UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations' chief weapons inspector has concluded there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein's government ever developed unpiloted drones capable of dispersing chemical and biological weapons agents on enemy targets.
The Bush administration cited the threat that Iraqi drones could be used in such attacks on U.S. cities in making its case for invading Iraq, but U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq challenged those claims after the U.S.-led invasion. The CIA's top weapons expert in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, revived the debate, telling Congress in April of this year that the group overseeing the U.S.-led hunt for Iraqi weapons had found evidence of advances in the development of Iraqi drones that were not reported to the United Nations.
Although the United Nations has suspected that Iraq had halted development of drones for chemical or biological attacks, the new findings are the most definitive U.N. account of the program since the U.N. inspection agency was established in 1999. They are consistent with the views of U.S. Air Force intelligence analysts and the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, who said before the war that the drones were being developed for reconnaissance.
The Security Council is expected to debate the weapons inspector's conclusions on Wednesday.
In the 15-page report, obtained by The Washington Post, Dimitri Perricos, acting chief of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), said Iraq admitted pursuing a 1990 effort to convert a MiG-21 fighter jet into a remotely piloted vehicle capable of spraying biological warfare agents at a target. The covert program, he said, "showed some progress" but was halted by the beginning of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Although Iraq developed several other drones, including a converted short-range L-29, a Czech training aircraft, U.N. inspectors have "found no technical evidence" that Iraq built such aircraft "for the delivery" of chemical or biological weapons, according to Perricos. He also said there was no proof that Iraqi drones were capable of traveling beyond the 150-kilometer (93-mile) range allowed by the United Nations.
"U.N. inspection teams found no clear indication to show that Iraq had planned to develop the L-29 RPV [remotely piloted vehicle] to deliver a CBW [chemical and biological weapons] agent," he wrote. He said the information suggests it was used "for conventional military purposes such as air defense training, data collection and surveillance."
Perricos also sought to play down the significance of discoveries of chemical weapons caches by the U.S.-led coalition, noting that more than 25,000 chemical munitions had been dispersed throughout Iraq before U.N. weapons inspectors arrived after the Gulf War. "It was not surprising that in the course of its inspections in Iraq in 2003, UNMOVIC found 18 unfilled chemical rockets at ammunition depots," he wrote. "These were designated for destruction by UNMOVIC. However, the destruction did not take place due to the withdrawal" of U.N. inspectors on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Perricos also provided an update on the fate of Iraq's former weapons facilities, reporting that two chemical weapons facilities and a key missile factory that produced components for Al Samoud-2 missiles had been looted and "totally razed," helping to fuel a burgeoning international industry that is converting Iraq's weapons into scrap metal.
Perricos said an ongoing investigation has found evidence that 44 surface-to-air missile engines had appeared in scrap yards in Jordan and the Netherlands. The United Nations has arranged to destroy them.
The U.N. agency has found no evidence that the exported materials are being sold to arms dealers or to countries suspected of developing nuclear weapons. But U.N. officials voiced concern that the loss of the materials could pose a proliferation threat and complicate efforts to reach a conclusive assessment of the history of Iraq's nuclear program.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer contributed to this article.