Weapons inspectors revisit well-known sites in Iraq

Friday, November 29, 2002

AL-DAWRAH, Iraq -- The U.N. weapons hunters, sweeping through a disused bio-warfare installation Thursday, spotted a disconnected refrigerator. They moved in, threw open the door, and recoiled in disgust.

The stench that wafted out may have come from a batch of harmless material left from a long-ago veterinary experiment. But it got the full treatment -- a swab, a sample, analysis to come -- in the second day of the painstaking U.N. search for any Iraqi doomsday arms.

After a four-year break, the international experts revisited two sites from Iraq's old weapons programs: a high-tech machining operation that could be key to any nuclear bomb-building, and a veterinary vaccine plant where biological weapons were concocted a decade ago.

They found open doors. "It is very good cooperation," the director of the al-Dawrah vaccine plant said.

The lead inspectors seemed to agree. "It's a good start for the inspections," said Jacques Baute, team leader for the nuclear experts.

The work the inspectors do in the weeks and months to come -- to eliminate any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, or at least to reduce the possibility of them -- must be convincing enough to avert a U.S. call for international military action to disarm the Baghdad government.

But first the arms monitors must make a dent in a list of hundreds of sites potentially connected with programs to produce deadly weapons. They have begun by returning to important facilities surveyed and "neutralized" by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s.

Under U.N. resolutions after the 1991 Gulf War, arms inspectors uncovered and destroyed tons of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons and the equipment to make them, and dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program. But the monitoring collapsed in 1998 amid disputes over U.N. access to Iraqi sites and Iraqi complaints of U.S. spying from within the U.N. inspection agency.

The experts believe Iraq may retain some weapons, including some of the tons of botulinum toxin -- a deadly biological agent -- produced at al-Dawrah before the Gulf War. This is "part of what we call unresolved issues," Demetrius Perricos, in command of the chemical-biological inspectors in Iraq, told reporters.

Earlier Thursday, Perricos' team arrived unannounced at the Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Production Laboratory in this town on Baghdad's southern outskirts.

The inspectors gained immediate entry and quickly walked the grounds, as journalists watched from beyond the perimeter fence.

The U.N. team knew where to go based on data from the 1990s, when inspections led to the systematic destruction in 1996 of al-Dawrah equipment instrumental to production of biological weapons agents. The Iraqis had eventually acknowledged making the botulinum, which kills through paralysis and suffocation. The earlier U.N. teams also reported detecting anthrax spores at the site.

The Iraqis say the complex has been idle since 1996. When the inspectors left after four hours, the Iraqis opened the gates to the waiting journalists, who found the rooms of the main lab building strewn with wrecked equipment, discarded files and dust-covered boxes of books on veterinary medicine and agricultural science.

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