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Wednesday, April 23

Pentagon feeling pressure to find banned weapons in Iraq

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials knew it might be difficult locating Iraq's banned weapons once Saddam Hussein had been toppled.

Now they're learning just how difficult as they scour the California-sized country for evidence of weapons that might have been destroyed, buried in the desert or smuggled out.

"You're looking at potentially a substantial amount of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) possibly subjected to the same kind of looting we've been seeing in Baghdad and other places,'' said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

With no smoking-gun evidence to show for its efforts thus far, the Pentagon is ratcheting up the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction with a massive hunt that dwarfs any of the United Nations' efforts to find them.

The Pentagon had been conducting weapons searches with its troops even before the major combat operations of the war ended recently. But it now plans to establish a separate program of more than 1,000 specially trained weapons hunters, including some former U.N. weapons inspectors, headed by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

That program is expected to be fully staffed and operating within months.The U.N. searches that started after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and ended shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq March 19 typically never involved more than 200 or so inspectors.

Politics and security

Finding Saddam's weapons of mass destruction is critical for both political and security reasons.

The Bush administration used what it claimed was Saddam's massive arsenal of banned weapons to justify its invasion of Iraq despite the U.N. Security Council's refusal to authorize an explicit use-of-force resolution in the weeks before the war.

Failure to find any compelling evidence of programs to make chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons would provide powerful ammunition to anti-American factions in the Middle East now claiming the war was an act of modern colonialism aimed at stealing Iraqi oil.

Failure to secure what were well-documented arsenals of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq as recently as 1998 would raise grave security concerns.

The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), assigned to inspect Iraq for weapons of mass destruction from 1991-98, documented tens of thousands of gallons of anthrax, botulism toxin and nerve agent.

Weapons inspectors were never able to determine how much more Saddam's scientists might have produced or how much of what they discovered was actually destroyed.

Finding it now will be extremely difficult, say former weapons inspectors, in part because of how adept Iraqi scientists were at hiding biological and chemical weapons programs in what are called dual-use facilities. These are capable of making legitimate civilian products as well as lethal agents.

Indeed, U.S. forces looking for Saddam's weapons may already be hitting this hurdle.

"Some of the materials we have found could have been used in weapons production or in agricultural programs,'' Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said during a recent briefing in Qatar.

Iraq's infamous al-Hakam agricultural products plant southwest of Baghdad is an often cited case study in how difficult and time-consuming it can be to determine whether a dual-use facility was used to make weapons.

For years, UNSCOM inspectors suspected the massive, heavily guarded facility was being used to make anthrax or precursor biowarfare agents. But it took several teams of inspectors more than a year to make the determination based on a complex network of evidence, deductions and cross-matching information for telltale incongruities.

Dual-use biological weapons facilities will be the most difficult to locate because the equipment used to make bioweapons is commonly found in hospitals and in food production. What's more, bioweapons can be made with equipment small enough to load onto a truck for rapid evasion or smuggling.

"The regime was expert at hiding these, so finding them will be a task that will continue for some time,'' said Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan.

Time and cooperation

Former weapons inspectors point out time is not on the Pentagon's side.

Smuggled weapons easily can be sold to terrorists by fleeing members of Saddam's regime.

"And it's not just the weapons you have to worry about but also the scientists with the deadly know-how who might be of interest to groups like al-Qaida,'' said Jonathan Tucker, a biological weapons inspector in Iraq in the mid-1990s. "It may be a sad irony that what started out as an attempt to stop the spread of WMD, actually caused it to spread.''

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. forces have been getting cooperation from Iraqis volunteering information about Saddam's weapons programs.

"This is the kind of information you need to get on the ground, and we're getting it now,'' Fleischer said.

Saddam's top scientific adviser Amir al-Saadi surrendered in Baghdad more than a week ago, but U.S. forces have yet to produce any incriminating evidence.

It may be that finding Saddam's weapons will require making life comfortable for people who would otherwise be facing war crimes trials.

"As unpalatable as it may be,'' Tucker said, "you might have to offer these people lenient treatment or even rewards.''