Seven men on mission improbable

UN inspectors are assessing Iraq's largest nuclear plant. But the US will not let them aid its own vain search for Saddam's arsenal
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Indy Politics

UN experts are this weekend back inside Iraq for the first time since the war against the regime began, but they are operating under more restrictions than they were when Saddam Hussein was in power.

A small team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Baghdad on Friday to begin an assessment of Iraq's largest nuclear facility, Tuwaitha, that had been left unguarded by Allied troops during the early days of the war and then pillaged by villagers.

But the seven-member team is limited to just one small area of the vast nuclear research centre and cannot even take its detection instruments to nearby villages to track down any material that may have been taken off the site. "The coalition partners decided that would be the role," said Rick Grennel, a US spokesman at the UN when asked to explain the restrictions.

This attitude of the Allied forces in respect of the IAEA team is indicative of the entire operation to track down Saddam's alleged hoard of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons: to date the entire effort of the Allied forces in this regard has resulted in the seizing of two mobile vehicles which may - and doubts are now growing - have been used for producing biological agents. Even the US officials who have been examining the two trailers admit that some experts disagree with their conclusion.

Despite the absence of any conclusive proof - and certainly in the absence of discoveries of vast stockpiles of nerve gas, chemical agents and warheads - those in London and Washington who claimed the evidence of WMD would be found continue to make the argument.

"We haven't found Saddam Hussein either, but that doesn't mean he doesn't exist," said the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in one of his typically smug and media-friendly soundbites.

But as the row continues as to whether London and Washington skewed the evidence to suit their politics, experts are asking specific questions about the search for WMD. Surely, they ask, discovering evidence of the existence of these weapons, especially in the dangerous quantities and advanced stage of development that were alleged, should be much easier than tracking down one man.

"The physical infrastructure you would need for a serious weapons programme is not easy to hide," said Glen Rangwala, a Cambridge University expert on the WMD issue. "It would also be necessary to concentrate significant amounts of people and materials in one place if some of the claims made in the US and Britain were to be true. Not only would large numbers of people know what was going on, it would be very difficult to leave no trace at all." Only nuclear weapons are true WMD, as Stephen Pullinger of the British-based International Security Information Service pointed out last week. "Whereas nuclear weapons are truly massively destructive, chemical and biological weapons are not. They neither destroy things nor need be lethal against those properly protected," he said.

But a nuclear programme would be the hardest to conceal, according to Dr Rangwala. "We know Iraq had the scientific knowledge to produce highly enriched uranium, but there was no proof it ever did so," he said. "Finding evidence of a concerted enrichment programme would certainly make the coalition's case, but if it existed it would almost certainly have been found by now." If inspectors fail that test, they would need to find the al-Hussein missiles listed by the Government's September dossier in one of its more specific claims. It said there were up to 20 of the missiles, with a range of around 900km. If they are discovered, it would go some of the way to proving Iraq posed an unconventional threat outside the Middle East - but only if it could be shown that chemical warheads had also been developed. Again, said Dr Rangwala, UN inspectors determined that Iraq experimented with chemical warhead production for long-range missiles before 1991, "but there was no proof they ever actually went into production".

In any case, the shelf-life of Iraq's alleged stocks of agents such as VX, sarin and tabun would have expired long ago, partly because the country was never able to purify them sufficiently. "The only chemical weapon Iraq might still have had is mustard gas, the subject of constant claims by London and Washington," said Dr Rangwala. The only active biological agent Iraq might still have is anthrax, but even if it existed it is likely to be there only in tiny amounts. The claim that Iraq had 10,000 litres of anthrax depended on two things: a "worst-case" estimate by UN inspectors more than 10 years ago, and an assumption that Iraq perfected drying techniques, which the UN inspectors never believed. If the new team of weapons hunters finds evidence Iraq had managed to do it, that would be a major coup.

Stephen Cambone, a senior Pentagon official, said that the search for weapons will be given new impetus by the arrival of an allegedly enlarged search team called the Iraq Survey Group. The 1,400 analysts, interpreters and document specialists "will begin a very rigorous, analytically driven effort to identify the Iraqi WMD programme", he said.

But those on the ground in Iraq have expressed their doubts. Last month, the team that was initially given the task of finding WMD began winding down its operation without having found any evidence. The US Army's 75th Exploitation Task Force investigated numerous sites identified by US intelligence as those likely to harbour such weapons but concluded that it was unlikely to find any.

The team's leader, Colonel Richard McPhee, said his team arrived in Iraq believing the intelligence warnings that Saddam had given "release authority" to those in charge of a chemical arsenal. "We didn't have all those people in protective suits for nothing," he told The Washington Post. "But if they planned to use those weapons there had to have been something to use and we haven't found it. Books will be written on that in the intelligence community for a long time."