Key factor: Iraqi scientists

US dampens expectations of 'smoking gun' on Iraq weapons and urges access to scientists

The truth about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may not lie hidden in the Iraqi desert. Nor is it likely to turn up at previously targeted sites like presidential palaces or toothpaste factories.

UN weapons inspectors Tuesday expanded the scope of their search, targeting as one of five sites a remote desert uranium mining facility here six hours from Baghdad. But increasingly, experts are pointing to only one sure way to reveal the true scale of Iraq's weapons programs: talking to the Iraqi scientists who built the programs.

It's an issue of paramount importance as pressure builds on all sides to get results after two weeks of inspections. "Solid evidence" that the US and Britain claim to have of ongoing WMD development is coming under question, and senior US officials are now dampening expectations, briefing journalists that there is no "smoking gun."

The UN's ability to talk with Iraqi scientists may turn on chief UN inspector Hans Blix's willingness to use a robust new plank in the UN disarmament mandate that permits the UN to spirit out of Iraq specialists and their families. The scientists could then speak freely without fear of reprisal from Saddam Hussein's regime.

"This new tool is virtually invaluable, because it gives you the chance to get at knowledge that can lead you quickly to places that have prohibited weapons, if they exist," says Gary Milhollin, head of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington.

"Any inspection regime that is going to answer the question, 'What does Saddam have?' is going to have to interview scientists exhaustively," Mr. Milhollin says. "There's just no substitute for talking to the people who really know the program."

With less than 50 inspectors so far on the ground here prosecuting the most intrusive inspection regime ever devised to rid a nation of illicit weapons, the UN has yet to begin any serious interviews.

Despite explicit pressure from Washington - which, with Britain, accuses Iraq of continuing to pursue WMD programs - Mr. Blix appears reluctant to push the limit. The UN, he says, will not "abduct" scientists, nor become a "defection agency."

The new powers stem from the limited results of UN inspectors in the 1990s, who had to interview scientists under the intimidating gaze of a government official. "Anybody who revealed anything that the leadership did not want them to reveal, basically disappeared and was never seen again by the inspectors," Milhollin says.

Inspectors have already visited several sites pinpointed as suspect in a British dossier released in September, and a CIA report in October. The UN has so far not signaled any irregularities.

"It is unlikely the Iraqis have used these declared facilities for additional production. It's the sites that are not known about that are critical," says Jonathan Tucker, a chemical and biological weapons expert and former UN inspector now at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "If Iraq is determined to hide its weapons, the inspectors are not going to find them.

"What they will find instead is a pattern of circumstantial evidence that the weapons exist, but have not been destroyed," Mr. Tucker says. "But that will take time, like building up a mosaic."

Iraqi officials grudgingly accept the requirement to export their experts, but say any decision to cooperate or leave will be up to the individuals. "It's like inspections. Do you like to be inspected, to be frisked at airports?" asks Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, a British-educated chemist and key adviser to Mr. Hussein who once controlled key elements of Iraq's WMD program. "Some things are like medicines, bitter pills."

Iraq's lengthy declaration, handed to the UN Security Council over the weekend, does not contain a "single document" that will answer questions about biological agent and growth material - or any other of Iraq's programs - that have been unaccounted for since inspectors left in 1998, according to General Saadi.

Since then, he says, "We have done all the searching we could [for more documents], and we could not find any more." All the biological data was secretly destroyed in 1991, he contends, "and retrospectively, it was a mistake."

Such a declaration means the UN will have to rely even more on Iraqi scientists to fill in the many gaps in this program, as well as Iraq's chemical, missile, and nuclear efforts. "Satellite imagery tells us that the buildings have been renovated, but those alone can't see what's under the roofs - that's what inspectors can do," says Hiro Ueki, the spokesman for UN weapons teams in Baghdad. "They can see with their eyes, and use their expertise to tell what took place in there, even if it looks like nothing.."

Despite the chilling effect the sheer presence of Iraqi officials once had on scientists being interviewed, the interviews helped expose cover stories used to hide certain programs.

The power of interrogations, for example, enabled the UN to pry the lid off Iraq's long-denied biological program months before Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan in August 1995.

Tucker recalls how an intelligence tip about growth-media imports led inspectors to a British company that confirmed Iraq had imported 37 tons of the material. Iraq had accounted for only 20 tons. Intensive interviews over a year forced the Iraqis to admit it was unaccounted for.

"Cover stories" came and went: how the material had been distributed to clinics that were burned in riots in 1991; or how it had been stolen or misplaced before inspectors came, says Tucker, to "the only logical conclusion: that it had been used to make large quantities of anthrax and botulinum toxin. Mr. Kamal's defection finally confirmed that the material had, in fact, been weaponized by the Iraqis. Interviews were critical, and it was a slow and painful process, in which the [scientists] were interrogated many, many times, and asked the same questions over and over again."

The new rules, if they are followed, should shorten that process considerably. But until that effort begins, the UN and Iraqis are asking the US and Britain to show evidence of Iraqi violations. "If they have anything, they should come up with that forthwith," says Saadi. "The sooner they do it, the better it is for all concerned." UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Monday also asked the US to provide intelligence if it had any, to speed inspectors' work.

"The pressure is going to grow," says Milhollin. "[President] Bush can take the position if he wants that the burden of proof is on Saddam, but from a political point of view, the burden is in fact on the US, to prove this declaration is false."

Published US and British dossiers were far from specific, he notes, about how, when, and where, any Iraqi WMD programs are continuing.

"Our statements have been categorical ... that 'It exists, there are chemical weapons in Iraq.' So how do we know that?" Milhollin asks. "I'm beginning to suspect we don't have [that evidence]. If the US doesn't have it, it means the US has a credibility problem, just like Saddam."

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