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Banned Weapons Remain Unseen Foe

Frustrations grow as one false lead after another sends teams of U.S. and allied arms hunters across Iraq.

June 15, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

CAMP SLAYER, Iraq — The latest U.S. intelligence, presented at a morning briefing here Friday and backed by satellite photos and reconnaissance reports, was specific and unnerving.

Saddam Hussein, a team of U.S. and Australian weapons hunters was told, may have built drone aircraft rigged with nozzles to spray poison gases, plus two short-range missiles with warheads designed to carry deadly chemicals or germs, at the former Ibn Firnas aeronautics research center.

The team's mission: Find the drones and use portable X-ray gear to peer into the warheads.

Donning flak vests and helmets, and loading their weapons, the 26-member team climbed into six Humvees and SUVs and sped to the sprawling complex just north of the reeking trash mountains of the Baghdad city dump.

They quickly found the "drones": five burned and blackened 9-foot wings dumped near the front gate. "It could have been a student project, or maybe a model," the team's expert, U.S. Air Force Capt. Libbie Boehm, said with a shrug.

The "missiles" were found too, after a bit of searching through a junk heap: two discarded casings of artillery rockets.

Not everyone was disappointed. Ignoring the soldiers, a dozen or so bedraggled looters pillaged the site's 17 bombed buildings. They soon rode off with two donkey carts and a flatbed truck filled with broken radio parts, twisted window frames and other scrap.

"The looters had a better day than we did," said Lt. Col. Michael Kingsford as he ordered his team to head home. "One thing I can say for sure is there's no smoking gun here."

Frustration is routine for the men and women on the front lines of the search for Hussein's suspected stockpiles of illicit weapons. Five days of living with them offered a vivid view of a high-profile hunt that remains in serious disarray nearly three months after the war began.

After visiting more than 300 suspect Iraqi facilities, from pesticide plants to hospital laboratories, the weapons teams have hit all the priority sites identified before the war by U.S. intelligence. Most were so heavily bombed or looted that any potential evidence was long gone.

Moreover, the teams have largely visited the same sites that U.N. inspectors searched last winter without result. They were never given any of the U.N. reports, so knew little about what was there before. Commanders have made such comparison more difficult by changing the names of some long-known U.N. sites.

Facing mounting criticism for the failure to find any unconventional weapons so far, the Pentagon is in the process of transferring responsibility for the hunt from the Army's 75th Exploitation Task Force to the new Iraq Survey Group -- the third and most ambitious reconfiguration since mid-March. But the transition, which won't be completed before mid-July, has created new delays and confusion.

The reorganization, commanders say, will help them find the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration has insisted are hidden in Iraq. For now, however, much of the hunt is on hold as weapons teams await new people, training and orders.

Several of the seven current "sensitive site teams," or SSTs, conducted their last mission June 2 and have been told not to expect another until June 25 or later. Dozens of team members now spend each day washing clothes, taking naps and fighting boredom.

"We're here to answer the big question," said Lt. Cody Strong, a tactical intelligence officer. "You'd think if this was really a priority, we'd have nonstop missions."

Not all work has stopped. Two other missile and drone-hunting teams were in northern Iraq all week, and two sensitive site teams were sent Thursday to help interrogate a suspect in Baghdad.

An additional site team returned Wednesday from a grueling four-day trip to 15 sites in southern Iraq, the final ones on their target roster. In many cases, intelligence folders prepared for each site failed to note that bombing had turned the target to rubble.

"It's kind of frustrating -- futile really -- for us to drive eight hours to check out a crater," said Marine Lt. Col. Robert Q. Rowsey, commander of the team. "All of our targets were put on a list before the war."

Other team leaders complained that most intelligence folders appeared to be based solely on analysis of satellite imagery. Again and again, the intelligence proved wildly off-base.

"The target folder for Uday's palace at Lake Habbaniyah was real clean," said U.S. Army Maj. Ronald Hann Jr., a highly decorated arms control expert who heads SST-6, referring to a complex for Hussein's older son. " 'There's the warehouse. There's the poison gas storage tanks.' Well, the warehouse was a carport. It still had two cars inside. And the tanks had propane for the kitchen."

A veteran U.S. intelligence official here said he is furious over the inaccurate intelligence reports that have sent weapons teams racing to a series of empty sites.

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