BAGHDAD — Next month, the US State Department will launch a two-year, $20 million program to keep former Iraqi weapons scientists from selling their skills to terrorist groups or "rogue" nations.
But have they already fled?
"The problem with this is that it may be too little, too late," says Jonathan Tucker, a former UN weapons inspector and a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Key Iraqi scientists have already gone to Syria, Sudan, and other countries, he notes. Last month, it was reported that Dr. Modher Sadeq-Saba al-Tamini, who headed Saddam Hussein's long-range missile program, had fled to Iran.
Modeled after a similar program launched in 1992 after the fall of the former Soviet Union, the new Iraqi International Center for Science and Industry (IICSI)is designed to keep scientists with knowledge in chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry in Iraq, and to give them grant money to work in projects to rebuild the country.
The retraining program marks a shift in approach (from stick to carrot) by the Bush administration, which immediately after the war detained and interrogated many of the scientists and professors suspected to be involved in weapons research.
"What we don't want are people to be afraid of our program," said one State Department official in Baghdad. "It's not about catching people. It's about rebuilding the scientific and technological institutions in the country so they're useful."
Eight months since the end of major combat, many say that the hundreds of Iraqi scientists formerly employed in the weapons industry are still unemployed. Before the war, many weapons experts warned that the collapse of the Iraqi government could create an emigration of scientists. But no effort was made until now to retain them, largely because the State Department wasn't allowed to intervene in Iraq while the Pentagon was conducting its hunt for these scientists.
But even with money to dangle, the State Department faces a challenge. Many of those involved in weapons research were also members of the Baath Party who went into hiding after the regime fell, for fear of retribution. Others lost their jobs after the US ordered all high-ranking members of the Baath Party be removed from government jobs. The two major Iraq centers suspected of conducting weapons research - the former Atomic Energy Commission and the Military Industrial Commission - were both disbanded during the war, and top officials there were detained.
Furthermore, the US says that Iraqi weapons research was conducted piecemeal in a variety of locations. This is unlike the former Soviet Union, where scientists were compartmentalized into weaponsmaking labs isolated from the rest of society. In Iraq, many weapons scientists were mixed in with the university and other industries. "It's hard to say who was involved. Out of a staff of 200, maybe two were involved in weaponsmaking, and they were only working on very specific parts of a weapon," says Dr. Mahmood Abdul Hussain, president of the Iraq's Commission of Technical Education, adding: "I don't know who they are."
Most Iraqi university officials insist that Iraq never had significant unconventional weapons programs.
"The US has wasted a lot of money on the bluff of Saddam Hussein. There's no background in doing weapons research here," says Abdul Mahdi Talib, the new dean of the College of Sciences at Baghdad University. "I know the people and the scientists and if they were of the caliber to make weapons. They were not."
Nonetheless, Dr. Mahdi and other university scientists welcome the program. In January, officials will launch five initial programs including science workshops, seminars, meetings between US program officials and former WMD experts, and a desalination project to tackle Iraq's water problems. US officials also want to reach out to universities outside Baghdad, such as in Mosul and Basra. One aim is to link Iraqi scientists with the global scientific community after three decades of isolation. "The main thing is we have to connect the Iraqi scientific establishment with the international," says Raymond Zilinskas at the Monterey Institute. "They want to be respected by other scientists. These people don't want to go to Iran or North Korea if they can help it, because that's not where the good science is done."
An expected 120 Iraqi scientists will initially be recruited for the programs. By comparison, the similar post-Soviet program funded 1,600 projects valued at $420 million and gave grants to 30,000 individuals between 1994 and 2002, according to the State Department.
• Marie Ewald contributed to this story from Boston.