BAGHDAD, IRAQ — At first glance, the cavernous "State Establishment for Heavy Engineering Equipment" on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad looks like any factory: The bright flash of welders lights up the gloom, and workers fashion large oil-storage tanks with heavy machinery.
But overhead, three United Nations video cameras record every movement. They were put in place by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), which is charged with dismantling Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and the missiles to deliver them.
The cameras send images to the UN in Baghdad by microwave, ensuring that the factory is not making mass-destruction weapons.
Progess on even closer inspections has shot forward. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan signed a breakthrough agreement with the Iraqi government yesterday, defusing a standoff over inspector access to "presidential sites." And he has said he expects the deal to be acceptable to the United States.
Of real significance for Mr. Annan's deal - if it holds - will be the preservation of UNSCOM's monitoring system, built up across Iraq over seven years. Its work has destroyed far more of Iraq's weapons capability than the entire 42-day air campaign of the Gulf War.
But the fragility of that system is made clear during a rare visit to this factory, one of several still under constant UN surveillance.
Facilitating the visit, Iraqi officials sought to show how they have cooperated with inspectors.
"They are sure that we don't do any prohibited activities," says Shaker Hamed Rayiss, a senior official of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate. "For sure they spent a lot of money on this monitoring system, but of course this would be destroyed completely [if bombing starts]. It is the best example of such a system in the region, and for the future."
A 'sensitive' site?
A mammoth Boldrini press for stamping out pieces of heavy metal equipment stands at one end of the factory, rebuilt after damage done to it during a 1991 bombing raid.
But by comparison, the little UNSCOM control box - where the cameras are connected to the microwave panel on the roof - looks humbly small. Its door is protected only by a thin plastic UNSCOM seal. Even the electric plug is taped into the socket with black electrical tape. A protective wire-mesh housing, which the Iraqis say they built, prevents any "accidents."
During the last crisis in November, Iraq blocked UNSCOM from inspecting certain sites it deemed "sensitive," and expelled American inspectors. At the time - again under the threat of US military attack - Iraq tampered with UN cameras at some locations, blocking their view, and moved some equipment to "protect" it from possible strikes.
But even as this factory is kept under surveillance, the scene at Iraq's General Establishment for Animal Development illustrates another aspect of UNSCOM's work. These laboratories produced 1 million veterinary vaccines every year, but benign as that purpose may have been, weapons inspectors found this nondescript site a rich target.
In the field, UNSCOM is backed by one of the most intrusive UN mandates in history. Visitors to this site are met by a camera on the roof, which watches any activity in the parking lot.
'Nothing is functioning'
This site was not targeted by allied air bombardments in 1991, but if US and British aircraft were to strike Iraq again there would be no need to hit this place: UNSCOM has already made sure that it will not produce anything potentially usable for the production of biological weapons again.
"Nothing is functioning now," says veterinarian Montasir al-Ani, who led the tour. UNSCOM began work here in late 1994, he says. "They destroyed everything."
Inside the main chamber, a visitor first trips the UNSCOM motion detector, which activiates another camera on the wall so that UNSCOM can keep an eye on all visitors.
The two 690-gallon fermentation vats - considered to be "dual use" because the same process used for making the vaccines is used to create deadly biological warfare spores - have been removed completely.
The walls are blackened where Iraqi workers hired by UNSCOM first bent, broke, and cut all piping systems for heating and cooling units with hammers and crowbars, and then irreparably melted them with a blow torch.
Two centrifuges - also "dual use" items - are still intact in the middle of the floor, but tagged with numbered UNSCOM stickers so they can be traced if moved.
An industrial-sized autoclave - a device for sterilizing with steam - has been rendered unusable by removing airtight rim segments with a blowtorch.
And in case there was any doubt that UNSCOM never wants this place used again, hardening foam was pumped throughout the ventilation system, and capped with concrete. The yellow goo oozes out of the ventilation ducts in the ceiling.
Untouched in darkened rooms are large urns full of dusty glass laboratory equipment, jars for samples, and racks of flasks and slender pipettes. A faded portrait of Saddam Hussein in military dress is taped to an abandoned laboratory cupboard.
One odorous storeroom is packed with old chemicals and assumed to be non-dangerous because UNSCOM has left them untouched. UNSCOM biological inspectors come once a month, the Iraqis say, and technicians come as often to check the UNSCOM seals on the cameras and change videotapes.
UNSCOM says it has dismantled all of Iraq's once-formidable nuclear program, has found all but two of its 819 Scud missiles, and is making continuous progress on the chemical weapon portfolio.
Still unaccounted for, though, are 45 "special warheads" believed to be filled with chemical and biological agents. The extent of Iraq's nerve gas program is still unknown, and UNSCOM says that Iraq's latest "full, final, and complete disclosure" document has "serious flaws."
"UNSCOM is working hard on these things," says Nils Carlstrom, the UNSCOM director in Baghdad.
"We've done a lot of work, and hopefully we will be able to go on and finish."
Chronology of a Standoff
Oct. 7, 1997: UN arms inspectors tell the Security Council that Iraq still refuses to disclose full details of its banned weapons programs and is imposing new restrictions on inspections.
Oct. 29: Baghdad announces it will bar US inspectors, and demands they leave in one week. Security Council calls ban "unacceptable."
Nov. 3: UN teams try to resume inspections but Iraqi authorities turn them back because they include Americans.
Nov. 12: Security Council adopts resolution condemning Iraq. US fails to get Council agreement on a stronger warning of possible military action.
Nov. 13: Iraq says US inspectors must leave immediately. Chief weapons inspector Richard Butler orders almost all other inspectors out of Iraq.
Nov. 14: President Clinton orders aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Persian Gulf.
Nov. 20: Iraq accepts Russian proposal to allow US arms inspectors to return.
Jan. 13, 1998: Iraq blocks an American-led UN weapons-inspection team by failing to provide needed escorts.
Jan. 20: Chief UN weapons inspector unable to persuade Iraq to open presidential palaces to monitors.
Feb. 3: France sends envoy to Baghdad. Turkish and Arab League envoys follow.
Feb. 4: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright returns to Washington after a six-day tour of Gulf and Middle East, saying support for US position had grown.
Feb. 5: Russian President Boris Yeltsin warns that a US attack could lead to "world war."
Feb. 9: Arab League proposes creation of special UN team to inspect palaces as way to end standoff. Iraq dispatches envoys to Arab capitals to seek support.
Feb. 11: Iraq offers to open eight presidential complexes to inspectors appointed by the UN secretary-general. US and Britain dismiss the plan.
Feb. 12: UN advises relief workers on leave from jobs in Iraq not to return.
Feb. 22: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein meet in Baghdad.
Feb. 23: Mr. Annan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz sign accord, no details released until the UN Security Council is briefed.
- Associated Press