Targeted Iraqi chemical plant draws bead on WMD charge

Saturday, October 4, 2003

MULAHIMAH, Iraq -- Pigeons have taken over the rust-encrusted pipes and tanks of Fallujah II, where guards idle away hours stalking the birds with slingshots. Once the CIA's "best example" of a disguised weapons program, the derelict chemical plant stands today more as a symbol of the gap between fears and reality in the Iraq crisis.

On Thursday in Washington, chief U.S. weapons hunter David Kay acknowledged to Congress that his hundreds of chemical, biological and nuclear experts have found no outlawed Iraqi arms. Reports of his testimony haven't been received quietly in Baghdad, six months after a U.S.-British invasion.

"A country was destroyed because of weapons that don't exist!" said Nihad Mohammed al-Rawi, acting president of Baghdad University, whose scientists have been key suspects in the search for banned weapons.

With no weapons found, U.S. teams trying to prove Iraq was a threat will pursue suspicions of secret plans by Baghdad to revive such arms programs at some point in the future, the Kay report said.

The report did not note, however, that the United Nations -- if not interrupted by war -- would have imposed years of open-ended controls on Iraq to prevent just such a resumption of weapons-building, via remote and in-person monitoring of such sites as Fallujah II, in the desert 40 miles northwest of Baghdad.

An influential CIA report last October contended the Baghdad government had rebuilt such "dual-use" chemical facilities -- ostensibly to make civilian products -- so they could be quickly diverted to production of chemical weapons.

"The best examples are the chlorine and phenol plants at the Fallujah II facility," it said. Chlorine was of greater concern, as both a vital disinfectant for water treatment and a component of chemical weapons.

But the U.N. weapons inspectors who returned to Iraq last November found that the state-run plant's chlorine line, rebuilt from the wreckage of bombing in the 1991 Gulf War, was "inoperative."

Surveying every inch of the Fallujah II operation, the U.N. teams tagged and sealed some equipment, and returned repeatedly to monitor activities. Such U.N. work -- some 700 inspections nationwide -- got no acknowledgment Thursday in Kay's report.

The security chief of Fallujah II told a reporter Thursday its technicians had tried but failed to operate the chlorine process last year.

"They'd get it working for a day, and then it would break down for a month," said Mohammed Abid. The reason: U.N. sanctions blocked the import of filters needed to separate chlorine from raw compounds, said Abid, whose skeletal crew is all that remains of the plant's 900-worker force.

If Fallujah II was a hollow threat before the war, the war's chaotic aftermath of looting has left it a sprawl of ransacked offices, broken windows and production sheds littered with pigeon feathers and droppings.

The plant's director, Zuhair al-Qazaz, visits weekly from his home in Baghdad, Abid reported. Al-Qazaz seems lucky, since many in his position have been incarcerated by U.S. occupation force, as interrogators hunt for clues to banned weapons the Bush administration has contended are present in Iraq.

One is chemical engineer Abdel-Salam Jaber Abdel-Sadeh, 45, whose SAAD Co. offices in Baghdad were inspected by U.N. missile and chemical experts before the war. The Americans seized him in June, and his wife, Jamila, has been able to visit him only once, for a half-hour.

"I don't know what they want," she told a reporter. "My husband said, 'They're asking me about things I'm not involved with, that I know nothing about."'

Some Iraqis were released after days of intensive questioning, such as microbiologist Alis Krikor, a 60-ish woman who heads a Baghdad University institute. She noted to a reporter that Iraqi scientists uniformly say weapons programs were shut down in the 1990s, under an earlier U.N. inspection regime. "I have no reason not to believe them," she said.

Biochemist Sami al-Mudhafar, university president until last week, said he asked the U.S. military to halt their armed missions onto campus to take away professors. "They stopped it a month ago," he said.

Even the prospect of large financial rewards has turned up no weapons to justify the U.S. rationale for war, said the university's vice president for science.

"It's because the scientists don't have such information," said Hatem Jaber al-Rubaee. "I'm sure now as I was sure then" -- before the war -- "there are no such weapons in Iraq."

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