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Inspectors 'Have Zilch' Thus Far

December 31, 2002|Sergei L. Loiko and Maggie Farley | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — In their search for hidden Iraqi arms, U.N. inspectors have so far faced little conflict, have found little evidence and have received little outside intelligence to guide them, said one inspector. The teams have discovered two technical matters that could be considered violations of U.N. resolutions but have yet to find a smoking gun, a trace of radiation or a single germ spore.

"If our goal is to catch them with their pants down, we are definitely losing," the inspector said on condition he wouldn't be named. "We haven't found an iota of concealed material yet."

In one of the first glimpses of the inspection process from inside Iraq, the inspector described a team of experts who have been thwarted by Iraqi authorities who have better preparation, equipment and intelligence than the inspectors. Their minders have faster cars and better radios with which to alert others that they're on their way and, of course, know just where they're going and what they're looking for.

The list of Iraq's violations is short. During the four years in which inspectors have not been allowed in the country, the Iraqis tried to procure missile parts and altered others without notifying the U.N., the inspector said -- two incidents that could be considered a breach of U.N. resolutions, though perhaps not large enough to justify military action.

But the inspectors' roster of frustrations is long. There are 110 U.N. weapons experts in Iraq, 100 searching for chemical and biological weapons and 10 looking for evidence of a nuclear program. Their mission is nearly impossible -- trying to find suspected caches of material or documents in a country about the size of California.

Their work is relentless -- sometimes the different teams conduct seven inspections a day, which means early wake-up calls, long drives and intense searches. Monday was that kind of day as inspectors made seven visits, including one to a water-purification plant and one to a missile factory.

To keep their plans secret from wiretaps, moles or eavesdropping devices, inspectors operate like spies, passing notes about the day's plans rather than speaking aloud, and driving their U.N. jeeps in circles to confound those trying to determine their destination.

But often, inspectors say, by the time the U.N. convoys arrive at a site, the gates are open and the workers are waiting. The Iraqis have been obliging, even eager to please, allowing the inspectors to wander through the bedrooms of a once off-limits presidential palace "like idle museum-goers," the inspector said.

"Even private facilities which are not part of their state-run military industrial complex open up for us -- like magic," he said. "But even if they open all the doors in Iraq for us and keep them open 24 hours a day, we won't be able to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it is not there. We need help. We need information. We need intelligence reports if they exist."

The inspector said he and his colleagues feel acute pressure from Washington to find something soon. But if the U.S. has provided its long-promised intelligence, they haven't seen it yet.

"We can't look for something which we don't know about. If the United States wants us to find something, they should open their intelligence file and share it with us so that we know where to go for it," he said.

A senior Bush administration official said Monday that the U.S. has passed along "high-quality" information regarding suspected chemical or biological sites but that the inspectors haven't acted on it yet.

"They have gotten some intelligence, and they will get more," the official said. But what the U.S. intelligence community is concerned about is whether the information can be used fruitfully and not compromised so that it loses its value, he said. "It is as much a test of the inspectors as it is of Iraq."

Past inspection teams were infiltrated by moles who reported the U.N. experts' plans to Iraqi authorities. This time, the demands for secrecy are intense.

"We are not allowed to say a word about what we are doing," said the inspector, noting that the Iraqis, in contrast, usher journalists into just-searched sites and describe in detail what questions the experts asked and what they were looking for.

"By being silent, we may create the false illusion that we did uncover something," the inspector said. "But I must say that if we were to publish a report now, we would have zilch to put in it."

The chemical experts haven't found a trace of the tons of chemical agents that Iraq is suspected of having, he said. The biologists are taking air samples to find spores, but the biological agents don't have a long shelf life and probably have long been buried or disposed of.

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