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Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper

There was only one important thing, Amin said, that Hussein Kamel did not know: some of the locations where Iraq hid its library of arms research. That supports long-standing suspicions that Iraq held back portions of a knowledge base that could speed revival of development and production one day.

A U.S. intelligence official, who was provided with a copy of Amin's letter for comment, said the government would not discuss it in detail. He said an initial check of records "suggests that we have not previously seen the letter." Without the original and an account of its origins, he said, government analysts "cannot verify the authenticity of the letter." He added, "It is plausible and, from a quick scan of it, presents no immediate surprises."

"I waited more than one hour in the Palestine Hotel," Masraf said. "He did not show up."

Masraf watched with curiosity, in coming months, as the Bush administration touted its discovery of mobile germ-weapon factories.

A joint study released May 28 by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency called the trailers "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program." Two days later, in Poland, President Bush announced: "For those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong. We found them."

When Iraqi engineers told investigators that the discovered trailers were meant for hydrogen, the CIA dismissed the "cover story."

By July, with contrary evidence piling up, Kay described the trailer episode as a "fiasco." He told BBC Television, which broadcast the tape Nov. 23: "I think it was premature and embarrassing."

Even so, Kay's October report to Congress left the question unresolved. Kay said he could not corroborate a mobile germ factory, but he restated the CIA argument that the trailers were not "ideally suited" for hydrogen.

Had Masraf found Kay's investigator at the Palestine Hotel, he said he would have explained that Iraq actually used such trailers to generate hydrogen during the eight-year war with Iran. Masraf and his former supervisor at the Saad Co. said Masraf managed a contract to refurbish some of the units beginning in 1997.

According to the two men, Iraq bought mobile hydrogen generators from Britain in 1982 and mounted them on trucks. The Republican Guard used one type, Iraq's 2nd Army Corps another.

Iraqi artillery units relied on hydrogen-filled weather balloons to measure wind and temperature, which affect targeting. Munqith Qaisi, then a senior manager at Saad Co. and now its American-appointed director-general, said the trailers used a chemical -- not biological -- process to make hydrogen from methanol and demineralized water.

The feature that analysts found most suspicious in May -- the compression and recapture of exhaust gases -- is a necessity, Masraf said, when gas is the intended product.

In the late 1990s, the Republican Guard sent some of its trailers for refurbishment at the Kindi Co. The 2nd Army Corps signed a similar contract with Saad Co. Masraf said the first units were finished in 2001, including the two discovered by coalition forces around Mosul.

Qaisi's account may also clear up an unexplained detail from the May 28 intelligence report: traces of urea in the reaction vessel aboard one of the trailers. Qaisi said the vessels corroded badly because Iraqi troops disregarded strict orders to use only demineralized water.

"The stupid army pissed in it, or used river water," he said.

Sabah Abdul Noor once moved among the nation's elites. He played a part in the most ambitious undertaking of Iraqi industrial science: creation from scratch, and largely in secret, of the wherewithal to design and manufacture an atomic bomb. When the 1991 Gulf War intervened, an Iraqi bomb was -- informed estimates vary -- six months to two years from completion.

Abdul Noor watched as that multibillion-dollar enterprise was reduced to slag under the cutting torches of U.N. inspectors, who arrived under Security Council mandate after Iraq's defeat in Kuwait. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Abdul Noor said, U.S. forces have been questioning him for indications that the nuclear program was secretly revived.

"I have just come from such an interview," he said, apologizing for the hour. "They didn't give names. They did not say where they were from. I am kept as long as they wish to keep me."

What the Americans want to talk about, almost always, is Khalid Ibrahim Said.

Until 1991, Said was going to be the man who built Iraq's atomic bomb. Other leading figures were responsible for uranium enrichment. Said led the team -- "PC-3, Group 4," in Iraq's cryptic organization chart -- that would form 40 pounds of uranium into a working nuclear device. Abdul Noor was Said's powder metallurgist.

Said died on April 8 when Marines opened fire on his moving car near a newly established checkpoint. His loss grieved Kay's nuclear investigators, who had many questions for him. When they came across Said's last experiment, the late bomb designer moved to the center of their probe.

Said spent his final days in a warehouse filled with capacitors and powerful magnets. He and his team were building what they described -- in a mandatory disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency -- as a "linear engine." The purpose, Iraq declared, was air defense.

The machine in Said's warehouse was more commonly known as a "rail gun." It used electromagnetic pulses to accelerate a small object to very high speed.

When U.S. investigators arrived, they found the gun had been "shooting an aluminum projectile at an aluminum target plate like the skin of an airplane," said an analyst who reviewed their report. But rail gun technology is thought to be decades from use in a practical weapon, and investigators believed Said might have something else in mind.

Impact of an extremely high-velocity projectile in a target chamber, they said, might be used to measure the behavior of materials under pressures that compare to a nuclear implosion. Such "equation of state" experiments, as physicists call them, could be applied to nuclear warhead design. When the U.S. nuclear team looked closely at that question, however, it "saw no evidence of equation of state work" with the rail gun, according to an authoritative summary of the team's report.

A sad look crossed Abdul Noor's face when he tried to explain his bafflement at suspicions that Iraq had secretly rebuilt -- "reconstituted," as the Bush administration put it in the summer and fall of 2002 -- a nuclear weapons program. He and his colleagues still know what they learned, Abdul Noor said, but their material condition is incomparably worse than it was when they began in 1987. "We would have had to start from less than zero," he said, with thousands of irreplaceable tools banned from import. "The country was cornered," he said. "We were boycotted. We were embargoed. The truth is, we disintegrated."

Of his late friend Said, Abdul Noor said: "I don't know what was in his heart. Probably he wanted to return to [nuclear weapons work] one day. That is in the category of dreams."

A common view among investigators today is that Said had the motive but not the means. One Western physicist who knew Said well said the rail gun enabled Said to maintain his team and "hone their skills on diagnostics, flash X-ray cameras, measuring very high speeds, and measuring impacts of ramming things together." The physicist added, "It's basic science. There's no relation to actual [bomb] design and fabrication."

Some investigators have yet to be convinced. They continue to look for warhead research in the guise of the rail gun.

"Today they were asking me that again," Abdul Noor said. "I was not on the same wavelength. I could see they were not pleased with me."

Hussein resented U.S. air patrols over "no-fly zones" where Iraqi aircraft were forbidden in northern and southern Iraq. After trying for years to challenge the patrols, another Iraqi said, "we had yet to scratch the wing of one American F-15."

Said gave the president an answer involving futuristic technology. He was a good enough applied physicist to understand the long odds against success, Said's anonymous colleague said, but the project earned him favor, prestige and a substantial budget.

In every field of special weaponry, Iraqi designers and foreign investigators said, such deceit was endemic. Program managers promised more than they could deliver, or things they could not deliver at all, to advance careers, preserve jobs or conduct intrigues against rivals. Sometimes they did so from ignorance, failing to grasp the challenges they took on.

Lying to an absolute ruler was hazardous, Iraqi weaponeers said, but less so in some cases than the alternatives. "No one will tell Saddam Hussein to his face, 'I can't do this,' " said an Iraqi brigadier general who supervised work on some of the technologies used in the rail gun.

David Kay's survey group has turned up other such cases. Analysts are calling the phenomenon "red-on-red deception," after the U.S. practice of using red to stand for enemy forces and blue to stand for friendly ones. In some cases, they said, "red on red" amounted to "red on blue" -- because Western intelligence collected the same false reports that fooled Hussein.

Sufiyan Taha Mahmoud, who worked for Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate throughout its 12 years, said spurious programs also led to needless conflict with U.N. arms inspectors.

"They couldn't build anything," Mahmoud said of overpromising weaponeers, "but they had to hide the documents because they related to prohibited activities."

Secrecy and a procurement system based on smuggling, Iraqi scientists said, abetted those who inflated their reports.

George Healey, a Canadian nuclear physicist and longtime inspector in Iraq, said entire programs were devised, or their design choices distorted, in order to siphon funds.

"They had a system to graft money out of oil-for-food," he said, referring to the U.N. program that supervised Iraqi exports and imports after 1991. "What you had to have was a project -- the more expensive the better, because the more you can buy, the more you can graft out of it. You'd have difficulty believing how much that explains."

Intertwined with internal deception, many analysts now believe, was deception aimed overseas. Hussein plainly hid actual programs over the years, but Kay, among others, said it appears possible he also hinted at programs that did not exist.

Hans Blix, who was executive chairman of UNMOVIC, the U.N. arms inspection team, said in a telephone interview from Sweden that he has devoted much thought to why Hussein might have exaggerated his arsenal. One explanation that appeals to him: "You can put a sign on your door, 'Beware of the dog,' without having a dog. They did not mind looking a little bit serious and a little bit dangerous."

Defectors who sold false or exaggerated stories in Washington, Iraqi and American experts said, layered on still another coat of deception.

"You end up with a Picasso-like drawing -- distorted," said Ali Zaag, the Baghdad University biotechnologist.

"Missiles are very significant to us because they're the long pole in the tent," Kay told "BBC Panorama." "They're the thing that takes the longest to produce. . . . The Iraqis had started in late '99, 2000, to produce a family of missiles that would have gotten to 1,000 kilometers [625 miles]."

Kay was referring to Tamimi's work, though the designer and details have not been made public before. If reached, a 625-mile range would have menaced Tel Aviv, Tehran, Istanbul, Riyadh, the world's richest oil fields and important U.S. military installations from Turkey to the Persian Gulf.

When that might have happened -- or whether -- is difficult to forecast. Of all Iraq's nascent programs, Tamimi's was among the most advanced. A closer look at its prospects helps answer a question common to all four fields of forbidden arms: Was the country capable of carrying out the presumed intentions of its leader?

Tamimi is a man of robust self-esteem, but he expressed no confidence about his long-range missile, which depended on clustering five engines in a single stage. (An intermediate version called for two engines.) Western missile experts, who suggested questions and reviewed answers from a reporter in multiple rounds of interviews with Tamimi, emerged uncertain of the timetable or outcome.

Their best estimate was that it would take six years -- if the missile worked at all -- to reach a successful flight test. Tamimi would need less time with major help from abroad, but considerably more if he had to conceal the work from U.N. monitoring that persisted until the United States invaded in March. U.S. government spokesmen declined to provide an estimate.

Tamimi "was the star" of Iraq's three rival rocket establishments, said a French expert who has known him for years. Another European rocket scientist said of Tamimi: "In our country he would be a very good design engineer."

But Tamimi lacked access to the modern tools and technical literature of his profession. He left Czechoslovakia's Antonin Zapotecky Military Academy in 1984 with a doctorate degree and a collection of Russian rocketry texts now entering their third decade in print. For the essential modeling of thrust, flight qualities, trajectory and range, he relied on unsophisticated software written in Baghdad. In an e-mail exchange, Tamimi expressed strong curiosity about what the "more accurate modeling programs" of overseas experts might show about his designs.

Tamimi faced challenges he had not encountered before, some of which he knew about and others he did not. He knew he would have difficulty lashing together multiple engines and igniting them at the same instant. "The main problem was synchronization, which we hadn't solved yet," he said.

To fit multiple engines in an airframe based on the existing Al Samoud missile, Tamimi's designs called for a flared missile that nearly doubled in diameter -- from 760mm (30 inches) to 1500mm (59 inches) -- from top to bottom. Foreign experts said the shape would produce enormous strains. "If it didn't break up going up, it would most likely do so on reentry," said a Western expert who did not want to be named, after submitting Tamimi's sketches and descriptions to an evaluation team. "To avoid that, they would have to develop some sort of separation system to abandon the wider bit, and also master terminal guidance after the separation."

Tamimi said "we did not consider the problem of separation." For terminal guidance, which steers a missile in its final approach to target, Tamimi pinned his hope on Russian technology he did not have in hand.

In test flights, the Al Samoud missile never landed -- literally -- within a mile of its target. In 2001, Tamimi obtained a small black-market supply of precision Russian gyroscopes. He hoped they would increase the missile's accuracy from about 1.5 miles to 500 yards. To increase accuracy still further, he said "we were near success" in negotiating a contract -- he would not say with whom -- for a complete Russian-built inertial navigation system.

"He knew very well where he was going, especially in guidance and gyroscope equipment," a foreign expert said.

An enormous problem for Tamimi's program, however, was that he designed it to allow procurement of parts under cover of the openly declared Al Samoud. When inspectors ruled the Al Samoud illegal and destroyed its production lines in March, Tamimi said, he began to doubt the project's viability.

"Saddam Hussein ordered this work, but where would we get the materials?" said an Iraqi general who declined to be named and who kept close tabs on Tamimi's missile designs. "This was the case in every field. People would prepare reports under the order of Saddam Hussein and the supervision of the people around Saddam Hussein. But it was not real."

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