It was Aug. 20, 1995 and Rolf Ekeus, the seasoned Swedish diplomat heading UN weapons monitoring teams in Iraq, was about to leave Baghdad to interview a high-ranking defector when an Iraqi official made a curious request: On his way to the airfield, would Mr. Ekeus stop at a chicken farm? It could be "interesting," the official hinted.
Ekeus was skeptical. But when he and eight UN staffers broke into the coop and began rummaging through piles of poultry feed, they were shocked by what they unearthed: metal and wooden boxes packed with over a million pages of documents, photographs, computer disks, and other materials detailing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The bizarre "chicken farm" discovery - which belied years of Iraqi denials that such documents existed - marked a major coup in the now six-year-old struggle by UN inspectors to break down what they describe as a systematic campaign by Iraq to conceal its unconventional weapons programs.
"It was a rare moment of confession," says Ekeus, who believes the government buckled because of the defection of President Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Lt.-Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, who oversaw much of Iraq's weapons production.
The episode underscores how despite fundamental resistance from Baghdad - including the current standoff over American inspectors - the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) has uncovered much about Iraq's nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs since its creation in 1991.
Moreover, UNSCOM has put in place vital controls on Iraqi production of UN-proscribed weaponry through the use of routine and surprise inspections, surveillance cameras, and imaging from U-2 aircraft.
Still, few breakthroughs have been as dramatic as that at the Haidar chicken farm, current and former team members say.
"The documents confirmed they had a crash program on nuclear weapons, and contained very important information on certain uranium enrichment work, a secret missiles program, biological weapons testing, and a lot on chemical equipment imported for weapons purposes," says Ekeus, who led the UN effort from 1991 until May, when he became Sweden's ambassador to Washington.
Much work still ahead
There have been other striking victories, as when a team in 1991 smuggled a key report on Iraq's nuclear program from a downtown Baghdad office building after a surprise search. But most findings by the team, which has an annual budget of from $30 million to $40 million and has enlisted 3,000 experts on hundreds of missions to Iraq since 1991, are the culmination of painstaking, factory-by-factory and file-by-file sleuthing, inspectors say. Moreover, they stress, the UN's work in Iraq is far from over. Large quantities of weapons and toxins remain unaccounted for. The UN suspects that Iraq is hoarding a few missiles with ranges over the allowed 93 miles, thousands of gallons of anthrax (an odorless, invisible biological agent that is deadly if inhaled), and tons of chemical agents that combine to make VX nerve gas, a drop of which can kill.
Most worrisome, experts say, is Iraq's latent ability to resume production of weapons of mass destruction, either by using dual-use technology at existing factories to make toxins, or by expanding its current legitimate, short-range missile program.
"[Iraq] had full-up programs in all the proscribed [weapons] areas," says a UN official. "These were not subtle little activities, but major industrial efforts."
This dual-use dilemma suggests that UN monitors will remain in Iraq for years, experts predict.
"It is going to be imperative for the UN to maintain ongoing monitoring and verification, and resident teams will need to stay in Iraq," says Jonathan Tucker, a former UN inspector. Under UN resolutions, there is no date for UNSCOM to disband or quit Iraq,
According to an October UNSCOM report, inspectors are keeping tabs on more than 300 sites, which range from sophisticated manufacturing plants able to produce missile components, to pesticide factories, leather-processing plants, and other facilities using chemicals, as well as pharmaceutical firms and breweries that use stainless-steel fermentation tanks capable of growing large amounts of bacteria. They also track thousands of pieces of tagged equipment and missile systems, tons of chemicals, and weapons-related imports.
Nevertheless, Baghdad's intensifying concealment effort, which involves Iraqi intelligence and security forces, has hampered the teams by blocking sites, tampering with cameras, and removing or destroying equipment and documents, UN inspectors say.
UN inspectors sometimes catch Iraqi officials red-handed. In April, a team decided to track down all current offices of people known to have been involved with Iraq's biological-weapons program. The team was on the last floor of the final building at a research facility in Baghdad, when a monitor caught an Iraqi man slipping down a back stairwell with a folder.
"He said they were personal papers for his wife," says a UN official familiar with the incident. "We had a linguist look at them [on the spot], and the first document was about producing a biological-weapons agent."
Inspectors face hostilities
Still, frustrations for the inspectors are constant. In September, a team searching for documents on chemical and biological weapons arrived at an office complex in Baghdad only to witness Iraqis burning papers on the roof. "In a few minutes the air was thick with the smell of smoke. There was obviously a lot of burning going on," says the UN official. Then people emerged from the buildings with garbage cans full of ashes, which they dumped into the Tigris River. "We got in after 40 to 50 minutes and found no documents of relevance," he says.
UN inspectors in Iraq also face direct personal harassment - everything from having loaded weapons pointed at them, to being pelted by eggs and tomatoes hurled by hostile crowds, to receiving threatening phone calls during the night. Car windows of the inspectors have been broken and their apartments robbed. Ekeus faced death threats.
David Kay, a former chief UN inspector, was detained in a Baghdad office compound for four days in 1991 after a search that produced key documents on Iraq's nuclear-weapons program. "We ate MREs [meals ready to eat] ... and slept on cars. If Nissan ever wants me to do an ad about sleeping on top of their cars, I'd be happy to," quips Mr. Kay.
Another major source of aggravation for inspectors is Iraq's "history of active deception" on weapons, UN reports say. For example, Iraq has offered wildly different official accounts of its weapons programs in UN-required "full, final, and complete disclosure" statements, of which there are more than a dozen versions.
Almost as surreal as the chicken-farm discovery, for instance, was the Iraqi government's explanation of the sudden resurfacing of the vital documents, which it had long claimed were destroyed soon after the Gulf War.
According to Ekeus, Iraqi officials first said the materials were revealed by a girlfriend of Saddam's defected son-in-law, who, they allege, had hidden the information unbeknown to the senior Iraqi leadership. Later they denied that story, offering instead that an Iraqi military officer had dreamed about the chicken farm.
"We gave up at that stage," says Ekeus.