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The Vanishing

What happened to the WMD?


Dr. Alaa Saeed is an affable man with a shy smile and a thinning thatch of wispy white hair above thick, gold-rimmed glasses. He wears short-sleeved white shirts and permanent-press gray slacks. He has the polite, self-effacing manner of a small-town pharmacist. You wouldn't suspect that the 51-year-old, British-trained chemist helped found and direct Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program. 

I met Saeed one recent morning in Baghdad as he and two-dozen other former Iraqi weapons scientists and military officials waited their turn to be questioned by "John," the head of an American interrogation team. The Americans refused to identify themselves or their agency. The British spooks, by contrast, were more polite. Saeed already had been grilled by "Miss Rebecca,'' who told him she came from MI-6, London's foreign intelligence service. After chatting a bit, I invited Saeed to lunch. We met twice that week for coffee, and ultimately I asked him to take me to his former workplace.

The next day, we drove 60 miles northwest to the Muthanna State Establishment. Muthanna was built by a French company in 1978, ostensibly as a pesticide plant. Instead, Muthanna became the heart of Saddam's chemical weapons program. By the mid-'80s, more than 1,000 people were secretly producing thousands of tons of nerve and blister agents at Muthanna, as well as running a pilot anthrax and botulinum biowarfare project. The secret was not well-kept. Muthanna was heavily bombed in the 1991 Gulf war and was literally the first stop for U.N. inspectors sent to Iraq after the 1991 cease-fire to supervise what they expected to be a brief disarmament effort.

Muthanna is desolate now. Portions remain of the front gate, an arched pair of yellow concrete scimitars, but garish murals of Saddam have been destroyed. Empty roads shimmer in the furnace-like heat, and a few skinny trees somehow survive in the roadside grit. But mostly there is devastation. Saeed tells my driver to stop every few hundred yards so he can play tour guide. "This is P-7, the production plant for sarin and tabun," he says, getting out so we can climb through a heap of concrete slabs, broken tiles, and crumpled pipes. He points to another bombed-out ruin. "On the right is P-8, where we made mustard gas." We stop again, and he nods at a dun-colored building that was the "animal house" for donkeys, dogs, rabbits, rats, and guinea pigs. "We tied them up in inhalation chambers and released the agents," he explains. "Blood would run from their eyes, noses, and mouths, and they would convulse." Scientists, he says, were kept under the watchful eyes and guns of a secret police detachment camped next door.

Saeed first came to Muthanna in 1980 with a half-dozen other military scientists to set up Project 922, which was dedicated to the covert production of chemical weapons. With a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Baghdad and a membership card in Saddam's Baath Party, Saeed was appointed chief of quality control, responsible for certifying every production run. He already had served eight years in the army's chemical defense corps, which helped train and protect Iraqi soldiers against chemical attacks from Iran, Iraq's chief enemy at the time. Now he and his colleagues were on offense. Their first success was mustard gas, a World War I blister agent that causes debilitating injuries to the eyes, lungs, and skin. After a few test runs, Muthanna soon was churning out 900 tons of mustard gas per year. Then, in 1983, Saeed and his colleagues began producing more lethal nerve agents--first tabun, then sarin and cyclosarin, which are absorbed through the skin or respiratory tract and can cause death within a few minutes. The purity of the nerve agents varied widely, but Iraq used thousands of chemical-filled bombs, rockets, and artillery shells during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. U.N. investigators estimated they caused up to 80,000 Iranian casualties. Baghdad also used Muthanna's blister and nerve agents against Kurds in northern Iraq. Saeed left Muthanna for three years in 1985 to get a Ph.D. from the University of Sussex in England. He liked the dowdy seaside town of Brighton and briefly considered staying and joining a real estate firm there. "I was very tempted, but I have a big family--two sisters and six brothers--and [regime officials] told my parents, `If your son does not return, we will kill you,'" he says.

When he got back in 1988, Muthanna was bustling. We drive down a gravel road so he can show me the rubble-filled site where he focused his work for the next three years. "We called this the Dhia'a Plant. It is where we made VX," Saeed says. VX, first developed by British scientists in the 1950s, paralyzes the nervous system and is dozens of times stronger than sarin. The four-stage VX production process is difficult, but the Muthanna scientists reverse engineered the recipe from a list of controlled chemicals issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. Saeed says he supervised production of his last two batches of liquid VX in April 1990 but that they failed to achieve his goal of 50 to 60 percent purity, and they deteriorated within a week. "It couldn't be used as a weapon," he insists.

Concerns about VX were central to the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) presented an imminent threat. In the early '90s, Iraqi officials repeatedly denied developing VX. After U.N. inspectors found proof of VX in 1995, Baghdad acknowledged producing 3.9 tons but insisted it was never deployed as a weapon. U.N. inspectors weren't so sure. In 1998, they found VX products in a missile warhead. More important, they warned that Iraq could still be hiding enough precursor chemicals to produce up to 200 tons of VX. Iraq consistently denied possessing those chemicals, however, and their existence was never proved. Saeed claims the VX dispute was based on a misunderstanding. In 1991, he says senior Iraqi officials ordered him to destroy his records and to deny producing VX in order to bring a quick end to U.N. inspections. He says he tried to tell the truth after 1995 but that his previous lies undermined his attempts to come clean. "When the U.N. inspectors first came, my superior told me, `Because you did not succeed in producing VX, why tell them about it? It takes too much time. So forget about it.' I had to tear up or burn our documents. So we hid the VX program from 1991 to 1995. After that, of course, they did not believe us. But that is the real story."

The idea that Saddam did not secretly continue building chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons directly contradicts White House claims. But the Iraqi scientists I met insist that the combination of U.S. bombing, U.N. inspections, disarmament efforts, unilateral destruction by Iraqi officials, and stiff U.N. sanctions had indeed eliminated Saddam's illicit weapons by the mid-'90s. At the same time, however, Saddam's efforts to hide or destroy documents hindered efforts to ultimately resolve scores of questions about the disposition of missing materials and equipment. In addition, fear of Saddam kept many scientists from telling the dictator the truth about their WMD programs. Ultimately, the scientists and others say, Saddam may have feared that admitting his WMD were gone would have shown a weakness that could have threatened his hold on power. These overlapping theories may not fully explain why American forces have not found WMD in Iraq. But, for now, they're the best we have. 

In 1998, the United Nations withdrew its weapons inspectors from Iraq before a series of U.S. and British bombing raids. The final report from the U.N. inspectors in January 1999 focused chiefly on questions about unaccounted-for raw materials, documents, and equipment related to WMD programs. The Bush administration went to war this year on the assumption that those unaccounted for materials--such as VX precursor chemicals--were still present in Iraq. But, according to Iraqi scientists, some of those chemicals had never existed or had been destroyed by U.N. inspectors, by Iraqi authorities, or by the passage of time. "A lot of projects were just ink on paper,'' a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer tells me over coffee one morning in Baghdad. 

So why did Saddam's regime deceive U.N. inspectors for twelve years? Why did it organize traffic jams, lock doors, hide documents, bus in jeering crowds, and do everything else it could to frustrate the U.N. weapons teams between 1991 and 1998? Why did Saeed, appointed deputy minder to the U.N. inspectors after 1991, help author all three of Iraq's bogus chemical weapons declarations to the U.N. Security Council, including large parts of the 12,000-page document handed over last December? An honest report might have prevented war. Instead, like its predecessors, it was quickly rejected as inaccurate and incomplete.

When I ask him, Saeed says he doesn't know exactly why Saddam continued deceiving the world. Back in 1991, he says, his supervisor, Hussam Mohammed Amin (who was taken into U.S. custody in April), ordered him to destroy all his original notes and records in an attempt to cover up Iraq's pre-Gulf war chemical weapons programs. When it came time to write the first chemical weapons report to the Security Council in 1994, he says, "We had to do it mostly from memory. We worked day and night for six months. Maybe we could collect a piece of paper here and there or check labels on some equipment. Maybe some numbers were not right." Without the original records, he says, his follow-up reports were just as bad. U.N. inspectors were convinced the inaccuracies were deliberate, in part because they kept finding evidence--from shipping records to chemical residue--proving that Iraq's WMD programs in the '80s were much more extensive than it had admitted.

In some cases, fear of Saddam prevented the scientists from revealing to the dictator that the WMD programs had failed or been destroyed. "People were afraid to tell Saddam," the intelligence officer says. After all, in a land ruled by torture and terror, what official would admit that he did not achieve 100 percent of his assigned production? Even correcting the numbers later was dangerous. "Because then we will look like liars," the intelligence officer explains. "And that will make Iraq look bad [to the world]. And people will lose their heads." Indeed, agents from at least three branches of Saddam's ruthless security services spied not only on the inspectors but also on the inspectors' minders. "They are watching us always. Are we saying too much? Are we whispering?" Saeed pauses. "Even if I go out on Friday, the day of rest, if I go to Arasat Street [the commercial center of Baghdad] and I see a U.N. inspector and he comes up and says, `Hello,' I am very scared. Because I know he is being followed by the Mukhabarat [the secret police], and, if they see us together, they will think I am helping them. So I just say very quickly, `Hello, I'm sorry, I must go. Goodbye, goodbye.'" He stares down at the ground, and his voice suddenly sounds angry. "The Mukhabarat. I hate them."

But, if the WMD were gone, why didn't Saddam cooperate in the '90s, if only to get the United Nations off his back so he could resume building his weapons? Why didn't he cooperate last year in order to appease the White House and avoid a war that would topple his regime? The prevailing theory among former U.N. inspectors and current American, British, and Australian weapons-hunters interviewed for this story is that Saddam was too proud to concede that he no longer possessed WMD. To admit this point would have meant bowing to the West. He would have appeared weak, and weakness would have threatened his hold on power at home and his vainglorious self-image as a leader of the Arab world. Instead, Saddam thought he could bully his way through this crisis, as he had in previous standoffs with the United States and its allies. The inspectors say Saddam believed that uncertainty about WMD could again serve as a deterrent to American forces. After all, in the wake of the 1991 war, U.N. inspectors learned Saddam had told aides that coalition ground forces had not pressed on to Baghdad because they were afraid of his chemical and biological weapons.

Of course, the possibility that Saddam no longer possessed WMD does not mean that he no longer wanted to possess them. The former senior intelligence officer, a barrel-chested brigadier general who still wears a large watch with Saddam's portrait etched in gold on the face, insists that no chemical or biological weapons were produced in Iraq after the mid-'90s. But he does not pretend Saddam suddenly went legit. Indeed, the officer says he helped manage a maze of overseas trading companies run by Iraqi intelligence operatives and designed to support Iraq's sanctions-busting procurement schemes. He made seven overseas trips after the mid-'90s to help buy and ship spare parts, raw materials, and other supplies for Saddam's conventional weapons programs. On his last trip, in April 2001, he went to Jordan, Cyprus, Morocco, South Africa, and Argentina, using phony passports from neighboring Arab nations, to help arrange the secret purchase of $57 million worth of cannons, artillery fuses, calibrating instruments, and other weapons parts. As on previous trips, he also helped buy and smuggle "dual-use" items, such as medical laboratory equipment, which might someday be used to build chemical and biological weapons if the United Nations declared Iraq WMD-free and lifted sanctions. Indeed, he says that, in 1996, Saddam ordered his intelligence services to create a series of secret cells of Iraqi scientists and technicians. The groups--each with about four or five members--met regularly in Baghdad basements and did small experiments in underground laboratories. Their goal was not to build weapons. It was to formulate plans on how to build them when the United Nations lifted sanctions. "We could start again anytime," the intelligence officer says. "It's very easy. Especially biological."

Should we believe Saeed when he says Iraq has no hidden weapons today? He has lied before, and he and every other Iraqi I met are absolutely convinced that Saddam is alive--a viewpoint reinforced by the recent audiotape, allegedly by Saddam, broadcast on Al Jazeera. Many scientists are convinced that thugs from Saddam's regime will retaliate against anyone who cooperates with the U.S. military occupation. Saeed is clearly terrified. His voice drops and his hands began to tremble when he describes how the dictator's aides suddenly appeared at his office in late 1997. They ordered him into a car with shades drawn and drove him to an unknown location. Saddam was waiting inside. "He thanked me for my work," he recalls. "But I am still shaking."

Saeed also admits he might not have known if the Mukhabarat or other Iraqi intelligence organizations were conducting their own WMD programs. The weapons procurement and production efforts were so compartmentalized that, even as Saeed advanced--he was promoted to brigadier general after he began working with the U.N. inspectors--he still had only a limited view of the other programs. He was aware, for example, that the Mukhabarat had special laboratories in and around Baghdad but says he never saw them or knew of their purpose. On the other hand, any serious effort to produce chemical or biological agents would have required scores of scientists, engineers, technicians, drivers, and others. And American officials in Baghdad have offered a $200,000 cash reward and political asylum or a new identity outside Iraq to anyone who can provide proof of Iraq's forbidden weapons. If the weapons really exist, it is hard to understand why no one has grabbed that prize. Yet no one has produced the goods.

Facing this failure, the Pentagon announced with great fanfare in late April that it would overhaul the WMD hunt. Instead of just searching sites using outdated intelligence, the newly created Iraq Survey Group would seek new clues by analyzing hundreds of thousands of captured documents and by finding and interrogating anyone, from top scientists to office clerks, who might know about them. But the new operation has been slow to start. Having run out of valid targets, most of the weapons-hunting teams were sidelined for much of June as they awaited new orders. It took American intelligence two weeks to find Saeed and his colleagues, and they were hardly hiding. Hoping the Americans would come to pay their back salaries, they gathered each morning outside a looted office building that once was home to the National Monitoring Directorate (NMD), the agency set up by Saddam's regime to work with U.N. inspectors. American officials would not allow me to observe any of the interrogations at the NMD building or at Camp Slayer, a former palace complex that now is home to the weapons-hunters and U.S. intelligence operations. But it is not hard to figure out what the Americans are asking. "Their questions are the same as yours," Saeed tells me. "`Do you know of any documents or inventory of chemical agents? Any stockpiles? Any production programs? Any filled munitions?' … I am ready to give them all the information I have. But the answer is always the same, `No, no, no.'"

Outside the NMD building, I hear the same kind of answers from General Jamil Raad, a large, bullnecked man whose face appears set in a permanent scowl, and from other scientists. Raad was director general of the Salahaldeen factory, which produced radar, military communications, and electronics equipment at Al Dour, near Tikrit. He points to a knot of ten men whom he says he brought to meet the Americans. All had worked for the Military Industrialization Company (MIC), the vast network of arms and trading companies responsible for most of Iraq's weapons production and procurement, and are willing to speak with the American interrogators--though, they insist, they had no information to offer. "I told them we are all ready to cooperate with any of the questions they have," Raad says. "But there are no hidden weapons." Nearby is Dr. Mahmoud Dagher, the former acting director of the MIC. He sighs and studies my business card closely when I ask about his interrogation. "They ask the same questions every day," he says. "I told them, `We gave [the U.N. inspectors] everything, and nothing was kept.'" He says he too had turned down the $200,000 offer. "The money is nothing. The truth is the truth."

Truth, of course, is in short supply in Iraq. The CIA complains that high-profile captives are sticking to a party line, which some CIA people believe may be untrue. "They all say the same thing," a CIA official told me. "`We don't know anything about WMD, we don't know about POWs, we never met Saddam. Sorry, can't help you.'"

Yet U.S. tactics haven't helped the search. The American occupation forces have not clearly explained whether the scientists who cooperate will be treated as heroes or as criminals. In June, Mahdi Obeidi, a former senior Iraqi nuclear scientist, voluntarily led the CIA to his rose garden in Baghdad, where they dug up parts of a gas centrifuge machine as well as a two-foot-high stack of blueprints, manuals, and other documents that he had buried. Obeidi told the CIA that Saddam's nuclear weapons program had been destroyed by Allied bombing and U.N. inspectors in the '90s but that Saddam still hoped to restart it. Indeed, Obeidi told the CIA that, if the United Nations had lifted sanctions, Iraq could have used the centrifuge parts as templates to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb. But, two days after Obeidi turned his cache in to the CIA, the U.S. military broke down his front door and arrested him on suspicion that he was hiding other material as well. The CIA ultimately got him out of jail and moved Obeidi and his nine family members to Kuwait. But the episode is unlikely to encourage other Iraqi scientists to come forward.

Nor, in most cases, have American forces disclosed who they have detained or why, though word--and fear--spreads quickly. The day before I met Saeed and his colleagues, for example, "John" and his team had arrived with a handwritten list with the words "Taha-7" on top. It named six top aides to Dr. Rahib Rashid Taha, a dour, British-trained microbiologist known as Dr. Germ who was arrested after the war. In the '80s, Taha had supervised production of vast quantities of anthrax, botulinum, aflatoxin, and other lethal pathogens. "John" found three bioweapons experts from the list that day and took them away in his van, promising he would bring them back in an hour. By the time I left Iraq two weeks later, their families still had no idea where they were or when they might be released. Not surprisingly, the snatch didn't go down very well with their colleagues. The NMD building was deserted when I went back for a final visit.

In my last meeting with Saeed, I ask if he ever regretted producing chemical weapons for Saddam. He seems surprised. "In Iraq, we obey an order. We have no choice." What about the thousands of casualties and deaths they had caused? "It is not my responsibility to think how they might be used," he says. After I press him several times, he finally admits that perhaps he has one regret. "I wish I'd taken the estate agent job" in Brighton, he concedes. "I understand the property market has done very well." 

This article originally ran in the July 21, 2003, issue of the magazine.