Helpful Iraqis now the key in WMD search




By Mark Huband in al-Qaim, Iraq

Financial Times, 20 May 2003

Saddam Hussein’s presence has been neatly erased from the al-Qaim fertiliser factory. While elsewhere in the country the former Iraqi leader’s portraits have had their eyes gouged out, or been sprayed with graffiti, the employees of Iraq’s largest fertiliser producer instead took a can of red paint and carefully coated the larger-than-life image which stood at the factory entrance.

For al-Qaim’s remaining 250 employees, erasing the past is a duty, a necessity and an obsession. The Sensitive Sight Team Five (SST5), however, has the opposite mission. Its role is painstakingly to go over old ground in the hunt for the evidence of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes.

Today tumbleweed blows past concrete bunkers in a fenced-off inner site within which Iraqi scientists in the 1980s extracted uranium oxide – so-called “Yellow Cake” – from phosphoric acid at al-Qaim, in an attempt to set up a nuclear programme.

The “cake”, if it had been produced in quantities Iraq never in fact achieved, could have been used in the development of nuclear fuel and weapons.

The bunkers were ordered to be closed and encased in concrete by United Nations inspectors after the 1991 Gulf war. UN teams regularly visited the site, most recently in early March, days before the US-led invasion.

But beneath a building part-destroyed by bombing in 1991, 16 blue plastic barrels still lie coated in a thin film of dust. A British specialist with the UK’s Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Regiment, seconded to the US-led SST5, surveyed the barrels with an Exploranium weapons detector. Its indicator ticked rapidly and words on a screen described the contents of the barrels as “industrial uranium 238” – yellow cake.

Until a month ago, as UK and US troops advanced through the country, the find, 20 miles from Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, would perhaps have been called a “smoking gun” by the excitable invaders. But as expectations have evaporated that big WMD finds will be made at sites identified before the war, the detection of yellow cake merely led to a report being filed and a recommendation that a second inspection team find ways of disposing of it.

Frustration is palpable among the weapons hunters, as site after site fails to provide evidence of the banned weapons programmes that would provide the retrospective justification for war.

“Our best information is going to come from human sources: Iraqis, when they feel comfortable enough, will come forward,” says Lieutenant Colonel Keith Harrington, the US Special Forces officer who heads SST5. “The new approach will be: piece it together from the human intelligence. We probably won’t find the big smoking gun.”

The first detail provided to the SST5 by Ismail Ibrahim, al-Qaim’s production manager, was that the site had already been visited by other coalition troops.

Undeterred by the possibility that they might have travelled for several hours by helicopter only to be duplicating others’ work, the 20-strong SST5 team, drawn from the US and British armies and the Royal Air Force, spent seven hours painstakingly testing chemicals, photographing laboratories, and examining mineral crushers and scores of other facilities.

The team had not been provided with details of al-Qaim’s activities included in previous UN inspections – some of which are available on the internet – and it was Mr Ibrahim who volunteered the information that yellow cake had once been produced at the site.

His readiness to provide details underlined both the dependence of the new WMD inspectors on well-informed Iraqis who are prepared to share information, and the risk of investigations being started from scratch when extensive information already lies with the UN. “The UN inspectors knew everything,” said Mr Ismail.

What the UN lacked was an environment in which people like him were able to speak frankly about the deposed regime and its alleged WMDs.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.