The hunt for a WMD

A reporter traces a suspect Iraqi cylinder

We slide the videocassette into the VCR and step back to watch the black-and-white scene playing out on our Baghdad hotel TV set.

Three Iraqi men settle into cushioned chairs around a coffee table. A man with a file folder in his lap leans back and crosses a leg. "Is this the same subject again or a different one?" he demands.

The conversation meanders, before a thick-necked man with a small mouth answers.

"No, no sir, it's a different subject, this is about the canister that they were convinced was VX, about nerve gas."

As a European colleague and I watch the videotape, given to me by an Iraqi businessman, we try to control the mounting excitement of a potential scoop:

Is this evidence of Iraqi manufacturing - or perhaps dismantling - weapons of mass destruction?

The handwritten label on the cassette refers to the Iraqi intelligence service; we later confirm the man with the file folder is Tahir Jalil Habbush, its director. In the US card deck of most wanted Iraqis, he is the Jack of Diamonds.

As the video rolls, it's clear the three men are discussing a container of a chemical they knew they shouldn't have. "[It] will shake the nerves: This material is involved in the production of VX gas. And you know, sir, our international situation," says the man with the small mouth.

After that first viewing last month, we began a two-week investigation to determine the contents of the container - a pressurized cylinder about the size of a phone booth - and what the Iraqis did with it. The result is a tale about an often-frustrating search for the answers amid the bombings, curfews, and suspicions of Iraq under US occupation.

One Iraqi warns us not to dig too deep: "Saddam doesn't want anyone to know about this information." Then he adds: "Every day there are attacks, explosions." Three sources falsely surmise that my colleague and I are agents of the CIA; one smiles at our protests to the contrary.

Our hunt provides a window on the difficult work of United Nations inspectors in Iraq - and the US-led Iraq Survey Group, which is still trying to track down weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Looking for WMD is a sorry task: The physical evidence is elusive, many Iraqi sources have disappeared, and those who are around hardly seem paragons of trustworthiness.

Files, fires, and a 'liberated' videotape

This past April, as the war in Iraq came to its statue-toppling climax, an Iraqi businessman made some alarming discoveries about two houses in his neighborhood, Baghdad's posh Mansour district.

First, two of his children brought home a pair of Kalashnikov assault rifles they had taken from a villa near his house. Its rooms were full of guns, grenade launchers, and ammunition. It had been left open, the contents free for the taking.

Then the businessman and his family learned about another mystery villa, one that stored information: file cabinets, computers, heaps of reports. Starting on April 9 - the day Baghdad fell - men who were apparently Iraqi intelligence agents spent three days at the house. Neighbors wandered over to see them burning files, computer disks, and videotapes.

The guards stopped the businessman from purloining two videos as souvenirs, but one of his sons - an enterprising eight-year-old - managed to spirit a videotape, a half-dozen audiocassettes, and a fistful of photographic negatives out of the house. The audiocassettes were recordings of unremarkable international phone calls made to or from Iraq. The negatives depicted UN weapons inspectors at work.

In early August the businessman and I met for dinner - he was a friend whom I had met on other occasions. A few days later he gave me the videotape, suggesting that it might be worth investigating. He asked not to be identified.

Iraqi spy chief: 'Was the stuff good?' ]

The tape shows three men sitting in a white-carpeted, taupe-walled room that looks more like an office than a residence. The two cameras recording the meeting - a black-and-white one positioned overlooking the sitting area, a color one at end of the room - appear to have been hidden. No one acknowledges that the meeting is being videotaped.

Mr. Habbush, the Iraqi intelligence chief, is at the head of the low table, smoking a cigarette. The other participants are identified on the tape's label as Abdul Wahab, director of the scientific division of the intelligence service, and "citizen" Salah Abed Nasir. It emerges in the conversation that he is a factory owner who has worked for many years as an informer.

Initially, the three discuss a sting operation, conducted a few days earlier, to arrest men who were in possession of "the canister that they were convinced was VX" - a lethal nerve agent that Iraq used during its war with Iran during the 1980s.

Habbush: "Was the stuff good?"

Mr. Abdul Wahab: "Sir, the first test proved it came from the Muthanna Establishment, where they used to make chemical weapons..."

The Muthanna State Establishment was Iraq's main chemical weapons development and manufacturing site, located 60 miles outside Baghdad. UN inspectors controlled Muthanna in the early 1990s, destroying stocks of chemical weapons, the ingredients used in their production, and related facilities.

Abdul Wahab goes on to indicate that the intelligence service plans to sell the cylinder to the "Arab Cleaning Establishment" via the National Monitoring Directorate, an Iraqi agency initially formed in the early 1990s as a liaison between the government and UN inspectors. He seems confident that the transfer can be accomplished discreetly. The Monitoring Directorate "won't bring the name of our apparatus into it," he says.

The audio is garbled here; we can't be sure if we're getting the name of the Arab Cleaning Establishment exactly right. Is it a legitimate company or a cover for chemical weapons factory?

Abdul Wahab: "They [the National Monitoring Directorate] will take it [the cylinder] to them [the Arab Cleaning Establishment] and they will test it and if it's not expired, then it's OK, and they will work with it, for a sum we will agree on. If it's expired we won't be able to benefit from it."

To confirm the accuracy of what we're hearing, we employ four different interpreters - including one non-Iraqi - to get clear Arabic and English transcripts of the tape. Even so, we don't yet know what we have.

When did the conversation take place? What was inside the container? The informer's statements are confusing: "the canister they were convinced was VX" and "this material is involved in the production of VX". Which one was it?

We also wonder if the tape is a hoax or even a video of a training exercise.

Going door to door, looking for the ezzis

Nailing down the timing is easy. We show the video to a former Iraqi Army general who says there's no doubt that the man holding the file is Habbush, confirming the impressions of our interpreters and the businessman.

On the tape Abdul Wahab refers to Habbush as the "director of the apparatus," a reference to Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service. Habbush took office in 1999, so the conversation took place no earlier than that year.

Our next step is to try to find the men shown on the tape or those named in their discussion.

Habbush is one of 13Iraqis on the US most wanted list who have not been killed or captured. Finding him seems unlikely. It appears just as daunting to try to locate the science director, Abdul Wahab; as a senior Iraqi intelligence official he is probably also in hiding.

That leaves the third man on the tape: Nasir, the informer and factory owner. It also seems possible to find two other men - Nasir's relatives by marriage - mentioned in the discussion.

Nasir had set up the sting operation to recover the cylinder, but one of the men who was arrested is his wife's cousin, an engineer named Majed al-Ezzi. Nasir tells the intelligence chief that he's being threatened by the Ezzi family and that Walid al-Ezzi - an officer in the intelligence service - has told the family that Nasir is responsible for getting Majed thrown in jail.

Ezzi is the name of a well known tribe in Iraq; we decide to try to tap into the clan's internal network.

In a city where vast sections have no telephone service, where the most recent phone directory is a decade old, and where there is no "information" operator, we employ the only means available: We start knocking on doors.

We ask around Baghdad for Ezzis, and ask them if they know of a Majed who was arrested by - or a Walid who worked for - the intelligence service. After several days, we have nothing. At times, our plan seems like driving around Germany just after World War II and asking people to help us find relatives who had been in the Gestapo. Increasingly disheartened, we drive an hour outside of Baghdad to a village called Tarmiya - the seat of the Ezzi tribe.

There we meet Salah al-Ezzi, an imposing man with a dark mustache and a tiny patch of beard just below his lower lip. The leader of the tribe, he greets us in his grassy garden as the skin-searing heat of another summer day begins to wane.

Finally, one of the pieces of the puzzle snaps into place.

Dr. Ezzi remembers Majed's "big problems" with the Iraqi intelligence service over the cylinder. "[Majed's] friend bought the stuff, but he didn't know it was harmful," he recalls. "He wanted to take it back to the government, but before they could do that, someone informed on them."

"Bingo," I mutter to our interpreter. He doesn't get the reference. But we all understand that the tape is real.

Majed and his friend were released, the doctor says, after the family proved that the cylinder was unwittingly purchased from a scrap dealer. He identifies the informer as Salah Abed Nasir - the third man on our tape - and gives us the location of Nasir's house in Baghdad. He also suggests a couple of ways to find Majed in the capital.

Because Walid was a Mukhabarat officer, tracing him is a different matter.

"We don't know where he is," Salah says. He also can't tell us whether the "stuff" in the cylinder was nerve gas or something else

What's in the cylinder? Nasir's revelation

We waste much of the next day trying to find Majed's electrical supply shop in Baghdad's main market. There are hundreds of such shops; we ask for Majed in dozens of them. We hear about one shopkeeper named Majed, but he is not our Majed al-Ezzi.

Parched, tired, and discouraged, we go in search of Nasir's house - a far easier task. We find it in a neighborhood of large homes and gardens hidden behind walls. One of his sons rides with us to show us the way to his father's factory.

We wait for a few minutes in the front office for Nasir to emerge from a back room. And then there he is - he of the thick neck and small mouth - a white-haired man who is fitter and more robust than he had seemed on the screen.

On the tape, Nasir says he has served the Mukhabarat since 1982, and sounds eager to work abroad as a spy for Iraq. "We are all servants of Saddam Hussein," he tells Habbush, the intelligence chief.

In person, he quickly tells us that he has already been to see the US-led administration of Iraq in order to provide information about the former regime and its weapons. "I have a lot of information," he stresses. He serves us ice-cold Cokes.

Nasir's desire to play for the new team in town may explain his willingness to speak with us about the cylinder, a bit of information he says he has not shared with the Americans. He repeatedly tells us we are US intelligence agents, ignoring our protests.

He insists he acted properly in the affair of the cylinder "because it was stolen, it was in bad people's hands." He refuses to identify them - "I cannot say who it is or I will be assassinated the next day."

During our conversation, Nasir makes tantalizing references to a set of photographs of the cylinder. At first he balks at showing us, then changes his mind. He shuffles through a disorganized pile of snapshots in his desk and extracts half a dozen.

They depict the cylinder lying horizontally next to a brick wall, two words neatly stenciled on its side: hydrogen fluoride.

Bingo.

Hydrogen fluoride (HF) is a highly corrosive chemical that has a wide variety of industrial applications, including rust removal, petroleum refining, and cleaning porcelain teeth. It is also used in the production of the nerve agents sarin and cyclosarin - not, however, VX.

When UN weapons inspectors took over the Muthanna facility in the early 1990s they destroyed seven tons of HF, among many other proscribed materials.

Iraq was entitled to import HF during the period UN sanctions were in force, from 1991 until 2003, because of the chemical's utility in various peaceful industries. But the UN monitored the import and use of HF in Iraq, in an attempt to make sure that none of the chemical was diverted to military use.

"One cylinder of HF is of no military significance," says Ron Manley, a chemical engineer who headed UN efforts to destroy Iraq's chemical weapons capabilities in the early 1990s. But he says it might have been useful to the Iraqis in order to create a small quantity of nerve agent or to sharpen the skills of a weapons scientist. "They were short of a lot of key chemicals like [HF]," Mr. Manley says.

Stolen, sold, or hidden by the Iraqi government?

After eight long days of work in the Iraq summer heat we now know what was in the cylinder - not as "sexy" as nerve gas, as one WMD expert tells us, but still an illegal substance in the hands of the Iraqi intelligence service.

Where did it come from, we wonder, and what did the Mukhabarat do with it?

We finally track down Majed al-Ezzi in his easier-to-find Baghdad engineering office. He says what the tape says: a fellow engineer and one of the man's relatives had bought the cylinder at a scrap auction in 1996 believing it was empty and that it could be recycled for profit.

In 2000, the two men asked Majed's help in trying to "hand it over to the government without any problem," he recalls. Majed turned to Nasir because of his intelligence connections. In the end, the engineers and the relative wound up in a Mukhabarat prison for their trouble.

We ask Majed about trying to contact the fellow engineer and the relative who had made the actual purchase. "Don't push it," he says, warning us that forces loyal to Saddam Hussein don't want such matters made public. He too hints that we work for the US government.

Our talks with Majed and Nasir leave us with two theories about the origin of the cylinder. One explanation is that it emerged from Muthanna by accident. On the tape, Abdul Wahab explains what happened when Mukhabarat investigators went to look for the scrap dealer: "They didn't find him.... But his friends said that he bought it from an auction; the man from the Muthanna Establishment confirmed that he sold . . . in an open auction, empty containers of the same type. They said maybe it got out by mistake."

Says the former UN WMD chief Manley: "Given the state of the site and the size of the site" - the Muthanna State Establishment covers about nine square miles and was heavily bombed during the 1991 Gulf war - "it is not unlikely that a single cylinder could have gone amiss."

But Majed and Nasir each offer us the same alternative theory: The cylinder was removed from Muthanna at the instructions of the government, many years before the sting operation. It was common knowledge among Iraqi engineers, Majed says, that officials were asking workers in the mid-1990s to store documents and materials away from places that might be inspected or bombed, even items as cumbersome as a pressurized cylinder full of deadly gas.

The accounts of the two men enable us fix the time of the videotaped conversation: the summer of 2000.

But what did the Mukhabarat do with the cylinder after retrieving it?

Our best lead regarding its fate is the garbled videotape reference to the Arab Cleaning Establishment, which in Arabic is the name of an enterprise known in English as the Arab Company for Detergent Chemicals. Owned by a consortium of Arab governments - including Iraq's - it maintains a head office in Baghdad and a factory north of Tikrit that converts kerosene into a raw material for detergent.

A soap factory field of HF cylinders

We visit the plant unannounced. Zuhair Abed Rashid, acting director general of the company, cordially receives us into his wood-paneled office. A middle-aged geochemist with a genial, nothing-to-hide disposition, he listens as we explain what we would like to know.

Then he leads us outside, takes the wheel of a white, four-seater pickup, and gives us a tour.

The plant is a tangled forest of dun-colored vats, ladders, and pipes rising out of the dun-colored desert. Flares from the plant and a nearby refinery scar the summer sky with orange flames.

Mr. Rashid indicates the tanks that store kerosene and paraffin. Toward the back of the lot, near a chain-link fence, he points out scores of discarded cylinders of HF, which is used as a catalyst in the plant's chemical process. Some are blue, some gray, some off-white.

One cylinder looks almost identical to the grayish-white one in Nasir's photographs. We pull out the photos, hoping to find a match.

Rashid points out a dozen more just like it positioned next to the back fence. Even the stencil on the side - hydrogen fluoride - is the same as on the cylinder in the pictures. When filled, the cylinders each contain a little more than 1,500 pounds of HF.

We carefully compare the 13 cylinders with the photos. None match.

We return a few days later, to review some of the records in Rashid's office. He's certain that the cylinders he has shown us came from the Muthanna State Establishment in a shipment of more than 203 metric tons of HF the plant received in 1991. He denies ever receiving any more HF from the government, not a single cylinder in 2000 or later.

He insists that all of his company's intake of HF has been monitored by UN inspectors, who visited the plant three times in the months before the war and several times during the 1990s.

What Rashid doesn't say is that it might have been easier for all concerned to accept the cylinder off the books. Recording the receipt of a Muthanna cylinder might have raised uncomfortable questions that would lead back to the Mukhabarat .

We remember the science director's comment, on the videotape, about using the National Monitoring Directorate as a conduit to the Arab Cleaning Establishment: "They won't bring the name of our apparatus into it." And as Manley, the former UN inspector, observes, "the Iraqis are good at keeping paperwork, but they are also good at keeping the paperwork that is required rather than that which is accurate."

Just as the trail seems to come to an end, Rashid raises our hopes again.

There is one more Muthanna cylinder we haven't seen, located in a scrap yard in front of the plant. He asks if we want to have a look.

We pile back into his pickup. Sure enough, in a field of more than a hundred empty HF containers, lies one more of the type in the photographs.

It is not the same cylinder.

Epilogue

Our cylinder may still be out there. It may have been put to some nefarious use. But from the available evidence, it appears the Iraqis followed a responsible course of action in the summer of 2000. Learning about a loose cylinder of HF, the Iraqi Mukhabarat mounted an operation to recover it. Then the officials disposed of the chemical - at least according to the intention stated on the videotape - by sending it to a soap factory. In other words, they dismantled this WMD.

That's how our story appears to Scott Ritter, who served as chief weapons inspector for the UN Special Commission in Iraq (UNSCOM) in the 1990s and who campaigned against the war. "The Mukhabarat appears to have done the right thing without getting their name involved," he says. "This is some of the hardest evidence that Iraq did not have a secret chemical weapons program."

Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for a team of UN inspectors that visited the country just before the war, says the Iraqis often sent banned chemicals to factories for disposal. He won't go as far as Mr. Ritter, but Mr. Buchanan does note that there were no weapons inspectors in Iraq at that time in 2000, so the tape offers a glimpse what the Iraqis did when the country wasn't subject to on-the-ground UN scrutiny.

"That's surprising - that they did the right thing without UNSCOM," he says.

A who's who guide to the cylinder hunt

Three men in the videotape:

Tahir Jalil Habbush - director of Iraqi intelligence service, Mukhabarat. Jack of Diamonds in US most-wanted deck.

Abdul Wahab - director of the scientific division of Iraqi intelligence service.

Salah Abed Nasir - factory owner, and informer for intelligence service.

Mentioned in the tape:

Muthanna State Establishment - Iraq's main chemical weapons development and manufacturing site.

National Monitoring Directorate - Iraqi agency that was liaison between the government and UN weapons inspectors.

Majed al-Ezzi - engineer arrested in sting operation set up by Iraqi intelligence; cousin of Abed Nasir's wife.

Walid al-Ezzi - Iraqi intelligence officer, who tells Ezzi family that it was Nasir, the informer, who got Majed arrested.

Found later:

Salah al-Ezzi - leader of the Ezzi tribe.

Zuhair Abed Rashid - acting director general of Arab Company for Detergent Chemicals aka Arab Cleaning Establishment.

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