BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein's intelligence services set up a network of clandestine cells and small laboratories after 1996 with the goal of someday rebuilding illicit chemical and biological weapons, according to a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer.
The officer, who held the rank of brigadier general, said each closely guarded weapons team had three or four scientists and other experts who were unknown to U.N. inspectors. He said they worked on computers and conducted crude experiments in bunkers and back rooms in safe houses around Baghdad.
He insisted they did not produce any illegal arms and that none now exist in Iraq. But he said the teams met regularly and put plans on paper to quickly develop weapons of mass destruction if United Nations sanctions against Iraq were lifted.
"We could start again anytime," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he fears for his life. "It's very easy. Especially biological.
"The point was, the Iraqis kept the knowledge," he explained during a lengthy interview Friday in which he offered tantalizing details of secret programs. But U.S. weapons hunters "will never find anything here. Only oil."
The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction since the war has sparked mounting criticism in both Washington and London, where senior government officials have been put on the defensive to explain why both public and classified intelligence estimates now appear to have been so inaccurate.
The intelligence officer's account, parts of which could not be independently verified, gives ammunition to both sides of the controversy. He said that U.N. sanctions and inspections in the 1990s crippled Iraq's ability to build illegal weapons and that Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear programs were effectively eliminated in the mid-1990s.
But his description of an ongoing effort to prepare for illicit weapons production programs in the future suggests that Hussein would have remained a serious threat if U.S.-led forces had not ousted the dictator.
His disclosure comes as newly reinforced U.S. weapons teams have intensified efforts to round up Iraqi scientists and officials. Three senior biowarfare experts were driven away in a van in Baghdad and have not returned home since a meeting June 1 with an American in civilian clothes who gave his name only as "John," according to witnesses.
They said John identified the three from a list titled "Taha-7," which named top lieutenants to Dr. Rahib Rashid Taha. A British-trained microbiologist known as "Dr. Germ," Taha directed production of vast quantities of anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin and other lethal germ agents in the 1980s. She was taken into U.S. custody after the war.
The Iraqi intelligence officer said that the secret weapons groups were created in late 1996 and 1997 because the regime's unconventional arms programs had been dismantled or destroyed by then and that U.N. inspectors knew most of those who had worked in them.
"They changed all the [weapons] people after that," he said. "They not only changed the people. They changed the houses and buildings.... They kept the program alive."
He said he had hidden some of the groups' papers to protect himself if arrested, including what he called "red orders" from Hussein and his aides authorizing the operation.
He said he chiefly had served "on the money side" since the 1980s to help fund and direct a global maze of local trading companies that were secretly run by Iraqi intelligence operatives to supply the weapons programs.
U.S. intelligence and U.N. inspectors have confirmed the use of such front companies, backed by shady arms dealers, crooked shipping agents and captains, and corrupt customs and other officials, to support Iraq's sanctions-busting procurement schemes.
7 Overseas Trips
The officer said he made seven overseas trips between the mid-1990s and 2001 to help oversee the illegal purchase and transport of spare parts, raw materials and other supplies for Iraq's conventional and unconventional weapons programs. He drew money from secret regime bank accounts in Egypt, Japan, Lebanon, Switzerland and other countries.
On his last trip, in April 2001, he said he used phony passports from neighboring Arab nations to travel to Jordan, Cyprus, Morocco, South Africa and Argentina. He said he spent more than $57 million to illegally purchase and ship towed cannons, artillery fuses, calibrating instruments and so-called "dual use" medical laboratory equipment that could be used for chemical or biological weapons.
It's possible that the officer's story contains falsehoods meant to deceive or confuse U.S. investigators. He refused to show the documents he said he had saved or to take a Los Angeles Times reporter to any of the safe houses where he said the weapons teams had operated.