BAGHDAD — A sweeping overhaul of the search for Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction is creating an operation with striking similarities to the United Nations inspection system that Bush administration officials openly derided before the war, according to senior military and intelligence officials here.
Unlike the U.N. teams, however, the new weapons hunt will rely chiefly on "secret squirrels," as U.S. commanders call the growing army here of CIA and military intelligence operatives, National Security Agency eavesdroppers, British MI-6 agents and elite Special Operations teams whose very existence is classified.
In addition to the latest spy gizmos and techniques, the American, British and Australian teams will have the advantage in the postwar occupation of what one commander called "unfettered access to Iraqis at all levels," at gunpoint if necessary.
"We have a full deck of cards," added the official, who requested anonymity. "The U.N. had about 35."
But the 1,400 people in the Iraq Survey Group, as the new effort is called, will utilize many of the same highly intrusive investigative and covert intelligence-gathering techniques that U.N. inspectors secretly used between 1991 and 1998 to find and destroy vast quantities of illicit Iraqi weapons and production materials.
The U.N. inspectors collected more than a million pages of architects' blueprints, weapons designs, financial and customs records, as well as microfilm, videos and other media. They interviewed not only senior Iraqi weapons scientists and government officials, but also warehouse workers, factory accountants, lab assistants, office clerks and truck drivers.
U.N. inspections resumed last November, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Security Council in February that U.S. intelligence showed that the Baghdad regime was deceiving the U.N. teams and was concealing active programs to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Powell opposed extending the U.N. inspections, which had found no evidence of new Iraqi weapons programs. The U.N. teams were withdrawn shortly before U.S. troops invaded Iraq on March 20.
Brig. Gen. Steve Meekin, the senior Australian officer in the Iraq Survey Group, said the new effort "absolutely" resembles the former U.N. inspection system here because it will focus on collecting clues and not just searching buildings.
"We're changing our focus that way on almost a daily basis now," said Meekin, who is commander of a center studying captured military equipment, a key part of the new group. As a result, he said, both the number and quality of leads coming in are gradually increasing.
"We haven't had any single dramatic discoveries," Meekin said. "But we're getting closer."
The redesign was ordered after U.S. field commanders acknowledged that the hunt, as organized and implemented so far, probably would not find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, one of the chief reasons President Bush had cited for taking the nation to war.
"Some people thought we'd just drive in and find fields of WMD, with neon signs saying, 'Look here,' " a senior Defense Department official here said. "We had to get expectations under control."
The shift in effort was symbolized by the quiet departure Monday of Army Col. Richard R. McPhee. He commanded the 75th Exploitation Task Force, a former field artillery brigade from Ft. Sill, Okla., that was reconfigured before the war to serve as the lead unit in the search for unconventional arms.
No announcement was made, but U.S. officials said command has passed to Keith Dayton, a two-star general from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's chief spy service. Dayton is considered an expert in collecting intelligence through interrogations or from informants. The nucleus of his staff will be intelligence officers, including several former U.N. inspectors.
Dayton's group won't be functioning fully for several weeks, officials said. Members ultimately will live in mobile trailers and operate from 100 workstations and a secure facility for top-secret communications that will be built in a ballroom at one of Hussein's former palaces that is located near the Baghdad airport. The team will also open two satellite bases in northern and southern Iraq.
Because they were forced to rely on a target list set before the war, the previous weapons-hunting teams spent most of the last two months picking through rubble or empty shells of former Iraqi factories, Baath Party offices, secret police centers, military camps and other sites that had taken the brunt of both U.S. bombing and postwar looting.
Most of the early weapons teams lacked translators, interrogators and transportation, as well as investigative expertise. They took hundreds of "wipes and swipes," as one officer here called it, of suspect substances for analysis at U.S. and British military laboratories. No germ agents, poison gases, or undeclared nuclear materials have been found.