IRAQI REPORT: GOLD MINE OR MINEFIELD?



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Last Updated

07 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 7, 2002.

Iraqi Report: Gold Mine Or Minefield?

Today's Arms Tally Follows Years of Nuggets and Lies

By Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

When the United Nations ordered Iraq to reveal its germ-warfare program to the world at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the result was a 30-page document that proved to be patently false -- but remarkably helpful.

In its "final declaration" in 1993, Iraq denied ever having biological weapons, even as its scientists secretly continued working on them. But in defending Iraq's "peaceful" research, the report mentioned an obscure laboratory in the southwestern desert. By accident, Iraq had alerted inspectors to Al Hakam, the country's biggest and most secretive bioweapons factory.

The example of Al Hakam underscores the potential value to the United Nations of the weapons declaration that Iraq has said it will make today. But U.N. officials expect few such windfalls this time. During seven years of inspections in the 1990s, Iraq submitted tens of thousands of pages of "full, final and complete" declarations accounting for its biological, chemical, nuclear and missile programs. While some of the reports were detailed, Iraq became increasingly adept at meeting U.N. requirements without revealing significant new information.

It took years of inspections to discover that Saddam Hussein had a program to build an enriched uranium bomb, which might have been less than a year from completion when the discovery was made. Similarly, Iraq managed to conceal about 20 Scud missiles left over from the war, along with stocks of chemically loaded artillery shells and missile warheads. In each case, the U.N. inspectors became involved in a cat-and-mouse game to come up with real details of Hussein's programs. And every time they discovered something new, Iraq revised its previous "full, final and complete" declaration. This time, the Bush administration has threatened to use any false statements or omissions as grounds to launch a war.

"I have urged them to look at their stocks and stores and give a complete declaration, because it is their last opportunity," said Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector who, a decade ago, headed the International Atomic Energy Agency group in Iraq.

Blix said in an interview he will examine Iraq's declaration in light of questions left unanswered since 1998, when the previous inspections ended. Blix said, for example, he will look at "what they say about anthrax stocks, since they did not convince us before that all they produced had been done away with." He said he expected Iraq to have kept records on weapons that were made earlier. "Mustard gas is not like marmalade... . Missiles are not like umbrellas," the Swedish diplomat said.

The inspectors' targets have already been sketched out by U.S. and British intelligence reports. They include short-range ballistic missiles that Iraq previously failed to account for. The inspectors will also look for details about Iraq's production of unmanned drone aircraft potentially capable of delivering chemical and biological agents.

Also being sought is information about Iraq's old nuclear program, including the designs for the bomb it was making and the names of scientists and technicians who can explain the lack of documentation on the program. The atomic energy agency is specifically looking for "an Iraqi expatriate who has been involved in the [past nuclear] program," according to the agency's most recent report on Iraq. The report said Iraq has not helped locate this person.

"We knew Iraq's past declarations were grossly inadequate," said Raymond Zilinskas, a former U.N. weapons inspector and director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "But through inspections and outside intelligence -- and by wearing their people down with interviews -- our knowledge became fairly complete."

Other weapons experts are more skeptical, predicting that Iraq will lard the report with false leads and trivia in an attempt to drag out the inspection process and delay a possible U.S.-led attack. "They'll try to overwhelm the inspectors with details," said Kelly Motz, editor of Iraq Watch, a Web site sponsored by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "Give the inspectors a million sites to check out, and you're sure to keep them busy for a long time."

The U. N. analysts may need time to make sense of the paperwork, not only to read and translate but also to compare the claims with a database of Iraqi weapons reports containing more than a million pages, U.N. officials said. At the heart of the database are seven years' worth of U.N.-mandated declarations by Iraq from the 1990s. These documents include detailed histories that run for hundreds of pages and list the key players, locations and suppliers in each of Iraq's weapons programs.

Even with this extensive data, critical questions about Iraq's biological, chemical and missile stockpiles remained unanswered when the last round of inspections ended abruptly four years ago. What follows is a look at the main unanswered questions.

Biological Weapons

Iraq's biowarfare program remains the least understood -- and probably the most worrisome. In the 1990s, Iraq concealed its labs so carefully that the inspectors failed to uncover them until the Iraqis gave the secret away, in documents and in the confessions of a senior defector, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed.

Weapons experts said it would be easier now for Iraq to hide a secret program. The country is fully capable of producing biological weapons without outside help and possesses mobile laboratories disguised as trucks, according to Defense Department intelligence analysts. In addition, Iraq has large amounts of "dual-use" equipment with legitimate commercial applications, such as industrial fermenters used in alcohol production, that can be quickly converted for use in weapons programs. A key goal in coming days is to scrutinize the Iraqi documents for hints of how such machines -- Iraq had scores of them as recently as 1998 -- are being employed now.

"In three hours you can clean up a fermenter so there's no trace it was ever used for biological weapons," said Zilinskas, the former weapons inspector. "The Iraqis have had plenty of time to clean these things up."

In a series of declarations in the 1990s, Iraq acknowledged making three types of biological weapons, including one that spreads anthrax bacteria. But cooperation from the Iraqis ended before U.N. officials could fully account for Iraq's bioweapons stockpile. For example, inspectors were never able to verify Iraq's claims that it destroyed hundreds of warheads and bombs filled with pathogens and large quantities of weaponized anthrax bacteria.

Also unclear is whether Iraq possessed stocks of the virus that causes smallpox. Richard Spertzel, a bioweapons expert and a leader of the U.N. bioweapons team in Iraq in the 1990s, believes Iraq acquired samples of the virus during an indigenous outbreak in the late 1970s and still has them. Iraq "has had 12 years to advance its viral capability," Spertzel said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in September, "and this almost certainly includes smallpox." Sources in the administration have said that an intelligence review concluded that Iraq was one of four nations that have covert stocks of the smallpox pathogen.

Chemical Weapons

Iraq's senior military leaders have often said that chemical weapons twice saved Hussein's regime from annihilation: During the Iran-Iraq war, and again during Operation Desert Storm, when U.S.-led coalition forces declined to invade Baghdad because -- as the oft-repeated Iraqi argument goes -- the Americans feared a chemical attack.

Because of this history, many weapons experts are deeply skeptical that Iraq would voluntarily give up its chemical weapons program. Citing discrepancies in Iraq's past accounting for its weapons stocks, former U.N. inspectors are convinced that Iraq still possess at least a small number of chemically armed bombs and warheads, as well as the know-how and equipment to make new ones.

A key unanswered question is whether Iraq possesses stockpiles of VX, a chemical so powerful that a few drops on the skin can be lethal. In one of its previous declarations, Iraq acknowledged making nearly four tons of VX and an additional 600 tons of its precursor chemicals. Iraq claimed it destroyed the nerve agent and all the ingredients, but it never provided proof to support the claim, weapons inspectors said.

Britain, in a formal assessment of Iraq's weapons capability in September, accused Iraq of resuming production of chemical weapons after U.N. inspectors left in 1998, although it declined to specify the chemicals or where they were being made. The British report noted that Iraq's current military planning "specifically envisages the use" of chemical munitions.

Nuclear Weapons

Hussein lied about his nuclear program when the post-Gulf War declarations were initially delivered. He had what the CIA called "an advanced nuclear weapons development program" before the war that was aimed at building a weapon using highly enriched uranium. The nuclear material was to be produced using electromagnetic isotope separation and gas centrifuges. After it invaded Kuwait in 1990, Baghdad began a crash program to use the enriched uranium from two research reactors, purchased from the French and Soviets and supposedly safeguarded by the atomic energy agency, to produce a 20-kiloton bomb or two within a year.

After its defeat in 1991, Iraq withheld details of its program, which was exposed slowly by the inspections carried out by the United Nations and the atomic energy agency. The inspectors took possession of Iraq's highly enriched uranium and small amounts of plutonium, which was shipped out of the country.

But the inspectors noted that they never found all the components of centrifuge machines, copies of a centrifuge design drawing obtained from foreign sources or detailed mechanical design drawings of the nuclear weapon Iraq planned to produce. Both the CIA and British intelligence believe Iraq secretly renewed efforts to produce a nuclear weapon after the inspectors left. The new inspectors want to see details of Iraq's attempt to buy more than 60,000 specialized aluminum tubes that could be used in a gas centrifuge to enrich uranium.

Among the signs were attempts to purchase materials such as uranium oxide, which Iraq has "no legitimate reason to acquire," the British said. Blix agreed. There is also an intelligence report that Hussein reassembled his team of nuclear experts. One fact that has raised questions is a public announcement by Iraq of regular meetings by senior officials in the Iraqi nuclear agency. The CIA has noted an increase of "dual-use procurement," which the British identified as vacuum pumps that could be used in centrifuges, along with items such as fluoride compounds that can be used to make petrochemical products but can also be used to enrich uranium.

The CIA has also emphasized the need to interview Iraqi nuclear scientists and technicians and search Iraqi archives to come up with "documentary evidence of abandonment by Iraq of its clandestine nuclear program," including "procurement logs, technical documents, experimental data, accounting of materials, and foreign assistance."

Missiles

Iraq has repeatedly issued incomplete declarations about its missile program. At the start of inspections in 1991, the United Nations asked that Iraq detail not only the number of prohibited missiles -- those with a range greater than 90 miles -- but also all the systems needed to build a missile system of any range, including production facilities for components and engine propellants, as well as all engine and flight test sites. When Iraq issued the first report, however, it disclosed parts it had purchased abroad but concealed its ability to make liquid fuel missiles.

In March 1992, Iraq admitted it had withheld information about these weapons but said they had been destroyed without U.N. supervision. In response, the U.N. group ordered a specific accounting of "all missile operational assets including launchers, warheads and propellants," and details on Iraq's production of missiles.

After three more years, Iraq admitted it had hidden information on prohibited programs, prepared a new declaration on missiles in November 1995 and revised it in June 1996, but it was still not complete. The inspectors changed tactics, instead trying to figure out what materials and parts Iraq had bought and comparing them to what had been disclosed or destroyed.

In 1997, the U.N. inspectors declared they were satisfied that 817 of the 819 prohibited combat missiles had been accounted for, though seven produced in Iraq had not been found. In the 1990s, the inspectors also accounted for imported missile launchers and trucks used as launchers. The U.N. inspectors also destroyed 56 fixed-launch sites and two of 24 control panels made by the Iraqis. The Iraqis said they destroyed the other 22 control panels, a claim that was not confirmed. Almost 1,000 warheads for Scud and other missiles were also destroyed, including special warheads designed to carry chemical or biological materials, but doubts remain about Iraqi claims.

CIA analysts now believe that two missile systems under development by Iraq can fly beyond the allowed 90-mile range and that Iraq is modifying facilities to test and make missiles of even longer range. Iraq has probably resumed construction of a missile plant that was halted by the U.N. inspectors, the agency said, and the Iraqis were caught in 1995 trying to buy "sensitive ballistic missile guidance components" used in Russian strategic missiles.