Iraq: The secrets which sparked the crisis

Robert Fisk in Baghdad reveals how the search for hidden documents led to the Gulf confrontation
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A RUSSIAN diplomat who ignored his own government's wishes, and a secret 1996 decision by United Nations arms inspectors to uncover the very core of Iraq's weapons bureaucracy, led to the latest crisis between the United States and Iraq.

The dispute, which will be debated by the UN Security Council today, has its origins in the inspectors' hunt for the entire methodology of Iraq's arms security apparatus - the documents, working commissions and system of its arms production rather than the weapons themselves. Only by discovering the names and status of hundreds of Republican Guard commanders and officials of the Iraqi intelligence service, the UN decided, could it build up a picture of what biological or chemical weapons the Iraqis still intended to construct.

But the Iraqis fear the information would be handed on a plate to the Israelis. UN sources privately, but frankly, admit that there is no way they can guarantee that the information the UN is looking for will not be forwarded to Israel by its American allies.

The preposterous stucco palaces and ornamental lakes across Iraq which have become the focus of Bill Clinton's and Tony Blair's public fury are only incidental to the drama. What the inspectors - originally led by the tough and single-minded Nikita Svidovic - are looking for is the mass of documentation and personnel records that may lie in small buildings outside the palaces. It is the UN's "concealment inspections" that lie at the core of the potential war between the US and Iraq, a series of raids on Iraqi institutions which began in early 1996 to gain knowledge - not of the location of missiles or chemical factories, but of Iraq's system of weapons concealment.

In early 1996, Mr Svidovic was running Unscom - the UN Special Commission in Iraq. He had distinguished himself not only by his work on Scud missiles but by his discovery of gyroscopes that could have been used for the Iraqi missiles' guidance system. The Iraqis eventually revealed the gyroscopes, which had been hidden in boxes beneath the Tigris river. While Russia insisted, however, that almost all Iraq's long-range Scud missiles had been destroyed, the US claimed that locally manufactured short-range rockets of 150km radius were being redesigned to fire at faraway targets such as Israel.

Mr Svidovic, apparently ignoring the political wishes of his employers in Moscow, began to notice that when he took his inspectors to sensitive military locations in Iraq, the same Iraqi military unit commanders showed up to watch them. American U2 photo-reconnaissance jets - which can "hover" over specific areas - were taking pictures of the military trucks which left these locations through back gates while Mr Svidovic was waiting at the entrance.

Interestingly, at the height of a later 1997 inspection crisis, the Iraqis threatened to shoot down U2s; the Russians offered to solve the crisis by providing their own aircraft - which did not have the same "hover" ability. The Americans turned down the offer and kept the U2s flying.

By May 1996, Mr Svidovic was being physically blocked from locations. On one occasion he had a gun held to his head by an Iraqi officer. Within a month, Rolf Ekeus, then head of Unscom, came to Baghdad under pressure from the Russians to reach a agreement with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. The agreement was more than faintly similar to the one which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan took home from Baghdad yesterday. Iraq would recognise its obligations under UN arms inspection agreements and in return had the right to have senior officers present at Unscom searches.

UN sources said this agreement was violated within two weeks. But now the U2s, flying with US crews out of Saudi Arabia, were taking photographs which showed that the Iraqi trucks leaving military locations as Mr Svidovic's men approached bore identical number plates to lorries the inspectors were encountering elsewhere. Clearly, there was a coherent weapons concealment system in place. The Russians tried through their UN ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, to put further pressure on Mr Svidovic to soften his inspections - which is why Mr Svidovic was quietly transferred from the Russian's payroll to Unscom's in 1997.

Mr Svidovic's replacement as head of the concealment teams was former US marine Scott Ritter, the man variously called a spy, abusive and arrogant in the Iraqi press. In fact, Mr Ritter's real importance goes back to the 1991 Gulf war when he was on General Norman Schwarzkopf's staff in Saudi Arabia. To the anger of the general, Mr Ritter voiced repeated doubts about the accuracy of US claims to have destroyed most of Iraq's Scud missiles. To General Schwarzkopf's fury, Mr Ritter was proved right.

Mr Svidovic may have annoyed the Iraqis, but at least he came from a friendly country - and wore a collar and tie. Mr Ritter turned up at military locations in jeans and a baseball hat. A cultural as well as military animosity was inevitable. The man whose reports would reach the Pentagon - and thence, the Iraqis were convinced, Israel - could not even dress respectably. Unscom's own frustration with Iraq was creating a lot of ill-will. According to UN sources, Iraqi excuses for failure resembled that of the school- boy who claims the dog has eaten his homework.

In 1995, for example, the Iraqis themselves took Unscom inspectors to a chicken farm where biological warfare had been the subject of research - but only after Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamal had defected to Jordan. The chicken farm turned out to belong to Kamal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided further evidence of evasion when it interviewed a senior Iraqi nuclear scientist who claimed his country had once established a joint commission to co-ordinate a clandestine nuclear programme, abandoned after the 1991 Gulf war. The IAEA asked for the names of the commission, and repeated their request last October. Then Tariq Aziz announced that the nuclear commission never existed.

Mr Ritter was determined to continue Mr Svidovic's work on the methodology of Iraqi weapons production. The Iraqis have handed over thousands of documents on their biological programme, but claim to have lost two entire years' worth of records (from 1993 and 1994). Since the Iraqis kept their other papers with near-Teutonic efficiency, the UN suspects the "missing" papers are being withheld. Are they buried? Or in the buildings around the presidential palaces, so sacred to Iraq's sovereignty that UN inspectors have been refused entry? And what else is there? The names of the "non- existent" pre-war nuclear weapons commission?

One of Unscom's biggest problems is that Iraq's chemical or biological technology may be beyond the experience of individual inspectors. Thus, Mr Ekeus searched for "pure view data" - the conclusions of academics and researchers to discoveries made by Unscom's men. How much fertiliser, for example, would a country of 22 million people need? If the answer was lower than Iraq's import of fertiliser, further questions had to be asked. But if Unscom could get its hands on the documentary base of all this research and discover the layers of military and intelligence bureaucracy, then they would be able to go beyond the theoretical and discover the weapons the Iraqis have not even yet made.

If the palace outhouses contain the information Unscom needs, Iraq's refusal to admit Mr Ritter and his inspectors makes sense. If the same Iraqi military units and commanders could be identified, then so could new locations. Iraq asked for a 60-day time limit for palace inspections and then a certification that they were "clean". Unscom suspected they would start off "clean", but turn "dirty" afterwards when Iraq trucked its documents back in.

Iraq, which has all along believed that the US and Israel wished to destroy the regime, has every reason to keep its bureaucracy secret. Unscom is involved in the search for Iraqi weapons that may not yet even exist. In Saddam Hussein's eyes, the UN is now spying - on behalf of Iraq's enemies - into its military future as well as its past.