Published May 15, 2003
| Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq – More than a month after Baghdad (search) fell, American and British intelligence officers are knocking on the doors of top Iraqi scientists and asking whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
According to some of the scientists who once oversaw production of nerve agents and other programs -- and who no longer need fear Saddam (search) -- the answer is a resounding no.
So far, the U.S.-led weapons search has turned up no unconventional weapons, and officials continue to say success will depend on help from Iraqi scientists and engineers. But both those in custody and others who are free have insisted to American officials that Iraq's unconventional weapons and programs were destroyed years ago.
The Associated Press spoke with two scientists who said they met with coalition intelligence officials on three separate occasions last week. The scientists said two visits were with five Americans, but were unsure whether they were from the Defense Department's intelligence wing or the CIA.
A third meeting, they said, was with three British agents who said they were from MI6, the CIA's British counterpart.
"The Americans asked about biological and nuclear programs, but they concentrated mainly on chemical weapons, such as VX," said Dr. Dagher Mahmoud, a deputy minister who oversaw Iraq's ministry of industry under Saddam.
Saddam's regime long maintained it had destroyed its stocks of VX (search), a deadly nerve agent, but U.N. inspectors were never able to verify the claims. The U.S. military, in the run-up to the war, had feared Iraq would use chemical weapons against advancing troops, but no such weapons were launched.
"They asked who was working on these activities -- which companies were involved, what did we have before 1991, what did we do afterward," Mahmoud said. "We told them that for many years no one has been working on these matters. They asked if there were more documents that we didn't submit to the U.N., but we told them nothing more was kept."
For weeks, Pentagon officials have said the key to finding weapons was to get the information from Iraqis. But few scientists, with the exception of a handful in U.S. custody, had been interviewed until last week, American officials said.
On Wednesday, the coalition station Information Radio, which has been calling on scientists to come forward with information, said the U.S. and British forces "came to the country only to remove weapons of mass destruction and to liberate the Iraqi people from an unjust regime."
Mahmoud now heads what's left of Iraq's Military-Industrial Complex -- a massive bureaucracy that oversaw almost all of Iraq's weapons programs. The complex and the Ministry of Industry, where Mahmoud worked before the war, were closely intertwined.
His new office is on the second floor of the National Monitoring Directorate -- an organization that Saddam stocked with the heads of former weapons programs who were ordered to work with U.N. inspectors.
One of the directorate's most senior scientists was Dr. Alaa al-Sayeed, who was involved in Iraq's VX nerve-agent program. He is considered among the "top 10 of who's who in Iraq's chemical weapons program," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. teams.
On Saturday, British intelligence experts met with Mahmoud, al-Sayeed and two other scientists who had worked on former chemical-weapons programs. The same group met with the Americans twice earlier last week. All the visits took place at the shabby, looted offices of the National Monitoring Directorate.
"They asked us if there are any hidden chemical weapons, and we told them that to the best of our knowledge there weren't any," al-Sayeed said. "Why would we lie now?"
U.S. officials in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity said a group of high-level Iraqi government officials and scientists in custody are generally continuing to say that Iraq had no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs.
The American officials have said they believe the Iraqis could be lying to protect themselves.
But al-Sayeed and others argued that after two months without paychecks, and facing an uncertain future, scientists were not only motivated to cooperate but were desperately interested in working with the Americans. And they told the American civil administrator so.
"We sent a letter to Mr. Jay Garner saying that we want to talk and want to know what they plan to do with us," al-Sayeed said.
On Wednesday, Mahmoud said he and nine others from the Military-Industrial Complex were meeting with American officials involved in reconstruction. Mahmoud said the meeting was arranged after he sent several letters to Garner, who until this week was the senior U.S. administrator here.
John Kincannon, a spokesman with Garner's group, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, said he wouldn't answer questions about "private mail."
"But I'd suggest that, if we're meeting with him, we're obviously aware of his concerns," Kincannon said.
Mahmoud said his concerns were the same as the Americans'. He had prepared a list for the United States of more than a dozen state-controlled companies and assets he thought could help with reconstruction.
"We want to help rebuild the country," he said. "We have the people and the knowledge to fix things quickly."