U.N. weapons experts today conducted their first inspections of Iraqi sites that have not been searched by previous U.N. teams, examining three alcohol distilleries on the outskirts of Baghdad for equipment that could be used in the development of nuclear devices.
Iraqi officials expressed surprise that experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency would choose to visit the Awali, Baraj and Dahab companies, which use the nectar of dates to make a potent and popular gin and an anise-flavored spirit called arak that is sold for 75 cents a bottle. The inspectors visited the plants one after the other, walking through the distillation and bottling facilities, speaking to employees and looking carefully at the machinery, but they did not appear to be carrying any of the radiation monitoring equipment they have taken into other sites.
[Early Tuesday, news services reported that for the first time a team of inspectors entered one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. A convoy of about six U.N. vehicles was allowed inside the complex in the Karkh district in central Baghdad after several minutes of discussion with guards at the gate, the reports said.]
The inspectors did not comment on why they chose to visit the alcohol plants today, or what, if anything, they found inside related to nuclear weapons. An IAEA spokesman issued a brief statement saying "all sites with industrial/technical capability are of interest to us and need to be assessed to determine relevance or not to a nuclear program."
"Any site with industrial/technical capability can be used to conceal illicit activity," the statement said.
U.N. officials suggested, but did not directly confirm, that the inspectors were checking on a tip that nuclear-related equipment was being stored at the beverage plants. They appeared, however, to come up empty.
"We've got to follow up on a lot of leads," one U.N. official said. "Not all of them lead to something productive."
Another group of inspectors, from a special U.N. commission examining biological and chemical weaponry, visited a Baghdad factory that once made guidance and control systems for Scud missiles, which Iraq used extensively during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During their six-hour search, the inspectors discovered that several monitoring cameras and some of the equipment that had been marked with identification tags by previous inspectors no longer were at the site, now called the Karama Co., a U.N. spokesman here said.
The spokesman, Hiro Ueki, said the inspectors were told by Iraqi officials that some of the equipment had been destroyed when the United States bombed the site in 1998 and other pieces had been moved. A U.N. official said the inspectors would investigate the claims.
"It is something that has to be looked into," the official said. "It's too early to tell how serious this is."
In the 1980s, Iraq modified Soviet-made Scuds to increase their range to 400 miles. Now, Iraq is prohibited from having missiles with a range of more than 93 miles. Although Iraq insists it has no such missiles, the inspectors presumably wanted to ensure that such work had not resumed.
One of the three alcohol plants, the Awali Co., whose name means "the Heights," had been visited by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s, but those inspectors were focused on biological and chemical weapons, not nuclear arms, U.N. officials said. The earlier inspectors had placed small U.N. identification tags on a few large metal fermentation vats, which were visible to journalists who were allowed to tour the plant after the inspectors left.
Part of the reason for the visit may have been to test whether the inspectors would be allowed to scour any site they wanted and to confuse Iraqi officials, who are trying to predict which sites the international experts will choose to search. Under a U.N. Security Council resolution passed unanimously last month, Iraq will face "serious consequences" if it does not allow inspectors access to any person or place in Iraq without having to seek permission or provide advance notice.
"Sometimes we don't know what we're going to find," the U.N. official said. "We've got to be able to surprise them. We wouldn't be very good inspectors if we only visited places that are logical."
But Jamal Ishaa, the manager of the Awali plant, said he could not fathom why nuclear experts were interested in his facility. "We were surprised when they came," he said. "We only produce alcoholic drinks."
Production of alcoholic beverages is legal in Iraq and is a specialty of the country's Christian minority. Consumption is legal in homes but has been banned in public places since the government put increased emphasis on Iraq's Islamic heritage after the 1991 war.
Ishaa said the inspectors looked at the bottling facilities and the fermentation rooms and asked questions of the workers, some of whom were later observed by journalists placing labels on clear glass bottles and heat-sealing metal bottle caps. He said the inspectors did not tell him why they selected his plant.
"I would really like to ask them, 'What does arak and gin have to do with nuclear [technology]?' " he said.