'Easter egg hunt' for WMD is abandoned

When the first American soldiers advanced through Iraq in March, every warehouse with bags of pesticide was eagerly examined in case they might be weapons of mass destruction.

"I can't get hold of any American officers because they are all out trying to win promotion by being the first to find WMD," said a Kurdish official in exasperation just after the fall of Mosul. "It is like a giant Easter egg hunt."

The search now is much more muted. US officers are more worried about the escalating guerrilla war. The Iraqi opposition, which in exile found no difficulty in passing on information about Saddam Hussein's stocks of WMD to intelligence agencies and journalists, has lost interest.

Before the war, the US and Britain insisted the surest way of finding the weapons would be through questioning senior members of the regime. The former Iraqi government was asked to allow them to be questioned without Iraqi officials present or outside the country where they would feel free to talk without fear. Many of the senior members are now in custody. They include Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam's private secretary and confidant, detained last month who attended all meetings with the former leader.

But none has produced any information so far that would confirm that Iraq possessed such weapons.

The silence of Saddam's inner circle on the topic so far tends to confirm the story told by General Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein who fled to Jordan in 1995. He had been in charge of monitoring and thwarting the UN weapons inspectors before his defection.

General Kamel said Saddam had ordered the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in 1991, but had also issued instructions that plans, designs and equipment to start the programme again, when possible, should be secretly retained.

Records of General Kamel's interrogation were revealed earlier this year.

Iraq first used poison gas against Iran in 1984 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. It became a regular part of the Iraqi armoury. In 1988, the Iraqi army won the decisive battle of Fao, recapturing a peninsula of that name south of Basra, by deluging Iranian positions with mustard gas as well as sarin and tabun nerve gas. In the same year, poison gas was used against the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing 5,000 civilians. In the months before the war with Iran ended Iraq was planning to attack Tehran with missiles containing poison gas.

Many of Iraq's problems with the UN inspectors in the 1990s revolved around its inability to prove exactly what had been destroyed in 1991. It had kept inexact records of what weapons it had used in the Iran-Iraq war.

In 1995, probably hoping to pre-empt General Kamel's expected disclosures, Iraq did tell the UN of what became known as "the chicken farm" documents because they were found in wooden and metal boxes in a chicken shed outside Baghdad. They revealed much about Iraq's plan before the Gulf War to develop a nuclear bomb as well as its biological and VX programmes pre-1991.

The one group of Iraqis that remains convinced that WMD existed and might be used against them were the Kurds, many of whom fled their homes during the recent war.

Comments