weapons programs, and full disclosure of all suppliers' names. UNSCOM team members came from various countries, but the majority of the members were American and British.

The tension continued between Iraq and UNSCOM throughout the commission's operation in the country. Several confrontations between the parties prompted the United States to launch short military operations against targets inside Iraq. In July 1997 Ekeus was replaced by Richard Butler, an Australian disarmament expert who lacked diplomatic finesse, and who began to work more closely with the U.S. government. After a series of confrontations in 1997 and 1998 between Iraq and UNSCOM, the United States launched Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. The operation lasted for four days and consisted of aerial bombardments of military targets. It put an end to UNSCOM inspections, because Iraq refused further cooperation. The United Nations Security Council struggled for a year to come up with a new arms inspection formula that was acceptable to the members of the council. In January 2000 the UN adopted Resolution 1284, which formed a new commission, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). For two years Iraq refused to deal with the new commission.

Both Iraq and UNSCOM were responsible for confrontations. To Iraq, Resolution 687 and the commission it created impinged on Iraqi sovereignty, because Iraq's weapons program was one of the mainstays of Saddam's power, both domestically and regionally. Iraq accused the inspectors of trying to strip the nation of its industrial and technological capacity, and it objected to UNSCOM's intrusive and confrontational approach. In addition, Iraq accused the United States of using and subverting UNSCOM to gather intelligence in order to change the government in Iraq.

UNSCOM, on the other hand, allowed itself to be used by the United States government to collect intelligence data by the U.S. members of the inspection teams, according to Dilip Hiro (pp. 97, 107, and 119). The United States started to subvert UNSCOM operations as early as 1992 by using its intelligence agents and technicians trained in handling communications and bugging devices to intercept microwave transmissions sent by the Iraqi military. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox, several damaging revelations appeared in the U.S. press about the infiltration of UNSCOM by U.S. intelligence agencies.

By 1998, despite the tension between Iraq and UNSCOM, the commission had accomplished most of its job of discovering WMD, destroying them, and establishing a comprehensive remote monitoring system. According to Scott Ritter, the bulldog of UNSCOM, Iraq no longer possessed any meaningful quantities of chemical or biological agents, if it had possessed any at all (New York Times, 3 July 2000). In the spring of 2003 U.S. armed forces invaded and occupied Iraq; despite intense searching, as of the following spring they had failed to discover any weapons of mass destruction.

see also gulf war (1991);iraq; war in iraq (2003).


Hiro, Dilip. Iraq in the Eye of the Storm. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002.

Ritter, Scott. Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America. New York: Context Books, 2003.

ayad al-qazzaz

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United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)

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United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)