Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper
Since Gulf War, Nonconventional Weapons Never Got Past the Planning Stage
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD -- Of all Iraq's rocket scientists, none drew warier scrutiny abroad than Modher Sadeq-Saba Tamimi.
An engineering PhD known for outsized energy and gifts, Tamimi, 47, designed and built a new short-range missile during Iraq's four-year hiatus from United Nations arms inspections. Inspectors who returned in late 2002, enforcing Security Council limits, ruled that the Al Samoud missile's range was not quite short enough. The U.N. team crushed the missiles, bulldozed them into a pit and entombed the wreckage in concrete. In one of three interviews last month, Tamimi said "it was as if they were killing my sons."
But Tamimi had other brainchildren, and these stayed secret. Concealed at some remove from his Karama Co. factory here were concept drawings and computations for a family of much more capable missiles, designed to share parts and features with the openly declared Al Samoud. The largest was meant to fly six times as far.
"This was hidden during the UNMOVIC visits," Tamimi said, referring to inspectors from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. Over a leisurely meal of lamb and sweet tea, he sketched diagrams. "It was forbidden for us to reveal this information," he said.
Tamimi's covert work, which he recounted publicly for the first time in five hours of interviews, offers fresh perspective on the question that led the nation to war. Iraq flouted a legal duty to report the designs. The weapons they depicted, however, did not exist. After years of development -- against significant obstacles -- they might have taken form as nine-ton missiles. In March they fit in Tamimi's pocket, on two digital compact discs.
The nine-month record of arms investigators since the fall of Baghdad includes discoveries of other concealed arms research, most of it less advanced. Iraq's former government engaged in abundant deception about its ambitions and, in some cases, early steps to prepare for development or production. Interviews here -- among Iraqi weaponeers and investigators from the U.S. and British governments -- turned up unreported records, facilities or materials that could have been used in unlawful weapons.
But investigators have found no support for the two main fears expressed in London and Washington before the war: that Iraq had a hidden arsenal of old weapons and built advanced programs for new ones. In public statements and unauthorized interviews, investigators said they have discovered no work on former germ-warfare agents such as anthrax bacteria, and no work on a new designer pathogen -- combining pox virus and snake venom -- that led U.S. scientists on a highly classified hunt for several months. The investigators assess that Iraq did not, as charged in London and Washington, resume production of its most lethal nerve agent, VX, or learn to make it last longer in storage. And they have found the former nuclear weapons program, described as a "grave and gathering danger" by President Bush and a "mortal threat" by Vice President Cheney, in much the same shattered state left by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s.
A review of available evidence, including some not known to coalition investigators and some they have not made public, portrays a nonconventional arms establishment that was far less capable than U.S. analysts judged before the war. Leading figures in Iraqi science and industry, supported by observations on the ground, described factories and institutes that were thoroughly beaten down by 12 years of conflict, arms embargo and strangling economic sanctions. The remnants of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile infrastructures were riven by internal strife, bled by schemes for personal gain and handicapped by deceit up and down lines of command. The broad picture emerging from the investigation to date suggests that, whatever its desire, Iraq did not possess the wherewithal to build a forbidden armory on anything like the scale it had before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
David Kay, who directs the weapons hunt on behalf of the Bush administration, reported no discoveries last year of finished weapons, bulk agents or ready-to-start production lines. Members of his Iraq Survey Group, in unauthorized interviews, said the group holds out little prospect now of such a find. Kay and his spokesman, who report to Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, declined to be interviewed.
Poxes and Professors
On Dec. 13, as a reporter waited to see the dean of Baghdad University's College of Science, two poker-faced men strode into the anteroom. One was an ex-Marine named Dan, clad in civilian clothes, body armor, a checkered Arab scarf and a bandolier of eight spare magazines for his M-16 rifle. The other identified himself to the receptionist only as Barry.
He asked to see the dean, Abdel Mehdi Taleb, immediately. Dan preceded Barry into Taleb's office, weapon ready, then stood sentry outside.
According to Taleb, Barry asked -- once again -- about the work of immunologist Alice Krikor Melconian. For months, Taleb said, the Americans had sent scientists and intelligence officers to investigate the compact, curly-haired chairman of the university's biotechnology department.
Three Iraqi scientists said U.S. investigators asserted they have reason to believe Melconian ran a covert research facility, location unknown. In July, colleagues said, Melconian emerged from her office with a burly American on each arm and was placed into the back seat of a car with darkened windows. U.S. investigators held her for 10 days in an open-air cell and then released her.
Described by associates as shaken by her arrest, Melconian said she has done no weapons research and knows of no secret labs. "I have never left the university," she said. "I have nothing more to say about this. I do not want to make any more trouble."
Like others on campus, and at a few elite institutes elsewhere, Melconian remains under scrutiny in part because investigators deem her capable of doing dangerous biological research. Investigators said they are casting a wide net at Iraq's "centers of scientific excellence" in an effort to confirm intelligence that is fragmentary and often lacks essential particulars.
Kay's Iraq Survey Group, which has numbered up to 1,400 personnel from the Defense Department, Energy Department national laboratories and intelligence agencies, is looking for biological weapons far more dangerous than those of Iraq's former arsenal. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, published in October 2002, said "chances are even" that Iraqi weaponeers were working with smallpox, one of history's mass killers. It also said Iraq "probably has developed genetically engineered BW agents."
As the Associated Press first reported, a scientific assessment panel known as Team Pox returned home in late July without finding reason to believe Iraq possessed the variola virus, which causes smallpox. Even so, interviews with Iraqi scientists led to a redoubled search for work on animal poxes, harmless to humans but potentially useful as substitutes for smallpox in weapons research.
Rihab Taha, the British-educated biologist known in the west as Dr. Germ, has generally been described by U.S. officials as uncooperative in custody since May 12. But according to one well-informed account of her debriefing, she acknowledged receiving an order from superiors in 1990 to develop a biological weapon based on a virus. That same year, a virologist who worked for her, Hazem Ali, commenced research on camelpox.
If truthful and correctly recounted, Taha's statement exposed a long-standing lie. Iraq's government denied offensive viral research. One analyst familiar with the debriefing report, declining to be identified by name or nationality, said investigators believe that Taha's remarks demonstrate an intent to use smallpox, since camelpox resembles no other human pathogen.
More alarming even than Taha's statement, investigators said, were highly classified indications that Iraq sought to produce a genetically altered virus. Australian scientists reported in 2001 that an apparently innocent change in mousepox DNA transformed the virus into a rampant killer of mice. Investigators spent months probing for evidence that Iraq sought to master the technique, then apply it to vaccinia -- a readily available virus used to inoculate against smallpox -- and finally to smallpox itself.
Survey group scientists discovered no sign of pox research save at the Baghdad College of Veterinary Medicine, which declared the work to U.N. inspectors in 2002. Researchers there were manipulating the viruses that cause goatpox and sheeppox, in well-documented efforts to develop vaccines. U.S. investigators arrested Antoine Banna, the Cornell-trained dean, but soon released him. Much the same result followed a probe of avian virus research at the Ghazi Institute.
"It was legitimate research, but if they wanted to swing the other way they had some of the wherewithal to do that," said an analyst apprised of the results.
When investigators paid a call on Noria Ali, a genetic engineer who wears the head cover and long robes of an observant Muslim, "they said they knew there was [genetic] research on these viruses, and we had secret labs for this work," Ali said.
Ali acknowledged a history that attracted suspicion. In 1990, she said, Rihab Taha ordered her to build a genetic engineering lab at Iraq's principal bioweapons research center. The Special Security Organization warned her that "any person who talks about his work will be executed," Ali said. But Iraq's invasion of Kuwait left the lab unfinished, an account confirmed by U.S. and European experts.
"We could have done a lot in this lab, but the fact is that this lab never existed," Ali said.
The survey group's most exotic line of investigation sought evidence that Iraq tried to create a pathogen combining pox virus with cobra venom. A 1986 study in the Journal of Microbiology reported that fowlpox spread faster and killed more chickens in the presence of venom extract. Investigators received a secondhand report that Iraq sought to splice them together.
Such an artificial life form -- created by inserting genetic sequences from one organism into another -- is called a "chimera," after the fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology commingling lion, serpent and goat.
"They have asked about developing some kind of chimera, a pox with snake-venom gene," said Ali Zaag, dean of the university's Institute for Biotechnology. "You have seen our labs. For us, these capabilities are science fiction."
Investigators also searched for what one of them termed "starter sets" of pathogens, laboratory samples that could be used for later production. For each suspected weapon, the investigators carried a supply of "labeled antibodies," a classified technology used in field kits that resemble home pregnancy tests. "We didn't find anything, so certainly not anything engineered," a coalition scientist said.
Team Pox, as the group of investigators dubbed itself, eventually dropped the chimera investigation.
"You've got to learn to walk before you start running," said a European government scientist who studied Iraq's biological programs last year. "The evidence we have about the virus program is they hadn't started to walk yet."
Recently, Zaag said, the chimera hunt resumed. This time the investigators are intelligence officers. Their approach, Zaag said, is "We'll give you a few more days to reveal something, and then we'll have to take you." Spokesmen for the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency declined requests for interviews.