Published October 10, 2002
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi generals threw open a sprawling complex Thursday that the United States suspects may be developing nuclear arms. Iraq insists it turns out nothing more deadly than toothbrushes.
As Western and Iraqi reporters clambered on machine parts or skidded on machine oil, the latest tour showed what past outings have: How hard it would be for any eyes -- untrained, in the skies, or expert -- to see what Saddam Hussein might wish concealed.
"This shows that this site has nothing to hide. You can see for yourself," said Gen. Hussan Mohammed Amin, surrounded by machine parts heavily shrouded in plastic.
The stacks of covered gear were machines that workers dismantled and scattered for fear of a U.S. attack, said Amin, director-general of the Iraqi commission that has worked with U.N. arms inspectors.
"I told the people here they should have buried them" for protection, the general added under his breath. Journalists were told the plant made dies, molds, and steel structures.
Iraq's top military industrialization minister repeated Thursday that his country has no programs for weapons of mass destruction -- but said it could retaliate for any attack nonetheless.
"If the Americans commit another such crime against us, we will teach them something they will never forget," Gen. Abdel Tawab Mullah Huweish said at a news conference in Baghdad.
Sprawling over two square miles north of Baghdad, the Nassr industrial site twice has been the target of U.S.-led attacks -- during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in 1998 after U.N. inspectors withdrew to protest what they called Iraq's noncooperation with efforts to monitor its weapons programs. After each strike it was rebuilt.
U.N. resolutions after the Gulf War ordered Iraq to destroy all nuclear, biological and chemical weapon programs and the missiles to deliver such arms.
As President Bush tried this week to build his case with the American people for action against Iraq, he and the White House cited the Nassr plant and three others as being sites used in Iraqi efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The White House produced what it said were satellite photos of two of the sites.
Iraq has agreed to the return of weapons inspectors, absent since 1998. But before the inspections resume, the United States is holding out for a tougher U.N. resolution that would demand access to Saddam's many presidential palace sites, among other stipulations.
The Americans "don't want the inspectors to come ... (because) they will visit the accused sites and see that nothing has taken place," Amin told reporters outside the Nassr plant.
"For Americans, this will create a crisis, a crisis for their credibility," he said.
In recent months, Iraqi officials have escorted journalists to a number of suspected sites, to dispute American claims.
At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer dismissed the tours as "cat and mouse games."
Journalists "walk away scratching their heads, wondering what it is they just saw and what was concealed," Fleischer said.
"I think Iraq has shown a 10-year-long history of being able to take guests into Iraq, having moved facilities around, having mobile facilities available, hiding information, allowing things to be seen that only they want to be seen," he said.
Iraqis said they would take Western reporters on Saturday to a second of the four alleged nuclear sites specified by Bush.
The second site, Al Furat, south of Baghdad, conducts electronics research for civilian use, Huweish said. U.S. intelligence officials charged last week that the Iraqi government has made repeated attempts to smuggle in goods for Al Furat that could be used for a centrifuge in nuclear work.
At the Nassr plant Thursday, Amin led reporters through four vast buildings. Plant director Tahssin Salman Mousa called it a "surprise visit." Officials said journalists were free to see anywhere in the plant, but there were dozens of tin-roofed structures in the complex that journalists did not have time to view.
There was little sign of trucks with goods going in or out of the plant. Amin said some production had been shut down as a precaution against U.S.-led attacks.
At issue for U.N. inspectors is machinery that can be used either for civilian or military ends. Amin said the Nassr plant does have some "dual-use" technology, including 3-dimensional computer imaging for molding complex parts, but only for civilian ends.
Inside, cameramen climbed atop machines to video the crowd and random machine parts. Reporters surrounded Iraqi officials, who sometimes tried to edge away.
Journalists were shown workers laboring at a fierce furnace and welders sweating over oil tankers. Brochures in English showed the plant producing goods including something called a "heart machine" and the bases for toothbrushes.
Without the expertise to know what to ask about or where to look, the crowd looked more like a kindergarten class touring a soft drinking bottling plant.
"Oh, yeah, it's the D-D-D triple X," one cameraman muttered sarcastically as an official offered no sound explanation to what the machine does.
Iraq denies it has ever had a nuclear weapons program. In 1993, Hans Blix of the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that Iraq's nuclear weapons program had been "either destroyed or neutralized."
Soon after, U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq said they had discovered a nuclear weapons program well under way. Aides say the chagrined Blix, now foremost in the renewed inspections effort, has been put on his guard by that event.