Michael Ware


TIME: Chasing a Mirage


The trader was actually sitting at home in Baghdad, waiting. He knew it was only a matter of time before the Americans came. It was just after curfew on the night of June 22, ten weeks after Saddam Hussein's fall, when he heard a helicopter overhead, the humvees in the street outside, the knock at the door. U.S. soldiers came rushing into the house, broke his bed, searched everywhere, then put a blindfold on him and drove him away.

He knew they would come because he knew what they were looking for. He had worked for the import section of Iraq's powerful Military Industrialization Commission (MIC), essentially the state's weapons-making organ, which owned hundreds of factories, research centers--everything you needed if you wanted to build an arsenal of chemical or biological weapons. He spent much of his time in the 1980s buying tons of growth medium, which scientists use to cultivate germs. "We were like traders." he says. "The scientists would tell us what they wanted, and we got it." After Gulf War I, he entertained a steady stream of U.N. weapons inspectors wanting to know what had happened to all that growth medium, how had it been used, what was left.

But there wasn't much he could tell them, not that he could prove, at least. Just before the war, he recalls, the chiefs at the MIC had told people like him involved in the weapons program to hand over some of their documents and burn the rest. "They didn't realize at that time the Americans would insist on every single document," he says. "They thought the [U.S.] attacks would come and that would be it." When in the years after the war U.N. inspectors kept demanding a paper trail, the superiors got nervous. They "started asking us for the documents they had told us to destroy. They were desperate. They even offered to buy any documents we may have hidden."

Ten years and another war later, a new set of interrogators is wondering what happened to Iraq's bioweapons program. On the night of his arrest, the Americans took him to a detention center at the airport, where he was kept in a cell alone, given plenty of water and military rations. Two pairs of Western interrogators took turns asking questions, sometimes through a translator, sometimes directly in English or Arabic. "They asked me about the importation of things like chemicals and about people sent abroad for special missions. The essence of it was, Are there any WMD?" They particularly focused on the period after 1998, when U.N. inspectors left Iraq. "Could any trade have happened without my knowledge within the MIC, not just my section?" The buyer says he had nothing of interest to tell the interrogators; his group, he insists, had long ago quit the weapons-of-mass-destruction business. As they pressed him about what he purchased and for whom, it seemed to him that "it was just like the blind man clutching for someone's hand to hold." After three days he was blindfolded, taken back into the city and released.

The trader's story offers a glimpse into the challenges faced by David Kay, a co-head of the Iraq Survey Group, charged by the CIA with finding the WMD the Bush Administration insists Iraq has. Kay is expected to release a status report on his findings soon, possibly this week. While stressing that the account will not be the Survey Group's final word, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow allows that it "won't rule anything in or out." That remark seems a tacit acknowledgment that the U.S., after nearly six months of searching, has yet to find definitive evidence that Saddam truly posed the kind of threat the White House described in selling the war.

Bush Administration officials never anticipated this predicament. They expected that WMD arsenals would be uncovered quickly once the U.S. occupied Iraq. Since then, Iraq has been scoured, and nearly every top weapons scientist has been captured or interviewed. That the investigators have found no hidden stockpiles of VX gas or anthrax or intact gas centrifuges suggests that it may be time to at least entertain the possibility that Iraqi officials all along were telling the truth when they said they no longer had a WMD program.

Over the past three months, TIME has interviewed Iraqi weapons scientists, middlemen and former government officials. Saddam's henchmen all make essentially the same claim: that Iraq's once massive unconventional-weapons program was destroyed or dismantled in the 1990s and never rebuilt; that officials destroyed or never kept the documents that would prove it; that the shell games Saddam played with U.N. inspectors were designed to conceal his progress on conventional weapons systems--missiles, air defenses, radar--not biological or chemical programs; and that even Saddam, a sucker for a new gadget or invention or toxin, may not have known what he actually had or, more to the point, didn't have. It would be an irony almost too much to bear to consider that he doomed his country to war because he was intent on protecting weapons systems that didn't exist in the first place.

These tales are tempting to dismiss as scripts recited by practiced liars who had been deceiving the world community for years. These sources may still be too frightened of the possibility of Saddam's return to power to tell his secrets. Or it could be that Saddam reconstituted an illicit weapons program with such secrecy that those who knew of past efforts were left out of the loop. But the unanimity of these sources' accounts can't be easily dismissed and at the very least underscores the difficulty the U.S. has in proving its case that Saddam was hoarding unconventional arms.

Iraqi engineering professor Nabil al-Rawi remembers being at a conference in Beirut on Feb. 5 and watching on TV as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a presentation to the U.N. laying out the U.S. case that Iraq was pressing ahead with its weapons programs. Conference participants from other Arab countries grilled al-Rawi whether Powell's charges were true. An exasperated al-Rawi tried to reassure his counterparts that he and his teams had abandoned their illegal programs years earlier. Did they believe him? "I don't think so," he says.

Al-Rawi contends that he had been around long enough to know what was what. He had worked on the Iraqi nuclear program before the 1991 war and until the fall of the regime was a senior member of the MIC. He and a nuclear engineer whom TIME interviewed claim that the nuclear-weapons program was not resumed after the plants were destroyed by the U.S. in Gulf War I. In his more recent work at the MIC, al-Rawi had a perspective on the biological and chemical programs as well. Those too, he insists, were shut down in the early 1990s; the scientists transferred to conventional military projects or civilian work. Last November, al-Rawi says, he was asked by Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huweish, head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization, to give a seminar--essentially career counseling--to MIC scientists "on ways to attract funding for and shape new research projects because there was no weapons work for them."

Sa'ad Abd al-Kahar al-Rawi, a relation of Nabil's, also thinks he would have known had Baghdad revived its WMD efforts. A professor of economics, he was a top financial adviser to the regime and knew the government books well. He says he would have known if money was disappearing into a black hole created by a special weapons project. Similarly, Iraqi scientists note that their community is small and tightly knit; most of them studied together and worked together. If a new, secret WMD program had started up, they argue, certain core players who held the necessary expertise would have had to be involved. Several scientists told TIME that all their cohort is accounted for; no one went underground. Iraq's premier scientists, according to Nabil al-Rawi, moved on to other things--teaching, water and power projects, producing generic Viagra.

Many did continue developing military technology. After 1991 Nabil al-Rawi worked on electrical controls for unmanned drones and, most recently, Stealth bomber--detection radar. Such projects were meant to be hidden from U.N. inspectors, who, the Iraqis have long asserted, were riddled with American spies. The Furat facility just south of Baghdad was a known nuclear site before the first Gulf War. Last fall the White House released satellite photos showing a new building at the site and suggested it was designed for covert nuclear research. But al-Rawi claims it was rebuilt to produce radar and antiaircraft systems. When TIME visited the plant this summer, there were signs of heavy bombing, but the new building was intact--and carpeted inside with documents in French, Russian, Arabic and English, all having to do with radar equipment, frequencies and trajectories.

In his U.N. presentation, powell asserted that the Tariq State Establishment in Fallujah was designed to develop chemical weapons. When TIME visited the site, it was empty. U.N. inspectors visited the facility six times from December 2002 to January 2003 and reported that the chlorine plant that so concerned the Americans "is currently inoperative." Nabil al-Rawi says the hundreds of scientists who worked there are now "doing other things."

Another site mentioned by the allies in the walk-up to the war was the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute, which both British intelligence and the CIA suspected was part of a biological-warfare program.

TIME visited the site in July to see the two recently built warehouses that had raised those concerns. One had been bombed, its door cascading with a mountain of debris made up of burned and broken empty vials. The intact other building was packed to the rafters with boxes full of glassware and beakers. Pigeons roost in the ceiling, their droppings and feathers--some of it inches thick--caking the cardboard towers. Nothing appears to have been moved in a long time. U.S. intelligence officials declined to tell TIME about Washington's postwar assessment of the site.

So, why all the hide and seek if suspect facilities did not contain incriminating evidence? The former Minister of Industry and Minerals, Muyassar Raja Shalah, cites national security: "The U.N.'s accusations about hiding things were true," he says, recalling charges that Iraqis hustled evidence out the back door even as U.N. inspectors entered through the front. "This was Iraq's right, because the U.N. was searching for WMD in a lot of military facilities, and of course we held a lot of military secrets relating to the national security of Iraq in these places. It was impossible to let a foreigner have a look at these secrets."

Some analysts suspect that Saddam's game was a sly form of deterrence: keep the U.S. and his neighbors guessing about the extent of his arsenal to prevent a pre-emptive attack. A bluff like that had worked for him before: in 1991, during an uprising among Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, soldiers inside helicopters dropped a harmless white powder onto the rebels below, terrifying them into thinking it was a chemical attack. The Kurds retreated, and the uprising collapsed. Hans Blix, head of the U.N. inspection team that entered Iraq last November and left just before the war, told Australian national radio two weeks ago that "you can put up a sign on your door, BEWARE OF THE DOG, without having a dog."

Pentagon officials were so certain before Gulf War II that the Iraqis had outfitted their forces with chemical weapons that U.S. soldiers storming toward Baghdad wore their hot, heavy chemical weapons gear, just in case. But a captain in Iraq's Special Security Organization, the agency that was responsible for, among other things, the security of weapons sites, says no such arms were available. "Trust me," he says, his eyes narrowed, as he sits in a back-alley teahouse in Tikrit, "if we had them, we would have used them, especially in the battle for the airport. We wanted them but didn't have any."

Colonel Ali Jaffar Hussan al-Duri, a Republican Guard armored-corps commander who fought in the Iran-Iraq war and in both Gulf Wars, remembers the time when Iraq's Chemical Corps was fear inspiring. "We were much better at it than the Iranians," he says, who are thought to have suffered as many as 80,000 casualties in chemical attacks. But after Gulf War I, Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kamal, who headed the MIC, took the most talented Chemical Corps officers with him, according to Hussan. After that, he claims, the unit became a joke. "It should have been a sensitive unit--it once was--but in the end that's where we dumped our worst soldiers." Comments a Republican Guard major of the Corps: "It had nothing."

If that's true, what happened to the banned weapons Iraq once possessed? In the inspections regime that lasted from 1991 to 1998, the U.N. oversaw the destruction of large stores of illicit arms. Some documented inventories, however, were never satisfactorily accounted for; these included tons of chemical agents as well as stores of anthrax and VX poison. The Iraqis eventually owned up to producing these supplies but insisted that they had disposed of much of them in 1991 when no one was looking and had kept no records of the destruction. That made Blix wonder. In an interview with TIME in February, he described Iraq as "one of the best-organized regimes in the Arab world" and noted "when they have had need of something to show, then they have been able to do so."

A former MIC official insists that this view is mistaken. "In Iraq we don't write everything," he says. The claim that Saddam would destroy his most dangerous weapons of his own accord and not retain the means to prove it seems a stretch. But a captain in the Mukhabarat, the main Iraqi intelligence service, says he was a witness to just such an exercise. In July 1991, he says, he traveled into the Nibai desert in a caravan of trucks carrying 25 missiles loaded with biological agents. First the bulldozers took a week to bury them. It took three more weeks to evacuate the area. Then the missiles were exploded. No one kept any kind of documentation, the captain says. "We just did it." This meant that when weapons inspectors came demanding verification, the Iraqis could not prove what or how much had been destroyed.

Sa'ad al-Rawi contends that the men who carried out such missions were junior level, sergeants and first sergeants. "They are not educated men," he says. "You order them to do something, they do it. When we had to try to account for this, we tried to recall them in 1997, but many had of course left the army and were hard to find. And the ones we did find certainly couldn't remember exactly how many missiles were buried, nor what was in each of them."

That still leaves unanswered why the Iraqis would have unilaterally destroyed their most potent arms. One theory, advanced by the U.N., is that the regime used these exercises as a cover for retaining a fraction of their stores. The idea is that they would destroy quantities of weapons (creating a disposal site and eyewitnesses, if not written records) and claim to have got rid of everything yet actually hold on to some of it. The Mukhabarat captain concedes that scientists kept small amounts of VX and mustard gas for future experiments. "I saw it myself, several times," he says.

Samir, a chemicals expert who worked for a branch of the MIC called the National Monitoring Directorate, says he knows of a case in which 14 artillery shells filled with mustard gas were preserved out of a batch of 250 slated for destruction. The main purpose of keeping them, he says, was to test their deterioration over time. The Iraqis handed over the shells to the U.N. in 1997, claiming that they had been mis-stored and recently discovered, an explanation Samir says was a ruse. When four of the shells were unsealed, tests found their contents to be 97% pure. "The gas was perfect," says Samir.

Even if the Iraqis did destroy most of their illegal weaponry in 1991, that does not mean they didn't build up new stores. The notion that the bioweapons program wound down in the 1990s is flatly rejected by Richard Spertzel, who led the U.N. hunt for biological weapons inside Iraq from 1994 to 1998. "We were developing pretty good evidence of a continuing program in '97 and '98," he says. Some U.N. inspectors, disagree, saying they believe that there was no further production after 1991. Spertzel says an Iraqi scientist phoned him just this past April and told him an "edict" went out from Saddam shortly before the war ordering his biological-weapons teams to destroy any remaining germ stockpiles.

That Saddam would have continued feverishly pursuing weapons of every kind seems more in keeping with his character than the idea that he gave up on them. The Iraqi dictator was crazy for weapons, fascinated by every new invention--and as a result was easily conned by salesmen and officials offering the latest device. Saddam apparently had high hopes for a bogus product called red mercury, touted as an ingredient for a handheld nuclear device. Large quantities of the gelatinous red liquid were looted from Iraqi stores after the war and are now being offered on the black market.

Saddam's underlings appear to have invented weapons programs and fabricated experiments to keep the funding coming. The Mukhabarat captain says the scamming went all the way to the top of the MIC to its director, Huweish, who would appease Saddam with every report, never telling him the truth about failures or production levels and meanwhile siphoning money from projects. "He would tell the President he had invented a new missile for Stealth bombers but hadn't. So Saddam would say, 'Make 20 missiles.' He would make one and put the rest in his pocket," says the captain. Colonel Hussan al-Duri, who spent several years in the 1990s as an air-defense inspector, saw similar cons. "Some projects were just stealing money," he says. A scientist or officer would say he needed $10 million to build a special weapon. "They would produce great reports, but there was never anything behind them."

If Saddam may not have known the true nature of his own arsenal, it is no wonder that Western intelligence services were picking up so many clues about so many weapons systems. But it helps answer one logical argument that the Administration has been making ever since the weapons failed to appear after the war ended: why, if Saddam had nothing to hide, did he endure billions of dollars in sanctions and ultimately prompt his own destruction? Perhaps because even he was mistaken about what was really at stake in this fight.

Whether the Iraqis had actual stores of unconventional weapons, Spertzel argues, is beside the point. He finds it credible that Iraq converted many of its weapons factories to civilian uses. Baghdad's official policy from 1995, he notes, was that facilities that were not building weapons had to be self-supporting. But, he adds, "they would be available when called upon" to return to armsmaking. Spertzel thinks the focus on finding a 55-gal. drum of poison is misplaced. "The concern that many of us always had was not that they were producing great quantities of stuff but that the program was continuing--they were refining techniques and making a better product. That's all part of an offensive program." Absent a smoking gun, the Administration may have to fall back on means and motive. That's always, however, a tougher case to prove.

--With reporting by Mark Thompson and Timothy J. Burger/Washington