BAGHDAD — After three decades as one of Saddam Hussein's chief chemical warriors, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Alaa Saeed picks nervously at the kebabs on his plate as he talks about the deadly nerve gases and blister agents he once produced.
His hands shake visibly as he describes his last terrifying meeting with Hussein, even though it was more than five years ago. He worries about his culpability for the sweeping documents he wrote declaring to the United Nations that Iraq was free of banned weapons. And thoughts of the price he may pay for his deeds haunt him.
"My future is dark," he says, dropping his voice to a furtive whisper as a waiter passes the table. "I don't know what will happen."
His once-feared boss, Gen. Hussam Mohammed Amin, is now one of five top Iraqi weapons officials known to be in U.S. custody for potential war crimes. A team from Britain's MI-6 intelligence agency grilled Saeed last week. As a new, intensive hunt for weapons gets underway after more than two months of fruitless U.S. Army searches, a U.S. intelligence team has ordered him to appear for questioning Thursday.
Saeed, perhaps the most senior weapons scientist to speak to a reporter since the war, says he would gladly accept a $200,000 reward U.S. officials here have quietly offered to anyone who can lead them to the poison gases, germ weapons and other illegal weapons that President Bush repeatedly insisted were secretly deployed in prewar Iraq.
But Saeed said he cannot take them to what he insists no longer exists.
"Their questions are the same as yours," he said. " 'Do you know of any documents or inventory of chemical agents? Any stockpiles? Any production programs? Any filled munitions? Do you have any idea where these weapons are?' I am ready to give them all the information I have. But the answer is always the same: 'No, no, no.'
"I tell them there are no hidden chemical or biological weapons," he said. "Maybe there is some other group, like the SSO [Hussein's ruthless Special Security Organization] or the Mukhabarat [the Gestapo-like intelligence agency], who have done it. I don't know. That is not my responsibility."
A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said Tuesday that senior Iraqis in custody have provided little useful information.
"The high-level folks are stiffing their interrogators," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Those who are talking are sticking to the regime party line. "They say: 'We don't know anything about WMD, don't know anything about war crimes, don't know anything about POWs. Saddam? I hardly knew the man.' "
The official said U.S. interrogators are getting information from lower-level Iraqis that is "more valuable."
Saeed insists that the combined blitz of allied bombing and intense U.N. inspections in the 1990s effectively destroyed Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear programs. U.N. sanctions, he said, stopped Baghdad from importing the raw materials, equipment and spare parts needed to secretly reconstitute the illegal programs, even after U.N. inspectors left the country in 1998.
"I think, maybe, [Hussein] wanted to rebuild the CW and BW [chemical and biological weapons] programs when sanctions were lifted," Saeed said.
Why, then, didn't the Iraqi ruler help the U.N. resolve hundreds of unanswered questions about banned weapons?
"I don't know," Saeed replied. "Maybe he is too proud."
Saeed said he believed that had he consented to an interview by U.N. inspectors last winter outside Iraq, his wife and three children, perhaps his six brothers, would have been killed.
U.N. inspectors who worked with Saeed for a decade confirmed his identity and role. They cautioned that the story he tells today is consistent with what he told the U.N. after 1995: that all chemical bulk agents and munitions, as well as many key records and reports, were destroyed by 1994.
"We still don't know if that is true," said a U.N. official in New York.
Although Bush last week hailed the discovery of two tractor-trailer rigs filled with laboratory equipment as proof of illegal Iraqi weapons, other U.S. military officials here and in Washington now acknowledge that the initial weapons hunt in Iraq largely failed, a victim of faulty intelligence, poor planning, inadequate support and outsized expectations.
The failure to locate weapons of mass destruction has become a controversial issue for the Bush administration, with several influential lawmakers saying they believe the White House either exaggerated the threat or was misled by the intelligence community.
And in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair's argument for ousting Hussein hinged on the existence of such weapons, a parliamentary committee announced Tuesday that it would investigate the decision to wage war.