Document Indicates Illicit Russia-Iraq DealBy R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 1998; Page A01
United Nations inspectors in Iraq last fall uncovered what they considered highly unsettling evidence of a 1995 agreement by the Russian government to sell Iraq sophisticated fermentation equipment that could be used to develop biological weapons, according to sources.
A confidential document prepared by Iraqi officials and seized by a U.N. inspection team at a government ministry described lengthy negotiations leading to a deal worth millions of dollars, including discussions that took place roughly six months after Iraq's purchase of other biological materials had aroused suspicion that Baghdad was concealing an immense germ warfare program.
Moscow has not replied to a U.N. request made six weeks ago for information about the deal, which included a 5,000-liter fermentation vessel that would ostensibly be used to make protein for animal feed.
As a result, the inspectors are uncertain if Iraq received the equipment.
The transaction would have violated a U.N.-authorized embargo on sales to Iraq of such sensitive materials, the sources said.
The evidence of an illicit deal is one element of a close collaboration between Moscow and Baghdad on matters of interest to the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, the group authorized by the U.N. Security Council to eliminate Iraq's capability to make weapons of mass destruction, according to the sources.
U.S. intelligence agencies have privately warned U.N. officials that Russian intelligence operatives are spying on the commission and its personnel in New York and overseas, the sources said. They have further warned that the Russian spy agency, which was formerly headed by Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, may have passed some of the information it collects directly to Iraq.
Several American officials confirmed yesterday that the FBI is aware of the Russian intelligence operation. A spokesman for the Russian mission to the United Nations, Kirill Speransky, declined to comment, saying, "We usually do not comment on any information concerning intelligence activities." He denied Moscow had evaded sanctions against Iraq. He said that Moscow supports providing full access to weapons inspectors, as ordered by the U.N. Security Council, but added, "We also think the sovereignty of Iraq should be respected."
The U.N.'s discovery of the record of negotiations for the fermentation equipment has provoked concern among U.S. officials and some foreign diplomats that Russia's recent diplomatic drive to help Iraq constrain future U.N. inspections may be motivated by more than a desire to help head off a U.S. military strike, curry favor with Iraq or develop new influence in the Middle East.
"People are suspicious that there really is some reason they don't want us to find stuff out," said one diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
Support Backed by Actions
Russia's public support for Iraqi criticism of the U.N. inspections has been matched on several occasions, the officials say, by Russian efforts to block specific visits by the commission to sensitive sites in Iraq, for reasons that remain unclear. In addition, Moscow has successfully pressured a Russian specialist on ballistic missiles and chemical weapons, Nikita Smidovitch, to stop leading some of the commission's most sensitive inspections, the sources said.
Also, a detailed probe by the commission of Iraq's 1995 purchase of missile gyroscopes from Russia, in violation of U.N. sanctions, has produced evidence that well-established Russian defense companies with major links to the government were involved in that transaction -- not just corrupt middlemen or brokers, as Moscow contended.
One of the Moscow-based companies, Mars Rotor, provided facilities for the testing of the missile equipment in Russia before its shipment to Iraq, sources said. It also offered to send some of its specialists to Iraq to provide further assistance, an action that U.S. officials said was probably infeasible without official Russian approval.
Such evidence has stoked concern that, at a minimum, the Russian government has looked the other way when sensitive or illicit transactions have occurred. "Is it just that Moscow has no export controls, no customs inspections, and no law enforcement? Or is Russia willfully trying to help Iraq? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle," a senior U.S. intelligence official said.
Since last October, when Iraq announced it would no longer accept the U.N. inspection procedures that had been in place since 1992, Primakov and other senior Russian officials have been urging the U.N. Security Council to adopt new rules that are more to Baghdad's liking. Last week, Moscow proposed that a new group be established to inspect sites that Iraq deems sensitive, under the supervision of a "leading international personality," sidestepping the existing commission.
Iraq has accused American members of the U.N. inspection teams of spying for the United States, a charge denied by both the United Nations and the Clinton administration. The current crisis flared when the Iraqis barred a team led by an American, Scott Ritter, from inspecting suspected weapons sites, claiming that Ritter was a U.S. intelligence agent.
The commission is headed by an Australian diplomat, Richard Butler, who has been outspoken about what he describes as extensive Iraqi deception efforts meant to hide and preserve its programs to make chemical and biological weapons. Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Sergei Lavrov objected strongly to Butler's well-publicized assertion two weeks ago that Iraqi weapons still pose a serious risk to Israel, leading U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to demand that Butler stop giving interviews.
Russia's policy on the U.N. inspections has brought it into direct conflict with the Clinton administration, which has generally supported the commission's aggressive stance and warned repeatedly that international sanctions on trade with Iraq will not be lifted or amended until the commission becomes convinced that Iraq has no residual weapons capabilities.
In some cases, Moscow has made little effort to conceal efforts to learn what the commission is doing and to influence the scope and timing of certain sensitive inspections, according to sources.
In the summer of 1996, for example, a team of inspectors retreated to a remote English town for a training exercise to prepare for a surprise visit to a highly sensitive Iraqi site. After checking into a local hotel, an inspector recognized a Russian official later identified as the London resident for the Russian foreign intelligence service, according to three sources. Each night, the official was observed attempting to debrief Russian members of the inspection team, the sources said. When inspectors eventually tried to reach the site targeted by the commission, they were blocked by Iraqi military forces.
In another incident cited by several sources, commission officials in charge of another highly sensitive inspection in March 1996 deliberately disseminated false information to members of their own team about which Iraqi site they had targeted. Shortly afterward, a Russian political counselor in New York, Gennadi Gatilov, who is now Moscow's chief expert in New York on commission matters, approached a senior commission official to complain that inspecting that site would be highly disruptive.
Gatilov further threatened that if the inspection went forward, Moscow would oppose implementation of a U.N. plan for long-term routine monitoring of imports and exports to Iraq related to weapons of mass destruction -- a threat that commission officials ignored, sources said.
Vessel's Large Capacity
The 5,000-liter fermentation vessel that Moscow agreed to sell Iraq in 1995 for use in making single-cell animal protein was 10 times larger than the largest vessel Iraq has admitted using to brew an arsenal of deadly germs. "It's dual-purpose equipment," one of the sources said. "That's exactly what you would need for a large-scale biological plant."
According to several accounts of the Iraqi document, negotiations between the two countries were conducted in both capitals by official delegations. The document was apparently written in July 1995, six months after the U.N. commission had raised public concerns about Iraq's purchase before the 1991 Persian Gulf War of an exceptionally large quantity of biological growth material.
In April 1995, U.N. officials privately informed diplomats from Russia and other countries of their suspicion that a similar single-cell protein plant, located at a site known as Al Hakam, was at the center of Iraq's germ warfare program. On July 1, the Iraqi government publicly admitted producing tons of anthrax and botulinum toxin at Al Hakam. The Iraqi officials who participated in the negotiations with Moscow were from Al Hakam, according to the sources.
"I don't see how they could have not known" about the risks of selling the protein plant, a source who is familiar with the matter said of the Russians. "You'd have to not be listening to anything."
Washington's aim in the current dispute over U.N. inspections is partly to ensure that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are eliminated, but it is also to keep Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from improving his standing in the Middle East by standing up to the West and getting away with it, several officials said. At the same time, Russia appears to be attempting to strengthen the Iraqi government and gain new influence in the region.
"Clearly, in the U.N. Security Council, Russia is trying to block the commission's effectiveness," said a non-U.S. official who has closely followed the council's private deliberations. In recent weeks, Moscow has proposed using its own surveillance aircraft in place of U-2 planes flown by U.S. Air Force pilots. But the Russian planes lack the capability to loiter over sensitive Iraqi sites for extended periods to document attempted evasions of the inspections.
Moscow has also proposed to install one of its own representatives as a deputy commissioner, with responsibilities equal to those of Charles Duelfer, the U.S. diplomat who now has the job. The Iraqi and Russian governments also have jointly demanded wider participation by Russian experts in the commission's work, and Moscow has given the commission 60 names of individuals who it says would be willing to help.
During a news conference on Jan. 14, however, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz made clear that not all Russians are welcome. He expressed dissatisfaction with a Russian chemical expert at the commission, Igor Matrohkin, who Aziz said "does not represent the Russian government and has no control [over] him by the government."
U.S. and U.N. officials have been particularly suspicious about Aziz's motives for insisting that Russians approved by Moscow be appointed chief inspectors of various teams. In many cases, they say, only the chief inspector may know in advance where a sensitive visit is to occur.
The commission's former chairman, Rolf Ekeus, who is now Sweden's ambassador to the United States, said he believes Primakov has been working closely with Iraq partly because Moscow has "a dream to come back and play a much more influential role" in the Middle East.
A Friendship Involved
In addition, Ekeus said, Primakov and Aziz have become close friends. "You recognize every [Primakov] proposal has been prepared by Tariq," Ekeus said, because they match Iraq's ideas "almost word by word, many times." He cited Russia's proposal in Geneva late last year to make the work of the commission "more effective," an approach that Ekeus said was "typical [of] Tariq."
Senior Russian diplomats have also privately told U.N. officials and U.S. diplomats that Moscow wants a withdrawal of economic sanctions on Iraq soon so Baghdad can sell enough oil to repay an $8 billion debt for its purchases of Russian military equipment before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned last week that if the United States carries out its threat to bomb Iraq for refusing to allow inspections, it could lead to "world war." Had these remarks come from a Russian leader a decade ago, they might have sowed considerable alarm, sources said; but they have not led to any shift in Washington's targeting plan or caused any pause in the U.S. military buildup in the gulf.
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