BAGHDAD, Iraq – Exasperated, besieged by global pressure, Saddam Hussein and top aides searched for ways in the 1990s to prove to the world they'd given up banned weapons.
"We don't have anything hidden!" the frustrated Iraqi president interjected at one meeting, transcripts show.
At another, in 1996, Saddam wondered whether U.N. inspectors would "roam Iraq for 50 years" in a pointless hunt for weapons of mass destruction. "When is this going to end?" he asked.
It ended in 2004, when U.S. experts, after an exhaustive investigation, confirmed what the men in those meetings were saying: that Iraq had eliminated its weapons of mass destruction long ago, a finding that discredited the Bush administration's stated rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 -- to locate WMD.
The newly released documents are among U.S. government translations of audiotapes or Arabic-language transcripts from top-level Iraqi meetings -- dating from about 1996-97 back to the period soon after the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.N. Security Council sent inspectors to disarm Iraq.
Even as the documents make clear Saddam's regime had given up banned weapons, they also attest to its continued secretiveness: A 1997 document from Iraqi intelligence instructed agencies to keep confidential files away from U.N. teams, and to remove "any forbidden equipment."
Since it's now acknowledged the Iraqis had ended the arms programs by then, the directive may have been aimed at securing stray pieces of equipment, and preserving some secrets from Iraq's 1980s work on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Saddam's inner circle entertained notions of reviving the programs someday, the newly released documents show. "The factories will remain in our brains," one unidentified participant told Saddam at a meeting, apparently in the early 1990s.
At the same meeting, however, Saddam, who was deposed by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and is now on trial for crimes against humanity, led a discussion about converting chemical weapons factories to beneficial uses.
When a subordinate complained that U.N. inspectors had seized equipment at the plants useful for pharmaceutical and insecticide production, Saddam jumped in, saying they had "no right" to deny the Iraqis the equipment, since "they have ascertained that we have no intention to produce in this field (chemical weapons)."
Saddam's regime extensively videotaped and audiotaped meetings and other events, both public and confidential. The dozen transcribed discussions about weapons inspections largely dealt with Iraq's diplomatic strategies for getting the Security Council to confirm it had disarmed.
Scores of Iraqi documents, seized after the 2003 invasion, are being released at the request of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who has suggested that evidence might turn up that the Iraqis hid their weapons or sent them to neighboring Syria. No such evidence has emerged.
Repeatedly in the transcripts, Saddam and his lieutenants remind each other that Iraq destroyed its chemical and biological weapons in the early 1990s, and shut down those programs and the nuclear-bomb program, which had never produced a weapon.
"We played by the rules of the game," Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said at a session in the mid-1990s. "In 1991, our weapons were destroyed."
Amer Mohammed Rashid, a top weapons program official, told a 1996 presidential meeting he laid out the facts to the U.N. chief inspector.
"We don't have anything to hide, so we're giving you all the details," he said he told Rolf Ekeus.
In his final report in October 2004, Charles Duelfer, head of a post-invasion U.S. team of weapons hunters, concluded Iraq and the U.N. inspectors had, indeed, dismantled the nuclear program and destroyed the chemical and biological weapons stockpiles by 1992, and the Iraqis never resumed production.
Saddam's goal in the 1990s was to have the Security Council lift the economic sanctions strangling the Iraqi economy, by convincing council members Iraq had eliminated its WMD. But he was thwarted at every turn by what he and aides viewed as U.S. hard-liners blocking council action.
The inspectors "destroyed everything and said, `Iraq completed 95 percent of their commitment,"' Saddam said at one meeting. "We cooperated with the resolutions 100 percent and you all know that, and the 5 percent they claim we have not executed could take them 10 years to (verify).
"Don't think for a minute that we still have WMD," he told his deputies. "We have nothing."