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CONFRONTATION WITH BAGHDAD

Inspectors Face Iraq's 'Dark Years'

September 09, 2002|BOB DROGIN and MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence analysts were alarmed when spy satellite photos last month suddenly showed dozens of trucks near a former Iraqi biological weapons facility on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Was Saddam Hussein again producing botulinum toxin, which causes botulism, at the Taji military base? Was he moving Republican Guard equipment in fear of a U.S. airstrike? Hauling animal feed?

"It's open to interpretation," said a CIA official.

Similar photos last spring showed trucks carting steel tanks to Falluja, a former chemical weapons facility. Had the so-called "devil's kitchen" resumed production of deadly sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas? Or was it, as Iraq claims, producing pesticide to fight an infestation of white fly?

Commercial satellite pictures last week showed new buildings at several sites once used for Iraq's nuclear weapons program. Was it evidence that Baghdad had resumed illegal nuclear activity?

Not until someone looks inside, a U.N. official said.

These and other troubling questions will form the backdrop when President Bush addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. He is expected to declare that Iraq has illegally built or is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and to warn that the United States will act alone unless the world community moves quickly and decisively to disarm Iraq.

After months of threatening war against Iraq, Bush administration officials now say they will consider a final U.N. effort to force Baghdad to immediately accept highly intrusive weapons inspections. If Hussein refused, or failed to cooperate, he would face military attack.

Iraq has barred the U.N. inspectors since December 1998. If they now return, their task will be daunting.

U.N. officials have identified about 700 potential sites for initial inspection, including up to 100 places where clandestine weapons work might have begun over the last four years. Just checking the known sites could take a year, officials said.

The priority now is "to tackle the 'Dark Years,' " said Ewen Buchanan of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in New York, which is responsible for ferreting out evidence of chemical weapons, biological agents and ballistic missiles in Iraq. "What has happened since the 1998 withdrawal of inspectors?"

The answer is far from clear. After being gone for four years, inspectors not only would need new cameras, computers and cars--they also would need a mop. U.N. officials say a flock of pigeons has taken roost in the former inspection chief's Baghdad office, laying eggs on the sofa and soiling the desk and floor.

Established after the U.S.-led coalition forced Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.N. Special Commission was created to verify Iraq's commitment to get rid of chemical weapons, biological agents and most missiles and warheads. The work was expected to last about a year.

Seven years later, teams from the U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency had uncovered far larger quantities and far more dangerous weaponry than anyone expected, including a previously unknown nuclear weapons program that appeared within months of building a crude atomic bomb.

Iraq's fierce resistance ended the inspections. By the time the last U.N. teams withdrew in 1998, just before a punitive bombing campaign by U.S. and British forces, they had dismantled or destroyed hundreds of ballistic missiles, huge stores of chemical and biological warfare agents, and sophisticated nuclear laboratories, factories and equipment, according to U.N. reports and inspectors.

But dozens of disarmament issues were left unresolved. Evidence suggested, for example, that Iraq still possessed stockpiles of liquid anthrax and up to 17 tons of growth media for other biological agents. Also apparently missing were reserves of VX, a highly lethal nerve agent, and up to 4,000 tons of precursor chemicals.

More important, most experts believe that Hussein could have resumed production of biological and chemical weapons on a modest scale any time after the inspectors left.

"There's no doubt that he has a lot of chemical and biological weapons," said Lawrence Freedman, a military expert at King's College in London.

Iraq's nuclear program was largely dismantled by 1998, and although Baghdad reportedly has tried to buy black-market plutonium or highly enriched uranium, no evidence indicates that it has obtained the fissile material needed to build a bomb.

But U.N. inspectors never found parts of a centrifuge cascade, a series of subcritical gas centrifuges that could be used to enrich some forms of uranium. If the system is working, some experts fear that Iraq by now may have produced enough fuel for a workable nuclear device.

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