Experts Are Ready to Pounce on Iraq’s Weapons

W By Bob Drogin

wASHINGTON – Armed with a list of key concerns, U.S. and U.N. experts are poised this weekend to quickly assess Baghdad’s first formal accounting in four years of any weapons of mass destruction in its arsenal, a potential tripwire for an American invasion of Iraq.

Although Iraq continues to insist it has no such weapons, it has promised to meet a Sunday deadline to give the U.N. Security Council a “full and complete declaration” of all its efforts to develop nuclear bombs, produce deadly biological microbes or chemical warfare agents, or build ballistic missiles.

A highly skeptical Bush administration has assembled a team of experts to scour the expected deluge of Arabic and English documents. It may take several weeks to fully translate and analyze the material, but U.S. officials hope to identify some red-flag inaccuracies and omissions much faster.

“There are men and women who have lived and breathed this stuff for years,” a U.S. official said. “They can breeze through this thing and put Post-It notes on inaccuracies.”

Analysts will be looking for what the Iraqis say about how they disposed of hundreds of tons of raw materials for blister and nerve gases, details of Iraq’s program to develop the deadly VX nerve agent and proof that Iraq has destroyed stocks of deadly biological agents, among other things.

“A lot will depend on how long the list is and what’s on it – or not on it,” a senior U.S. official said. Another U.S. official said the CIA had helped prepare a closely held checklist “of what we think we should be hearing.”

U.S. and U.N. officials view the declaration as a crucial test of Iraq’s stated intention to cooperate with the U.N. resolution calling for Baghdad to disarm. Most expect Baghdad to comply enough to avoid imminent attack but to inject as much ambiguity into the process as possible.

Thus, officials said, Iraq is likely to admit some new weapons details but to insist that it has destroyed the materials since U.N. inspectors left the country in 1998. It may try to hide other programs, however, or disguise them in a flood of peripheral or misleading documents.

“It will probably be semi-false or semi-true,” the senior official said.

The final analysis of how much Iraq is actually disclosing will be a pivotal part of deliberations in Washington, London and other capitals as leaders consider whether it will be take military action to disarm Iraq.

If the weekend declaration is viewed as utterly false or inadequate, U.S. officials are likely to seek Security Council support for the use of force. President Bush, asked Thursday if the United States is headed to war, replied, “That’s a question you should ask to Saddam Hussein.”

Speaking during a Cabinet Room meeting with visiting leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia, Bush said the Iraqi president must disarm “for the sake of peace.”

“There are inspectors inside the country now and the inspectors are there not to play a game of hide and seek,” Bush said. “They’re there to verify whether or not Mr. Saddam Hussein is going to disarm.”

Iraqi officials have indicated they will hand over the declaration – expected to be a narrative and supporting material totaling at least 1,000 pages – to U.N. weapons inspectors in Baghdad late Saturday. The material then would be flown to U.N. headquarters in New York by Sunday night.

The U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC, has assigned a 15-member team in New York to study the material, according to spokesman Ewen Buchanan.

In Washington, analysts and experts from the White House National Security Council, the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon and other key U.S. agencies will compare the new material to previous U.N. inspection reports and recent U.S. intelligence, including satellite photos, electronic intercepts, smuggling records and defectors’ reports.

Among their key questions:

-The disposition of about 700 tons of raw materials for blister and nerve gases, or enough to fill about 6,000 bombs. A document found at an Iraqi air force base in July 1998 indicated that Baghdad had produced far more chemical weapons – listed as khass, Arabic for “special” – than it has admitted so far.

-Details about Iraq’s program to produce, put into a weapon and deploy VX, a highly toxic nerve agent. Iraq repeatedly changed its declarations on VX before 1998 but never admitted producing it in weapon form. U.S. officials are convinced, based on Defense Department laboratory tests of residue found in a missile warhead, that it did.

-Proof of Iraq’s claims that it unilaterally destroyed stocks of such deadly biological agents as anthrax and botulinum toxin. Iraq has made this claim, but it never provided evidence to U.N. inspectors, who believe Iraq imported far more bacterial growth nutrients than it needed for the programs it declared.

-An explanation for Iraq’s repeated attempts since 1998 to secretly buy and import uranium and specialized equipment – including aluminum tubes, vacuum pumps and ring magnets – that may be for nuclear weapons development. Iraq has denied seeking nuclear weapons.

“Someone who is very familiar with the subject could get to the essentials pretty quickly,” said Terrance Taylor, a former U.N. inspector who heads the Washington branch of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

“My guess is the Iraqis will give enough new information to stave off any excuse for immediate military action,” Taylor added. “They’ve done this before. They’ll give up some and try to hide the rest.”

Iraq’s record on weapons declarations is not promising.

In August 1991, it was ordered to provide a “full, final and complete” accounting of its weapons programs. Over the next seven years, it submitted five supposedly final declarations for biological weapons, three for chemical weapons, three for missile programs and several more for nuclear weapons.

“After you get one final declaration after another, you begin to wonder what’s really final,” said Ron Cleminson, a retired Canadian military officer who has worked on Iraqi inspections since 1991 and is a member of a U.N. oversight panel for the current effort.

A 1999 U.N. report ultimately listed more than 100 major questions that were not answered by the assorted declarations or by on-the-ground inspections. U.N. officials will examine the new documents to see if those outstanding issues are finally resolved.

U.S. officials flatly assert that Iraq has illegal weapons but have not publicly disclosed clear evidence.

“The president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and as bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday. “The Iraqi government has proved time and time again to deceive, to mislead and to lie.”

The U.N. resolution requires Iraq to disclose all aspects of its weapons programs, including stockpiles, components, production facilities, locations, purchasing and procurement networks and command-and-control systems.

For the first time, the United Nations requires Iraq to provide details about its civilian chemical, biological and nuclear programs, not just those related to military weapons. Such “dual-use” programs and materials conceivably could include Iraq’s vast petrochemical industry, its hospitals, pesticide plants and hundreds of other facilities.

Previous declarations were only given to the U.N. weapons inspection commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for nuclear weapons. The new Iraqi declaration also will be given to Security Council members, which means details are likely to become public – and thus politicized – much more quickly.