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Jan 28, 03
Is Saddam hiding something? Blix gives his verdict on Iraqi weapons
UN inspector praises cooperation but raises concerns on chemicals and anthrax
Ewan MacAskill, Jonathan Steele, Richard Norton-Taylor and Ian Traynor
Tuesday January 28, 2003
In 60 days the UN inspectors charged with hunting down Iraq's chemical and biological weapons have carried out 300 inspections to more than 230 different sites, including universities, military bases, presidential sites and private homes.
The head of the inspection body, Unmovic, Hans Blix, began his verbal report to the UN security council by praising the Iraqis for offering good access to its facilities: "Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far. Access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect. Arrangements and services for our plane and our helicopters have been good. The environment has been workable."
However, he then went on to raise specific concerns about Iraq's possible weapons of mass destruction programmes:
"Iraq has declared that it only produced VX on a pilot scale, just a few tonnes and that the quality was poor and the product unstable. Consequently, it was said that the agent was never weaponised. Unmovic has information that conflicts with this account. There are indications that Iraq had worked on the problem of purity and stabilisation and that more had been achieved than has been declared. There are also indications that the agent was weaponised."
Reports that Iraq had produced purer VX than it had declared were known before, said Professor Alastair Hay of Leeds University, one of Britain's leading specialists in chemical warfare issues. "But I didn't know they had weaponised it."
Much depended on how much there was, and what is was used for. "A few tonnes of VX could do a lot of damage if dropped on a town like Halabja, but if you were planning to use it in battle conditions you would need tens of tonnes." Professor Julian Perry Robinson of the science policy research unit at Sussex University said: "VX isn't the hardest agent to produce. The US army once applied for a patent for it, which was published, and I'm sure the Iraqis bought it. The fact that they've gone on working on it is serious - but name a country which isn't doing it."
He added: "Weaponisation is a weasel word. Blix hasn't specified what the inspectors found the Iraqis were doing. Were they putting it into a weapon or having people trained to deal with it?"
"13,000 chemical bombs were dropped by the Iraqi air force between 1983 and 1988, while Iraq has declared that 19,500 bombs were consumed during this period. Thus, there is a discrepancy of 6,500 bombs. The amount of chemical agent in these bombs would be in the order of about 1,000 tonnes. We must assume that these quantities are now unaccounted for."
According to Prof Hay, 6,500 bombs would be militarily significant and could do a lot of damage. However, he pointed out that "you need aircraft to drop them and if you don't have control of the skies, as the Iraqis don't, it's fairly useless".
Prof Robinson said: "The figure of 6,500 bombs and 1,000 tonnes is new, although the story of the document was known." How lethal would that be? "It's hard to say. You would expect about a tonne per square kilometre, so you could contaminate a large area. Against civilians it would be significant, though not against American troops who have chemical protection suits".
"The discovery of a number of 122mm chemical rocket warheads in a bunker at a storage depot 170km south-west of Baghdad was much publicised. This was a relatively new bunker and the rockets must have been moved there in the past few years, at a time when Iraq should not have had such munitions. Iraq states that they were overlooked from 1991 from a batch of some 2,000 that were stored there during the Gulf war. This could be the case. They could also be the tip of a submerged iceberg."
The large number of missing warheads was significant but the key questions were whether they had been filled with chemical liquid. The US used stabilisers in their chemical munitions to prevent them degrading over time. It was not clear whether the Iraqis did, Prof Hay said. "The fact that the bunker was relatively new is significant", said Prof Robinson. "But the few rockets discovered would not do much damage. They normally go in an old-fashioned 40-rocket launcher, so the number found would not even provide one full salvo".
"Inspectors have found a laboratory quantity of thiodiglycol, a mustard gas precursor."
The seriousness of this find would depend on the quantity, experts said last night. "There are various routes to make mustard gas and thiodycol is just one. I would be sceptical about the innocence of having thiodiglycol," said Prof Hay. Prof Robinson agreed that it is a dual use product and "could be there for other purposes".
Chemical processing equipment
"Iraq has declared that it had repaired previously destroyed chemical processing equipment, and had installed it at Fallujah for the production of chlorine and phenols. We will decide whether this should be destroyed."
Prof Hay said that chlorine is a very basic element in chemistry, and can be used for water purification, bleach, and many other things. "It's a building block and has many uses. It all depends what it was destined for." Prof Robinson said: "We are in the heart of dual-use country here. Chlorine and phenols are such basic chemicals".
Giving his overall impression of Mr Blix's report on chemical weapons, Prof Hay said: "Iraqis have never been particularly forthcoming but I could imagine they feel inspections are incredibly obtrusive so a bit of resentment and foot-dragging is understandable."
Prof Robinson recalled that the amount of deception and obstruction had been much greater in the early 1990s. "It's striking not to see in the Blix report any echo of that. If the best they can do is a guy taking papers home, it's pretty thin," he said.
"Iraq has declared that it produced about 8,500 litres of this biological warfare agent, which it states it unilaterally destroyed in 1991. Iraq has provided little evidence for this production and no convincing evidence for its destruction. There are strong indications that Iraq produced more anthrax than it declared, and that at least some of this was retained after the declared destruction date. It might still exist. Either it should be found and be destroyed under Unmovic supervision or else convincing evidence should be produced to show that it was, indeed, destroyed in 1991."
Anthrax has been one of the most contentious issues since the work of the weapons inspectors began in 1991. Toby Dodge, an Iraqi specialist at Warwick University, said that Iraq claimed in 1991 it had destroyed the anthrax unilaterally but four years later an Iraqi defector exposed that as a lie.
Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who is now one of the leading opponents of war, insisted that any anthrax left in Iraq would have degraded by now. "Blix insinuates there could be an anthrax capability but he fails to note that scientists know that liquid-bulk anthrax becomes useless three years after manufacture, even in ideal storage conditions," Mr Ritter said. "Blix is being irresponsible."
But Sir Tim Garden, visiting professor at the Centre for Defence Studies, is less sanguine. "I am dubious about the claim about it going off. Gruinard island [in the north of Scotland] was used as a test site for anthrax during the second world war and was not declared safe until 40 years later."
Sir Tim said that biological weapons was one of the most difficult areas. "Biological is always hard as yoghurt factories can be turned into a manufacturer of biological weapons if you have the seed."
"There remain significant questions as to whether Iraq retained Scud-type missiles after the Gulf war. Iraq declared the consumption of a number of Scud missiles as targets in the development of an anti-ballistic missile defence system during the 1980s. Yet no technical information has been produced about that programme."
The British government estimate is that Iraq retains about 20 of the type of Scuds fired against Israel in the Gulf war, while the CIA estimate is fewer.
Mr Ritter dismissed Mr Blix's claim as absurd. "Two were unaccounted for (after the Gulf war) and there was concern there might be seven or eight indigenous ones that we could not account for but were never sure these were operational."
Mr Ritter said he had given an assessment to Israel on behalf on the weapons inspectors in 1994 that Iraq did not have Scuds.
Sir Tim agreed that Scuds are not a major problem: "I do not think they have much of a long-range capability."
New missile development
"Two projects stand out: a liquid-fuelled missile named the Al Samoud 2, and a solid propellant missile called the Al Fatah. Both missiles have been tested to a range in excess of the permitted 150km, with the Al Samoud 2 tested to a maximum of 183km and the Al Fatah 161km. Some of both types of missiles have already been provided to the Iraqi armed forces."
Iraq is allowed, for its own defence, to have missiles with a maximum range of 150km. Mr Ritter said that Iraq's testing of the missiles beyond the 150km did not necessary amount to a flagrant breach of its ceasefire agreement.
Sir Tim said testing beyond the permitted range was a breach. "They [the Iraqis] could say they were just testing. The difference of another 20km is not enormous but they were pushing the envelope," he said.
Refurbished missile production infrastructure
"Iraq reconstituted a number of casting chambers, which had previously been destroyed. They had been used in the production of solid-fuel missiles. They could produce motors for missiles capable of ranges significantly greater than [the permitted] 150km."
The problem with that is "dual-use". While the new facilities could be used to build motors for missiles, they could equally be used for innocent civilian purposes.
Imported rocket engines and propellants
"[Iraq has imported] a number of items despite sanctions, including 380 rocket engines which may be used for the Al Samoud 2. Iraq also declared the recent import of chemicals used in propellants, test instrumentation and guidance and control systems. These items may well be for proscribed purposes, and were clearly illegally brought in."
Again the problem of "dual-use" is raised and there could be an innocent explanation. According to British sources, the imports came from the Ukraine.
Whether or not this constitutes a material breach of the UN resolution calling for Iraq's disarmament, Sir Tim said: "The import of the fuel for the engines was in contravention of the sanctions. There were a couple of slapped wrists [by Blix on the Iraqis] over the missiles."
Mr Ritter said he had reported the imports to the US and Britain in 1997-98 but both decided at the time they did not pose sufficient threat to go to the UN security council.
U-2 spy planes
"While we now have the technical capability to send a U-2 plane for aerial imagery and for surveillance during inspections and have informed Iraq that we planned to do so, Iraq has refused to guarantee its safety. We note that Iraq is not so far complying with our request."
Aerial photographs taken by U-2 spy planes provided crucial evidence for the UN security council at the height of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. UN weapons inspectors now want to use American-piloted U-2s in the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
"U-2s are so important because they can go lower, quickly, loiter, and are flexible, unlike satellites", Christopher Langton, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed out last night.
Documents concealed in private homes
"The recent find in the home of a scientist of some 3,000 pages of documents, much of it relating to the laser enrichment of uranium, support a concern that documents might be distributed to the homes of private individuals. This is refuted by the Iraqis, who claim that research staff sometimes may bring home papers from their work places. We cannot help but think that the case might not be isolated and that such placements of documents is deliberate. Any further sign of the concealment would be serious."
Col Langton said that "concealment is so successful that it is unlikely that [the inspectors] will find anything".
Getting hard evidence about the possession of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, is a key issue for the Bush and Blair administrations.
However, UN nuclear inspectors downplayed the discovery of documents earlier this month at the home of an Iraqi scientist, saying they related to an earlier and unsuccessful attempt to use laser technology to enrich uranium.
Identification of Iraqi scientists
"Some 400 [scientists'] names for all biological and chemical weapons programmes as well as their missile programmes were provided by the Iraqis. This can be compared to over 3,500 names of people associated with past weapons programmes that [the previous inspection body] Unscom knew of."
Mr Blix's reference to scientists known to be involved in weapons of mass destruction programmes and yet unnamed by Iraq could include lists of Iraqi scientists provided by defectors to western intelligence. "We are continuing to help, but it is not an easy business", said a Whitehall official. "But it is not easy if we want to protect our sources."
This was another example of the Iraqi regime "manipulating" the inspectors, according to western intelligence sources. It also suggests, as Mr Blix indicated in his statement to the security council, that he has been provided with intelligence by the CIA and MI6.
Lack of privacy in interviews
"Eleven individuals were asked for interviews in Baghdad by us. The replies have invariably been that the individual will only speak at Iraq's monitoring directorate or in the presence of an Iraqi official. At our recent talks in Baghdad, the Iraqi side committed itself to encourage persons to accept interviews 'in private', that is to say alone with us. Despite this, the pattern has not changed. "
It is clear that Mr Blix is hugely frustrated about the lack of information coming out of the inspections, analysts said. "The failure to produce evidence is posing a very big problem for the US," said Col Langton.
Either the CIA and MI6 has more intelligence or they do not, said analysts. "Saddam may think they don't know so they will not find anything", said one.
One way of ensuring they do not find out, is to put pressure on Iraq scientists. "But if they refuse to leave the country it is difficult for the UN to insist," a Whitehall official conceded.
Harassment of inspectors
"I am obliged to note some recent disturbing incidents and harassment. Sometimes far-fetched allegations have been made publicly that questions posed by inspectors were of intelligence character. Iraq knows that they do not serve intelligence purposes and Iraq should not say so.
On a number of occasions, demonstrations have taken place in front of our offices and at inspection sites."
"Saddam Hussein can provide a rent-a-crowd at a drop of a hat," said a Whitehall source. "It is itself a clear breach of the security council resolution."
However, independent observers said they were puzzled about why the Iraqi authorities are resorting to such provocative tactics, echoing those which led to the withdrawal of UN inspectors from Iraq in 1998 and the US-British Desert Fox bombing campaign.
The British government is highlighting such obstruction, saying that Saddam Hussein has set up a special Iraqi unit to impede the inspectors. Tactics have allegedly included staging car crashes to delay UN vehicles.
"The first goal of our inspection activities was reconnaissance. We have inspected all of those buildings and facilities that were identified, through satellite imagery, as having been modified or constructed over the past four years. IAEA inspectors have been able to gain ready access and to clarify the nature of the activities currently being conducted in these facilities."
Satellite pictures provided by the Americans have raised alarms about the rebuilding of past nuclear installations. Despite the American suspicions raised by the satellite pictures, nothing untoward has been found by the nuclear inspectors.
But the key IAEA claim that it eliminated and "neutralised" the Iraqi nuclear programme is viewed as questionable by some experts. "Research and some testing is virtually impossible to detect," said Gary Milholin, director of the Washington-based Wisconsin nuclear project. "Saddam is trying to hide the programme."
"A particular issue of focus has been the attempted procurement by Iraq of high strength aluminium tubes, and the question of whether these tubes, if acquired, could be used for the manufacture of nuclear centrifuges. It appears that the aluminium tubes would be consistent with the purpose stated by Iraq and, unless modified, would not be suitable for manufacturing centrifuges."
US and British spies insist that President Saddam has been trying to obtain special alloy aluminium tubing which is crucial for centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iraq has admitted it tried and failed to import the tubes - for missile construction, not for centrifuges. Since Iraq is unlikely to acquire plutonium which is a by-product of nuclear power generation, it needs highly-enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb and the easiest way to enrich the uranium is the centrifuge method.
Experts agreed with the IAEA that the western intelligence appears to be wrong. Mr El Baradei said pointedly, however, that imports of all aluminium tubing were banned under UN sanctions. "The US has been trying to connect the tubes with centrifuges. That doesn't seem to be correct," said Robert Norris, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington.
To the IAEA's chagrin, the British and the Americans have only started supplying intelligence to the inspectors in the past couple of weeks. "It hasn't helped us find anything," said a UN official.
Baghdad omitted to mention the aluminium tubes in its December 12,000-page declaration, raising questions. It admits it has tried and failed to import the tubes, but contends it needed the material for missiles, not centrifuges.
On the basis of interviews with Iraqi officials or scientists, from examining aluminium samples, and from reviewing Iraqi documents, the inspectors think Baghdad may be telling the truth, although the inspectors say the jury is still out.
"Another area of focus has been to determine how certain other 'dual use' materials have been relocated or used - that is, materials that could be used in nuclear weapons production but also have other legitimate uses."
Some 32 tons of HMX high explosive which the inspectors left under UN seal in Iraq in 1998 have disappeared and remain unaccounted for. That is more than 10% of the 228 tonnes the UN impounded before 1998.
HMX is used to create a nuclear detonation. The explosive is ignited and "squeezes" the nuclear material, highly enriched uranium or plutonium for the nuclear blast. Baghdad says it took the HMX for industrial purposes, for mining in the cement industry.
"This could be tied to a reviving bomb programme," said Mr Norris.
"It's very difficult to determine where every kilo of it goes. We're working on it," said an IAEA source. "We don't have answers on that. It'll take some time."
"A focal point has been the investigation of reports of Iraqi efforts to import uranium after 1991. The Iraqi authorities have denied any such attempts. The IAEA will continue to pursue this issue."
Tony Blair's "intelligence dossier" on Iraq last year alleged that Baghdad had been smuggling in unprocessed uranium or yellowcake from Africa. The nuclear inspectors have been unable to find any trace of the alleged uranium. A large part of Mr El Baradei's plea for more time and for greater assistance from the CIA and MI6 concerns such smuggling allegations.
The Iraqi scientist questioned a fortnight ago followed a British intelligence tip-off, sources say. But British emphasis on the importance of the scientist proved misplaced, they add. "The results were not significant."
Some 3,000 pages of documents on the illicit nuclear project were found at the home of the scientist, but the information related to before 1991, the programme the IAEA says it "neutralised" and provided no information relating to the crucial period since 1998 when the inspectors left Baghdad. Undermining the IAEA argument is the expert view that the lack of nuclear fuel is all that is keeping Saddam from having a nuclear bomb.
Mr Norris said that the interview with the scientists a fortnight ago threw up evidence that Iraq had also been exploring laser technology for uranium enrichment, a more advanced method than the centrifuges and the aluminium tubes.
"We were surprised at the revelations [in the 1990s] that Saddam had capable people and he was quite far along. They still have all that know-how and probably quite a lot of components squirreled away," Mr Norris said.
"The problem is getting enough fissile material to make a bomb. Iraq doesn't have it. North Korea has hundreds of tonnes of it. There's an enormous Russian stockpile. You might be able to buy it on the black market."
· Mr El Baradei concluded by stressing the importance of inspections: "We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme since the elimination of the programme in the 1990s. However, our work is steadily progressing and should be allowed to run its natural course. We should be able within the next few months to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons programme. These few months would be a valuable investment in peace because they could help us avoid a war."
Dr Toby Dodge is an Iraq expert at Warwick University and an associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Scott Ritter is a former UN weapons inspector who was bullish while in Iraq but is now one of the leading campaigners against war. A former intelligence officer in the US Marines, he was on General Norman Schwarzkopf's staff during the Gulf war.
Sir Tim Garden is a visiting professor at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London; an associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs; and an ex-assistant chief of defence staff
Colonel Christopher Langton is the chief defence analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the editor of the IISS journal The Military Balance
Professor Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at Leeds University, is a member of a World Health Organisation expert panel and has been involved in investigations of chemical warfare in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, and was an investigator for Human Rights Watch in Bosnia in 1996
Professor Julian Perry Robinson is the world's leading historian on chemical and biological warfare. Now a member of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, he helps publish a quarterly bulletin on chemical and biological warfare, that is the standard resource for all experts in the field
Gary Milholin, Professor Emeritus of Wisconsin Law School and director of the Wisconsin Nuclear Project, is an authority on nuclear arms proliferation
Dr Robert Norris is a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington, director of the Nuclear Weapons Databook Project and co-editor of the Nuclear Weapons Databook series
Ewen MacAskill, Jonathan Steele, Richard Norton-Taylor and Ian Traynor
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