• Rozing's search for weapons of mass destruction

    A bittersweet case of being right

    Being right can be a bittersweet experience. Ten years ago UN weapons inspector and University of Groningen immunologist Jan Rozing conducted risky field work in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction. He knew they weren’t there. Nevertheless, the US and Britain invaded in 2003.

    Since his retirement Jan Rozing has been enjoying a peaceful life, travelling a lot and renovating his holiday home in France. Recently, he took some time out to look back on his extraordinary job with us.

    ‘The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons, diseases, gases and atomic weapons’, American President George Bush junior said shortly before the Iraq War. ‘Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.’

    Meanwhile, Rozing was being eaten up with frustration. ‘False pretences. Iraq was never a threat.’ Between 1993 and 1998 he took part in numerous United Nations (UN) inspections on biological weapons issues in Iraq. Before the invasion in 2003 he returned to lead the international team of over 30 biological weapons inspectors.

    The war – also supported by other countries, including the Netherlands – claimed 100,000 victims at the very least. President Saddam Hussein was defeated, but no evidence of weapons of mass destruction or connections with terrorist groups was found. Rozing said: ‘The saddest part is that Iraq is still in chaos. Militant groups like Al-Qaeda have only grown stronger.’


    Although Rozing specialized in conducting research into biological weapons issues during his time with the Dutch research institution TNO in Leiden, he never expected he would work as a bio-inspector for the United Nations in Iraq.

    Until the first Gulf War ended in 1991, that is. To make sure Saddam wasn’t hiding any weapons of mass destruction, America pressurized Iraq into cooperating with UN inspections. Governments of different countries received requests to provide expertise.

    That is how Rozing became involved. ‘It wasn’t likely that Saddam had a lot left. Israel had bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Also, the whereabouts of the factories that produced chemical weapons during the war with Iran were known. But it was unclear whether or not Iraq had biological weapons. Finding that out fascinated me.’

    It also mattered for the people of Iraq. ‘America would only adhere to the ceasefire if it received proof that Iraq was “clean”. Their lives truly depended on this.’

    Guinea pigs

    UN teams investigated countless suspicious sites, which was no easy task as Rozing explained: ‘Many food-producing factories contain equipment that can be used for regular purposes, as well as for the prohibited production of bacteria or viruses for bio-weapons.’

    Through unannounced visits, rigorous inspections, interviews and reports, they investigated whether the equipment matched what it was claimed they were used for. Sites involved in the production of biological weapons were destroyed under UN supervision.

    Iraq did develop material for biological weapons, such as anthrax and botulinum toxin, but the inspectors never found evidence that it also turned them into deadly weapons – ‘until tapes were discovered that showed tests had been carried out on such weapons in 1995. You’d see, for example, how rockets filled with liquid biological weapon material were fired at a target area containing guinea pigs and mice. Most of them missed the whole target area.’

    It was shocking to find out that Iraq had turned the materials into weapons, says Rozing. ‘At the same time it was reassuring to see that Iraq only had the ability to produce liquid biological material, since this is much less dangerous than dried material, which spreads easily in the air and penetrates people’s airways.’


    In between visits to Iraq, Rozing found a new job in Holland. He moved to Groningen to become an immunologist for its university and quit working for TNO.

    However, because of his expertise he was asked to go back to Iraq in 2002, this time to lead the inspection team. ‘There hadn’t been any inspections since 1998. We feared that Iraq had rebuilt everything.’

    Rozing soon concluded that wasn’t the case. ‘The Iraqis had even continued to write their obligatory monthly reports for us.’ However, President Bush junior was now hardened by the terrorist attack on New York in 2001 – ‘and he obviously wanted to hear a different story.’

    For example, America always doubted that 157 R-400 aerial bombs filled with deadly anthrax and botulinum toxin were really destroyed by Iraq in 1991. In 1997 the UN inspected the site at Al Azzizziyah and recovered three of these bombs, but had to leave because it was life-threatening to work there.

    In 2003 Iraq restarted the excavation of these bombs under the supervision of Rozing’s team. ‘We found more than 120 of them. This and additional testing fully confirmed earlier Iraqi declarations. However, politicians just stated we didn’t find them all.’

    Wanted: war

    Until today that still frustrates Rozing. ‘Even the Dutch government wasn’t interested. Instead of telling the truth, politicians always left room to speculate that there really was a threat.’

    The inspectors were 99 percent sure there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they couldn’t investigate every square metre of the country. ‘They used that to exaggerate the risks. Bush wanted that war and we knew it was coming.’

    Rozing and his men worked day and night under immense pressure to inspect as many sites as possible. They wanted to finish the job. ‘We also inspected many sites of which intelligence services had information that they were involved in the biological weapons programme. None proved to be true. It was a stressful time. I carried a travel bag with two pairs of underpants and a toothbrush everywhere, in case we had to evacuate quickly because the invasion had started.’

    In March 2003 the war began before their work was completed. ‘Bush just wanted to finish what his father had started’, Rozing thinks now. ‘Others were probably more interested in the financial profits associated with rebuilding Iraq. In fact, the war cost America billions of dollars. I occasionally think of Bush and Blair, and hope they still have sleepless nights about this war, although they will never admit it was wrong.’

    No regrets

    Rozing does not regret doing the job. ‘As history shows, finding out the truth about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was important, if only to show that this war was unnecessary. And we also showed that it is possible to set up a successful inspection regime for biological weapons, an issue rejected by many people before.’