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How UN 'Inspects' An Iraq Site

Concrete Caps

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1998



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.

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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.