Second in a two-part series

The scientist tells a story: Not long after he and other inspectors entered Iraq in 1991, they visited a site they knew had housed weapons of mass destruction.

But the Iraqi air base commander denied any knowledge. The chief of security said it was news to him. The man charged with inventory said he had no idea what inspectors were talking about.

“It was like the three monkeys,” Richard Spertzel recalled. “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”

Despite Iraq’s denials and new inspections turning up nil, the United States and Britain insist Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction. But what that actually means to ground forces trying to take him out may well depend on the whims of the individual Iraqis whose fingers man the triggers.

Who is in control

While the Pentagon warns of Saddam’s itch to use biological or chemical weapons if cornered, arms and strategy experts offer mixed opinions as to whether his people would deploy them in the face of allied victory.

“I can say with certainty they’ve got weapons-grade anthrax spores and near certainty they’ve got smallpox,” said Spertzel, head of the U.N. biological weapons team monitoring Iraq until 1998.

But would Iraqi troops use them on attackers — be they U.S. or British troops or dissidents taking to the streets — especially if Saddam’s ouster looked imminent?

“[It] becomes a question of who is in control,” Spertzel said. If the decision comes down to the Special Security Organization, Saddam’s external intelligence service, Spertzel fears the worst.

“I don’t believe they would hesitate a second in using biological weapons,” he said.

However, a weapons expert who was forced to work for Saddam before fleeing Iraq believes few of his countrymen would follow such orders.

“What’s in it for them?” asked Khidir Hamza, former director of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. He believes a U.S. response would be so overwhelming that none would attempt to use banned weapons, particularly since amnesty awaits those who don’t.

“Who’s going to use them? The special forces? They’ll be annihilated,” Hamza said from his home in the United States. “If there is an inkling of use, or even one use, the whole of the special forces will be annihilated.”

Hamza still urges caution. He believes that if left unchecked, Saddam could develop nuclear weapons within five years and that the latest round of arms inspections won’t stop him.

“Even if you remove the equipment, Iraq has 18,000 workers in weapons of mass destruction alone. They could re-arm in a short time,” he said.

Many hope that fear of U.S. wrath will keep Iraq’s armed forces at bay, and also would provoke revolt during an attack. The Defense Department has shown interest in that scenario. But recently a U.S. intelligence officer briefed Pentagon reporters that Saddam plans a “scorched-earth policy” — using weapons of mass destruction as a last stand, perhaps during the first day of an attack, and possibly against Kuwait and Israel.

“It is terribly easy to raise the cost of the war to the United States,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The regime could make its own lot even worse, however, if it tried.

“The risks to the regime are fairly clear,” Cordesman said. Bio and chemical attacks would invite war crimes trials and other aftermath.

Still, “I think it would be extremely foolish to discount this probability,” he said. “There are no clear limits to the escalation he might reach.”

The ‘smoking gun’

Sleuthing for the arms Saddam might use to escalate a war isn’t really a “smoking gun” game.

Spertzel said no gun ever turns up. Instead, inspectors metaphorically find the holster, the empty boxes for rounds and an invoice from a hock shop known to move .38 specials.

“It’s not the weapons,” Spertzel said. “It’s easy to hide the actual filled munition. It’s less easy to hide the total program.”

What worries Spertzel are the gaps in Saddam’s previous disclosures and the progress he may have made in weapons development since.

“There were a number of special chemical warheads that were unaccounted for,” Spertzel said.

Spertzel’s team verified the destruction of 50 chemical weapons and 25 biological weapons. But evidence suggested the existence of an additional 25 banned weapons. He also believes Iraq developed new warheads to deliver agents after the original inspections shut down.

Others remain hopeful that new inspectors will turn up evidence required to ease international reservations about an attack on Iraq.

“With all honesty, I think they are going to be able to find Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction,” said Faisal Qaragholi, operations officer with the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi opposition group based in London.

Spertzel is doubtful.

“What do we expect these inspectors to find? Frankly, all they can do is corroborate the declaration that Iraq filed … if, however, we expect them to find chemical or biological agents, it’s not going to happen. We don’t have enough inspectors. I don’t know if we could have enough inspectors.”

Spertzel is also skeptical of the entire inspection program, which he believes is weaker than its predecessor.

“All of the senior people at UNSCOM, you won’t find any of them working for UNMOVIC,” Spertzel said, using the acronyms for the present and former inspection programs.

“It’s obvious to me Iraq is still calling the shots.”

The United Nations believed that new inspectors were required to avoid charges that teams were made up of spies working for member states.

‘Don’t know Saddam’

Gen. Hossam Mohammad Amin, chief Iraqi liaison officer, told reporters in Baghdad on Thursday that inspectors had aggressively combed through some 200 sites and had found nothing — proving the regime is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, however, has said he, like the Americans and Britons, believes the Iraqi declaration saying so is outdated.

Fortunately, though analyst Cordesman still calls Iraq a formidable Gulf power, he points out it hasn’t had the ability to test whatever weapons it has, due to international scrutiny.

And though chemical and biological weapons are nasty enough on their own, no one thinks Saddam yet has the nuclear option.

“Iraq has no radioactive material,” nuclear defector Hamza said, “so that angle is off. You have no radiation weapons either, because you have no reactors. Iraq’s reactors were destroyed in the Gulf War, all of them.”

Hamza made it clear he doesn’t fear Iraqi troops unleashing plagues on its attackers. Instead, he worries about Saddam’s future potential for trouble if he remains in power, and even alleges he colludes with Osama bin Laden, though the two reputedly dislike each another.

And Hamza believes that those who doubt Saddam’s intentions are naïve.

“They are simpletons. They don’t know Saddam,” he said.

“This is an opportunity to get rid of a madman and butcher and a danger to his neighbors.”

Possible mass destruction agents

No weapons of mass destruction have been found by current U.N. inspectors, but American and British intelligence say they exist. Even so, Iraqi exiles claim their countrymen would never use them.

If war with Iraq comes, what will U.S. troops face?

According to the Central Intelligence Agency:

Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deploy them.

Since the first U.N. inspection program ceased in 1998, Iraq has intensified weapons production, repairing missile factories and biological weapons labs. An alleged concealed bio lab, elements of which can be moved, is believed capable of producing more weapons than Iraq could prior to the Persian Gulf War.

Iraq is trying to build a nuclear bomb and could do so in a year if it gets fissile material from abroad. Otherwise, the plan could take until the end of the decade.

Baghdad has developed unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver biological weapons.

Iraq is producing the following weapons of mass destruction:

• Anthrax — Iraq is supposedly capable of delivering the disease by missile, bomb or aerial sprayer. This scourge of grazing animals kills people, too, particularly in its inhalation form. Initial symptoms resemble the flu.

• Mustard — Introduced in World War I, the sweet-smelling liquid causes blistering and blindness and attacks the respiratory system. It is often referred to as mustard gas because it is deployed as an aerosol from bursting bombs or shells. Eye irritation and blindness come quickly, but victims may die days after exposure.

• Sarin — A colorless, odorless nerve agent developed by the Nazis. A small amount can kill. A Japanese cult deployed it during an attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing a dozen people and injuring about 6,000 others.

• Cyclosarin — Another Nazi invention, cyclosarin is an even more dangerous cousin to sarin. It is about four times more toxic than sarin when in contact with skin. Unlike its scentless cousin, cyclosarin has a fruity or musky aroma.

• VX — A terrible nerve agent. The gas kills in minutes if inhaled; the liquid form is absorbed through the skin and symptoms can take a couple of hours to show. Developed in Britain in the 1950s, VX was traded to the United States for nuclear weapons technology. A super adhesive form can render military bases useless by coating everything it touches.

— Source: Compiled from CIA findings, government and private sector weapons and medical reports

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