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Iraqi Scientists Cautiously Consider Surrender

Several senior weapons experts call former U.N. inspectors, seeking guidance on whether to give themselves up.

May 05, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Several of Saddam Hussein's senior weapons scientists, fearful of their fate if arrested by U.S. forces, have telephoned former U.N. inspectors here in recent days seeking guidance on whether and how to give themselves up, inspectors and others said.

The Iraqi scientists, including two who helped run Hussein's secret nuclear weapons program in the 1980s, said they can provide documents and other evidence to assist teams investigating Iraq's illicit efforts to procure sensitive equipment, components and raw materials from Germany and other countries.

One of the nuclear experts who called early last week has disappeared from his home outside Baghdad, raising concerns that he has fled the country. U.N. inspectors who raided his home earlier this year, after receiving a tip from the CIA, found sensitive documents about enrichment of uranium.

The uncertainty among the Iraqi scientists over how U.S. forces will treat them, or even whether they can be prosecuted for war crimes or other charges, appeared to add another obstacle to the hunt for illegal Iraqi arms. The Pentagon-led weapons search and intelligence-gathering effort already has been slowed by staffing, logistics and communications problems.

Despite scores of tantalizing clues and false alarms since President Bush launched war on Iraq more than six weeks ago, U.S. forces have found no proof of any illegal Iraqi weapons or production activities. Iraqis now in custody have denied any knowledge of unconventional weapons, U.S. officials said, or have insisted under interrogation that Hussein destroyed his illegal arms programs years ago.

Bush, speaking Saturday at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, said he remains convinced that U.S. forces will find evidence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which he had cited as the main justification for invading Iraq.

"We will find them," Bush said. "It will take a matter of time to do so."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell echoed that confidence Sunday. "I'm absolutely sure they [the Iraqis] had weapons of mass destruction, and I'm sure we will find them," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Special U.S. weapons teams have searched more than 100 suspected sites in Iraq, including those that the CIA had identified as the most promising targets. Unless scientists or others point the way, Pentagon officials have said, up to 3,000 factories, armories, vaccine plants, university laboratories and other facilities may need to be searched.

Only four senior Iraqi weapons scientists or officials and a handful of lesser weapons specialists -- of several hundred on closely held U.S. lists -- are known to have surrendered since Hussein's ouster last month. Their interrogations have yet to produce clear leads to hidden weapons caches or programs, officials said.

U.S. military and intelligence officials declined to say how long the Iraqi weapons experts will be detained, under what conditions or whether they are liable to face any criminal or war crimes charges. U.S. nonproliferation experts have urged the Bush administration to move quickly to help reintegrate the group into peaceful programs, if only to prevent them from selling their expertise to other countries or terrorist groups.

American-run radio in Iraq has urged scientists to come forward, promising that "anyone who provides information regarding weapons programs will be treated with respect and dignity."

But that hasn't persuaded some leading Iraqi scientists, who have reached out instead to former U.N. inspectors. The inspectors disclosed these communications to the Los Angeles Times in exchange for an agreement not to publish the scientists' names.

"They want some kind of assurance that they won't be detained," said David Albright, a former inspector who said he has received calls from several Iraqi nuclear scientists. "They don't feel like they've done anything wrong. Yet these others are in jail as far as they know."

Albright said all the scientists with whom he spoke insisted that Hussein had ended his nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that none could shed light on whether Hussein had secretly revived other illegal weapons programs. He said it was unclear whether the scientists were telling the truth or were looking to cut a deal. He said he urged them to cooperate with the Americans.

"They come from a society where if you're going to be detained, that means something different than it does to us," Albright added. "It really does scare them."

Steve Black, another former U.N. inspector, agreed. "They're afraid they're going to get the bright-lights Gestapo treatment," he said. "So they aren't turning themselves in. It makes sense to me because no one has said who is getting charged with what kind of crime."

He added: "I keep hearing people say, 'Saddam is gone, so they have no reason to lie.' That's not the case. They have every reason to lie if they think they're going to get prosecuted."

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