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Border bombshells

Iraq | A UN agency is finding evidence outside Iraq of Saddam's WMD program

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

A government report is set to clear Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction just as new evidence surfaces that the Saddam Hussein regime did stockpile illegal arms-but managed to smuggle them out of the country before the U.S. inspectors arrived.

In a report recently submitted to the UN Security Council by its own weapons-inspection agency, experts confirm the discovery of over 40 engines from missiles banned by the UN but believed to have been retooled by Saddam Hussein to shoot down U.S. and British jet patrols. Further, the report documents an illegal trade in weapons-related goods. That trade, once banned under UN sanctions, has continued and increased under U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Yet despite those and other findings listed in the report from the UN's Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), inspectors working under the CIA are likely to conclude-in a final report due at the end of September-that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

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That conclusion, coming less than six weeks before U.S. elections, will force President George W. Bush to defend again his rationale for going to war in Iraq. It could also add irony to the iron will with which Mr. Bush has prosecuted the war: While his own inspectors may not back this key premise for the war, experts at the UN, where Mr. Bush failed to win backing for the war, seem now to endorse it.

The reason for a difference between UN findings and those of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group is one of simple jurisdiction. When U.S. forces took over in Iraq, the Iraq Survey Group replaced UNMOVIC as inspectors inside the country. The Iraq Survey Group with its 1,400 personnel relied largely on defense and intelligence experts with little experience inside Iraq and massive amounts of territory and documentation to cover.

UNMOVIC shifted focus to neighboring countries. Its teams fanned across the region, eventually following leads to unlikely sources, including the scrap-metal yards of Jordan. There UN inspectors found:

• 20 SA-2 surface-to-air missile engines from Iraq.

• fragmented remains of an SA-2 airframe and booster.

• a solid-propellant-mixing vessel tagged for eventual destruction by UN inspectors during their pre-war visits.

• four chemical vessels made of corrosion-resistant material, also tagged by UN inspectors and banned as "dual-use" items for chemical weapons production.

Interviews with 20 scrap-metal traders, along with Jordanian and Iraqi truck drivers who transport salvage, revealed a massive trade in valuable alloys and scrap metal from Iraq that the Jordan Times called "sizeable, ongoing, and worldwide." All in all, the inspectors concluded that scrap company managers exported from Iraq 60,000 tons of scrap metal through Jordan's largest free trade zone in 2003. More surprisingly, they discovered an additional 70,000 tons of scrap metal exported through June 2004-during the time of U.S. control.

Merchants and traders describe high-quality industrial production equipment traded from facilities all over Iraq, purchased at low cost, dismantled and moved out of Iraq during the U.S. occupation-material, according to the UN report, that "could include equipment subject to [WMD] monitoring in Iraq."

What kind of interface do UN inspectors have with the Iraq Survey Group since publishing their findings? "None," said UNMOVIC spokesman Ewen Buchanan. "We know what they are up to, but have no official" cooperation. "We do not have access to Iraq."

Mr. Buchanan noted that Iraq Survey Group director Charles Duelfer "has access to our published reports like everyone else." But he said UNMOVIC has received no indication that ISG will include UN evidence in its report to Congress and other leaders later this month. And the CIA, for now, won't comment on the contents until its end-of-September release.

While reports have proliferated that Saddam Hussein loyalists smuggled WMD material out of Iraq ahead of the war, to Syria and elsewhere, the UN findings are the first to offer evidence that a black-market trade has continued after the U.S. invasion. "Clearly there are other priorities in Iraq for coalition forces and the Iraqi government, but security is one of the biggest ones," said Mr. Buchanan. "Certainly we would have thought the ISG would take steps to prohibit this kind of trade."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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