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Last Updated

13 Apr 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2003


Surrender of Top Science Advisor to Hussein Heartens U.S. Officials

Amir Saadi is suspected of knowing where banned weapons are. But he denies they exist.

By Greg Miller, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials said the surrender Saturday of Saddam Hussein's top scientific advisor is a breakthrough in the search for banned weapons that the Bush administration cited as its primary justification for invading Iraq.

Gen. Amir Saadi, who turned himself in to U.S. forces in Baghdad, was described by intelligence officials as a "linchpin" in Iraq's suspected production of illicit weapons.

"He knows where the stuff is, and he knows the names of the major players connected with the program," said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity.

Saadi's surrender comes as teams of U.S. special operations forces and CIA operatives are searching vast underground warrens in Baghdad and scouring other facilities around the country for evidence of banned weapons.

Saadi has consistently denied that Iraq has such weapons, and repeated that assertion Saturday in an interview he granted to the German television news agency ZDF before his surrender. Saadi also said he does not know the whereabouts or fate of Hussein and other Iraqi leaders.

But U.S. officials said Saadi's decision to turn himself in amid the collapse of Hussein's regime and the all-out hunt by U.S. forces for banned weapons could indicate a new willingness to cooperate.

Experts on Iraq said Saadi's surrender is a major coup for U.S. forces under increasing pressure to find evidence of chemical and biological weapons at a time of growing international skepticism that such weapons exist.

"Hopefully, he would know about key facilities, what they have and what they were trying to do," said Judith Yaphe, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University and the CIA's top analyst on Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Saadi, in his early 60s, is believed to hold advanced degrees from institutions in Britain and Germany, and to have been a key figure in the development of chemical weapons, U.N. officials said.

U.S. officials said Saadi would undergo immediate questioning by interrogators from the military and the CIA.

Among the most pressing questions, U.N. and U.S. officials said, is what Iraq has done with 3.9 tons of VX nerve agent it produced and claims to have destroyed -- but for which it has never accounted. Also unaccounted for are anthrax growth material, 400 bombs for germ warfare agents and 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas.

Saadi also could provide information on the estimated 3,000 Iraqi scientists, military officers and engineers believed to be involved in Hussein's clandestine weapons production and procurement systems, according to U.N. records.

Saadi was one of the most visible figures in Hussein's regime. He served as Baghdad's link with two generations of U.N. weapons inspectors, first UNSCOM in the 1990s, and then UNMOVIC in the months leading up to this year's war.

Senior Bush administration figures have made it clear they regarded Saadi's statements from Baghdad in recent months about Iraq's weapons program as utter falsehoods.

And some experts and former U.N. officials said Saturday the nature of Saadi's surrender made them suspect that he had already made a deal to be more candid. In his interview on German television, Saadi expressed surprisingly little emotion as he said goodbye to his wife, leaving her to return to their house in Baghdad even as looting continues throughout the city.

He also claimed to have stayed in the basement of their house while other regime figures made their escape.

"There must be a story here beyond this," said David Kay, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and the leader of U.N. inspections of Iraqi nuclear sites in the early 1990s.

During his presentation to the U.N. in February, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell heaped scorn on Saadi, saying he was a member of a high-level committee formed by Hussein to deceive and block the efforts of U.N. inspectors.

"It was Gen. Saadi who last fall publicly pledged that Iraq was prepared to cooperate unconditionally with inspectors," Powell said. "Quite the contrary, Saadi's job is not to cooperate, it is to deceive; not to disarm, but to undermine the inspectors; not to support them, but to frustrate them and to make sure they learn nothing."

Saadi responded by calling Powell's presentation "a lot of fiction." He said Iraq had "nothing to hide."

Yaphe said it's possible that Saadi would not have details on many weapons programs because Hussein was masterful at keeping weapons research highly compartmentalized.

"I think it would be hard for him to have had total knowledge," she said, citing accounts from defectors in the 1990s who said they were kept in the dark about all but their own research efforts.

Kay said that Saadi is unlikely to know details about the locations of weapons materials because that aspect of the program was managed closely by the Special Security Organization, run by Hussein's sons. The SSO "generally had responsibility for storage, movement and protection," Kay said.

"I don't think Saadi had direct knowledge of locations, but he certainly had knowledge of types and amounts. He certainly would have known something about their strategy for keeping the weapons away from inspectors."

U.N. officials described Saadi as urbane and less of an ideologue than other senior Iraqi officials.

"When talking across the table with him, he displays a remarkable degree of knowledge regarding the old weapons programs," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for UNSCOM in New York. "He is really soft-spoken in comparison to some of his colleagues. Our meetings with him were professional and businesslike, and without the rhetoric and propaganda which you used to get from [Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Tarik Aziz and others."

Saadi has a German wife, a fact that forced him out of the ranks of the Iraqi army when the Baath Party came to power in 1968. But he reportedly caught Hussein's attention with his knack for organization and scientific training.

Former U.N. officials said Saadi solidified his standing within the regime when he led a successful effort to extend the range of Soviet-built Scud missiles in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Newspaper accounts describe him as the son of a grain merchant from southern Iraq, and as a member of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. Hussein and most senior figures in the regime are Sunni Muslims.