BAGHDAD, Iraq – Eight Iraqi scientists remain in the hands of U.S. forces searching for weapons of mass destruction while dozens of other experts were cleared or released by U.S. intelligence, officials at the American-run Science Ministry in Baghdad told The Associated Press.
Those who remain in custody were involved years ago with former biological programs such as anthrax (search), suggesting the U.S.-led weapons hunt is holding out hope for success in that area after finding no evidence there were recent chemical or nuclear weapons programs before the war.
Many Iraqi scientists in those fields who claimed for years that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction have been rehired by the Science Ministry eight months after the United States went to war to disarm Iraq.
In one case, Alaa al-Saeed, the scientist who oversaw stockpiles of the deadly nerve agent VX (search), was promoted and is now in charge of overseeing other weapons scientists.
Senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, promised to find hidden Iraqi weapons and said Iraqi scientists would be key to a successful search. But with so few people in custody and no uncovered weapons, counting on the scientists may not produce the right results.
The Bush administration had argued before the war that scientists were afraid to tell U.N. weapons inspectors the truth. But those scientists say a lack of fear today has not changed their stories.
"We had meetings with British intelligence and American intelligence and we told them the truth," said al-Saeed, whose VX program was mentioned by President Bush in his State of the Union address last January.
"To the best of my knowledge, there are no weapons of mass destruction. They were either destroyed by U.N. inspectors or unilaterally by Iraq years ago and I still insist on that," he told AP in an interview at the Science Ministry.
U.S. officials were convinced al-Saeed was telling the truth, said Khidhir Hamza, the U.S.-appointed adviser to the ministry.
"The Americans thought he was good enough to keep on the outside and that he's all right. He's very cooperative," said Hamza, who in September gave al-Saeed the run of the National Monitoring Directorate (search), a government agency which employed most of Iraq's top weapons scientists.
"You want an insider," he said.
But former U.N. weapons inspectors were astonished by the appointment.
"This is absurd," said Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. inspector now with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (search) at the Monterey Institute in California. "The function of that organization was to manage the U.N. inspections process through minders and other means, with the aim of limiting its effectiveness."
Several members of the organization, known as NMD, are among the eight Iraqi scientists held, according to al-Saeed.
Half of the detained group were on the U.S. "Most Wanted" list. Six were heavily involved with former biological weapons programs and two were experts on delivery systems. All continue to claim there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to U.S. officers involved in the hunt.
The CIA would not comment on individuals and David Kay, who leads the weapons hunt on behalf of the CIA, turned down a request for an interview. The names of those held were provided by al-Saeed and his staff.
Former U.N. inspectors said that at the very least those in custody should be able to clear up whether the biological program was more extensive than previously thought; what biological agents were really produced, in what quantities, and when and how they were destroyed or retained.
The rest of the NMD's senior staff have been rehired, in part to keep them from leaving the country. Some Iraqi scientists have already gone to Iran, Syria and Sudan, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
About 9,000 scientists, engineers and technicians who worked for Iraq's military industries or in weapons research have been hired back by the new ministry. Hundreds more have found jobs at the industry or defense ministries.
Money is tight.
Much of Iraq's scientific infrastructure was destroyed during the war and the new ministry's budget totals just $26 million, a figure which pales in comparison to the reported $600 million the weapons hunt got from Congress last month to continue searching until next June.
"Top scientists are now getting paid about $400 a month," Hamza said.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, scientists such as al-Saeed made $8,000 a month.
Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994, wrote a memoir entitled "Saddam's Bombmaker." During dozens of media appearances, articles and testimony before Congress in the past two years, he claimed Iraq was actively trying to build an atomic bomb.
Like the claims made by other defectors before the war, Hamza's assertions have not been borne out by the evidence.
Kay said in a report to Congress in October: "We have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons."
Hamza refused to discuss the report.
"I'm just not going to talk about it," he said during an interview at his office, located inside the Baghdad Palace now serving as the headquarters for the U.S. occupation.
Kay's operation, known as the Iraq Survey Group (search), is based at a former presidential compound near the Baghdad airport and is staffed by more than 1,000 intelligence analysts, interrogators and translators.
In his October report, Kay told Congress that no weapons of mass destruction had been found but his teams had uncovered information on Iraqi missile plans and were learning more in the biological arena.
"They may believe that biological is the most promising area for further investigation," said Tucker, the former weapons inspector. "It is certainly the area with the most unanswered questions."