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29 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, July 31, 2002.

In Assessing Iraq's Arsenal, The 'Reality Is Uncertainty'

Details of Bioweapons Lab Emerge, but Not Proof

By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer

U.S. intelligence analysts have been closely examining satellite images of the west bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad for signs of a laboratory rumored to exist there. Called Tahhaddy, or "Challenge," the lab is purported to have 85 employees and a top-secret mission: making biological weapons for Iraq's military.

Details about the lab have trickled out of Iraq in recent months in accounts from defectors and Iraqi exiles opposed to President Saddam Hussein. They tell of underground test chambers, heavy security and a viral strain code-named "Blue Nile," which sounds suspiciously like the Ebola virus.

If confirmed, the very existence of the lab could fuel the debate over whether the United States should attack Iraq. But confirming the lab's presence from satellite photos has proved difficult, so the laboratory today remains a mere shadow in the U.S. government's intelligence assessment -- an unknown threat in a landscape filled with others just like it.

"It sounds credible. It is certainly plausible," a Pentagon intelligence analyst who specializes in Iraq said of the facility last week. "But proving it is another matter."

The search for the laboratory illustrates one of the more vexing challenges facing White House and congressional leaders as they weigh military action against Iraq. Two days of Senate hearings on the topic open today. The decision about war hinges largely on a single issue: whether Iraq is actively seeking biological, chemical and nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to the United States and its allies, and how to respond if so.

President Bush has declared that Iraq belongs to an "axis of evil," countries that are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and has threatened to carry out "regime change" in Iraq. Senior administration officials have said Iraq's threat is grave enough to warrant a military invasion.

But intelligence officials and military experts on Iraq, both in the United States and abroad, express caution. While many analysts are convinced that Iraq is rebuilding its stockpile of weapons, the White House has not publicly offered evidence of a single factory or lab known to be actively producing them.

Congressional officials who receive classified briefings on Iraq say the case has not yet been made there, either -- in part because of what some officials perceive as a lack of reliable intelligence-gathering on the ground.

"The central reality is uncertainty, and the defectors' stories only reinforce that," Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said in an interview after a recent tour of the Middle East, where he discussed Iraq with regional leaders. "None of the people we met claimed to have conclusive knowledge of the status of Iraq's weapons program," said Graham, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

According to interviews with dozens of analysts in government, the military, intelligence agencies and academia, Iraq has a reservoir of knowledge, technology and equipment to create weapons of mass destruction. These specialists also agree that Iraq still has a residual arsenal from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including stocks of chemical agents and possibly biological weapons that were hidden from the United Nations during seven years of inspections.

The experts also note that Hussein is clearly determined to preserve whatever capability he has. Iraq attempted to conceal its weapons infrastructure from U.N. inspectors throughout the 1990s, and for the past four years it has refused to allow the inspectors back into the country, even at a cost of continuing international sanctions.

Beyond that, the evidence that Iraq is actively rebuilding its arsenal consists of a mosaic of defector stories and intriguing intelligence data, including satellite images showing new construction in bombed-out industrial parks where weapons were once made, and documented attempts by Iraq to purchase specialized equipment and supplies.

But the intelligence reports and defector claims also leave some large questions unanswered. If an active weapons program exists, it is far from clear how extensive it is or how a serious threat it poses. Before the 1991 war, Iraq struggled with faulty weapons designs, and weapons often backfired on Iraq's own troops. The military also has not yet managed to marry its weapons with a reliable missile system that can accurately deliver warheads to distant targets.

The intelligence about Iraq is cloudy enough to lead to differing interpretations. Iraq experts who favor an aggressive response said the data add up to a compelling, if largely circumstantial, case. "It's as clear as these things get," said R. James Woolsey, director of the CIA from 1993 to 1995. "If defectors are all you've got, that's a problem. But you can triangulate -- you get more than one source."

But others, including some former U.N. weapons inspectors, say the evidence is simply inconclusive, underscoring the need for the inspectors' prompt return to Baghdad.

"I'd be the first to admit I have no idea what has gone on inside Iraq since 1998," said Scott Ritter, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, who accused the Clinton administration of not aggressively seeking the country's full disarmament. "If someone can demonstrate that Iraq has [weapons of mass destruction] and continues to develop them, then Iraq is a rogue nation and I would be the first to sign up for that war. But no one has made that case yet."

Congressional leaders are pressing the White House for better intelligence -- and a public airing of the existing evidence -- as reports circulate that the administration is preparing plans for a possible strike against Baghdad.

"There's an important role for the Iraqi opposition, but we should be doing more than simply trying to confirm its stories," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., (D-Del.) chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "My attitude is we should be like the Missourians: Show me."

Biological Weapons

The Tahhaddy lab, if it exists, could point to an Iraqi biological weapons program that was kept secret from Western intelligence agencies for more than 15 years.

Iraq's known bioweapons labs were so carefully hidden that U.N. officials failed to discover them until 1995 -- four years after the start of inspections. Only after the defection of the program's chief, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, did inspectors find secret laboratories that were producing lethal bacteria by the ton.

Iraq eventually acknowledged making three types of biological weapons using anthrax bacteria and two kinds of biological toxins: botulinum toxin and aflatoxin. But Iraq is also known to have conducted extensive research on at least three other pathogens that attack humans or crops, and it dabbled with a half-dozen others, U.N. inspection reports show.

In its final three years in Iraq, the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, destroyed all of Iraq's known biological munitions, and much of the equipment needed to make new ones. But the inspectors didn't get it all.

"UNSCOM didn't destroy everything," said Richard Spertzel, a retired Army biological warfare expert who oversaw the dismantling of Iraq's bioweapons program. "Iraq still has enough equipment, material, people and know-how to make biological weapons."

Spertzel said he observed industrial fermenters, spray dryers and other equipment that could be used today to mass-produce viruses and bacteria -- equipment that UNSCOM could not legally destroy because it had no proof the machines were being used to make weapons. He concludes that Iraq can now produce biological weapons without any help from abroad, which it could not have done a decade ago.

Iraq may still possess actual biowarfare bombs, as well. In a report to the U.N. Security Council in 1999, UNSCOM concluded that Iraq had concealed nearly 160 bombs and more than two dozen missile warheads filled with anthrax or other pathogens.

While Iraq insists it destroyed the weapons unilaterally, it has offered no proof. Iraq also never handed over its "cookbooks" of instructions for making biological weapons, or accounted for its seed stock of lethal pathogens or hundreds of pounds of imported nutrient broth used to grow the germs in bulk.

While conclusive proof remains elusive, there have been persistent reports since the late 1990s suggesting that Iraq has continued biological weapons research using small labs built underground or concealed inside specially modified trucks. Detailed accounts of what were described as secret labs were given to U.S. intelligence officials last fall by Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, an engineer specializing in constructing dust-free "clean rooms" needed for certain types of laboratory work. After fleeing Iraq in early December, he reported that as many as 300 secret weapons facilities had been "reactivated" since the withdrawal of U.N. inspectors.

The engineer is being kept in a safe house by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which declined requests to interview Saeed. But according to a transcript of his debriefing session, which was made available by the Iraqi National Congress, a leading opposition group, Saeed said most of the facilities were small and cleverly disguised.

"In some areas, houses or a small factory would get converted into labs," Saeed said. He also described a visit to an underground biological lab on the grounds of one of Hussein's Baghdad palaces, and his account is similar to reports of the Tahhaddy biological site offered by the Iraqi National Congress, which claims to have investigated the facility using informants. A document provided to The Washington Post by the group gives directions to the lab, lists its senior officers and describes a layout that includes above-ground offices and rooms for a special security detachment assigned to the building.

Most of its 85 employees work in a small underground lab that conducts research on deadly pathogens, including a mysterious Blue Nile strain, officials of the opposition group said. Biowarfare experts suggested the name may refer to Ebola, a disease that strikes in the Blue Nile region of East Africa.

The Iraqi National Congress officials said they have been unable to learn whether the lab had successfully produced viruses in a weaponized form. Several intelligence and UNSCOM officials described the group's report as credible but none could verify it independently.

Under UNSCOM, inspectors investigated several reports of underground weapons facilities but found none.

Chemical Weapons

Chemical agents are the oldest and most technologically simple component of Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. They were used to put down a rebellion by Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Experts interviewed for this article said there is convincing evidence Iraq still has chemical weapons stockpiles.

In their seven years in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, U.N. inspectors destroyed hundreds of chemically armed warheads and artillery shells. UNSCOM's incinerator ran for months, burning tons of mustard gas and nerve agents as well as the precursor compounds used to make them.

Yet, a vast amount of Hussein's chemical stockpile was never found and remains unaccounted for, U.N. inspection records show.

Among the more worrisome items: at least 3.9 tons of highly lethal VX, an advanced nerve agent so powerful that a few drops on the skin can kill. Iraq acknowledged making the VX and reported acquiring at least 600 tons of precursor chemicals.

Iraq claims to have destroyed the chemicals, along with about 550 mustard-gas shells and 107,000 special artillery shell casings, the U.N. documents show. But no evidence was offered, and UNSCOM dismissed the claim as a lie.

"Even while we were monitoring, Iraq was conducting activities right under our noses," said Charles A. Duelfer, former deputy executive chairman of UNSCOM and a resident scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Duelfer and other UNSCOM veterans say Iraq could, without much difficulty, resume modest-scale production of chemical weapons -- and there is scattered evidence that it already has. In a report to Congress two years ago, the CIA said Iraq was rebuilding factories at which it once made chemical weapons, and installing dual-use equipment that can be employed to make new ones. More construction was spotted by spy satellites last year at a massive former chemical site known as Falluja, said Kelly Motz, weapons specialist at Iraq Watch, a research group in Washington that tracks arms-control issues.

Iraqi opposition officials and recent defectors such as Saeed contend that chemical munitions work is underway at such sites, but their accounts could not be independently confirmed.

The leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, citing informants within the Iraqi intelligence community, contends that Hussein's VX stockpile is far larger than the 3.9 tons Iraq reported -- something UNSCOM inspectors have long suspected. Chalabi also says that the VX had been converted into a dry salt for long-term storage and was positioned in various sites across Iraq for use in the event of a foreign attack. UNSCOM officials said the account seemed credible, given what was learned about Iraq's VX program in the final months of weapons inspections.

Nuclear Weapons

Hussein was astonishingly close -- perhaps as near as a few weeks, some experts say -- to completing a nuclear device when the United States and its allies launched Operation Desert Storm against him in 1991.

Weeks of bombings followed by years of intrusive inspections obliterated Iraq's nuclear program and wiped out its capacity for converting uranium into nuclear fuel, according to a broad cross-section of analysts. Most agreed that Iraq's nuclear program is nowhere near its prewar status.

Far less certain -- even to Iraqi opposition leaders -- is whether Iraq has made significant strides since 1998. Although former UNSCOM officials are skeptical of recent defector accounts about secret uranium-enrichment facilities inside Iraq, many say Iraq retains enough equipment, detailed blueprints and scientific expertise to build a bomb quickly. All Iraq needs is nuclear fuel -- enriched uranium or plutonium, which could be bought or stolen abroad if not made at home.

Hussein "is doing everything he can do without special [nuclear] material, and [he is] betting on acquiring the material outside Iraq," said David Kay, leader of three inspection missions to Iraq for the International Atomic Energy Agency. "There are places they can go and find it on sale. And when that happens, they'll be ready to surprise the world with a finished weapon."

Even during the UNSCOM inspection years, Iraq conspicuously kept teams of nuclear scientists together and employed them at various make-work tasks, said Timothy V. McCarthy, a former deputy chief inspector and a senior analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

"Our belief is that they are working on technical projects" related to the bomb, McCarthy said. "There are lots of things they can do on paper. We know they have a bomb design; how could they refine it?"

There is as yet no firm evidence that Iraq has mastered the technically difficult feat of manufacturing its own nuclear fuel, but a few recent intelligence reports suggest that it is trying. Building a cascade facility for enriching uranium requires large amounts of highly specialized metals and machinery -- some of which has shown up in recent years on lists of goods Iraq has sought to import.

Iraq's shopping list contains no "smoking guns," according to experts on Iraq's past nuclear weapons program. Most, if not all, of the listed items have multiple industrial uses apart from uranium enrichment, the sources said.

But one person with intimate knowledge of Iraq's earlier attempts to build a bomb said he believes the real evidence of Iraq's nuclear efforts will not show up on official shipping manifests. Khidhir Hamza, a U.S.-trained Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected to the West in 1994, said a decade of trade sanctions has taught Hussein to become much better at getting what he needs through a combination of smuggling, bribery and improvisation.

"Any watch list you have becomes meaningless," said Hamza, who describes Iraq's prewar nuclear program in an autobiography titled "Saddam's Bombmaker." "Iraq is increasingly able to manufacture what it needs locally."

Hamza contends that Iraq will eventually acquire a nuclear bomb if Hussein is allowed to remain in power long enough.

"No one who has ever gone this route has backed away because of political pressure alone," Hamza said. "The only way to stop him is by changing the regime."