The Iraqi rocket-testing workshop here was cited before the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday as a hiding place for banned weapons. Today, journalists brought in by the government saw missile tubes, tailfins and nosecones inside the building, along with four assembled Al Fatah missiles, freshly painted white, that lay outside near a large truck.
Nothing at the facility, Iraqi officials asserted as they showed reporters around, constitutes a violation of U.N.-imposed weapons restrictions.
In his presentation to the council, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell alleged that President Saddam Hussein's government sought to hide missile components here in the weeks before U.N. inspectors began scouring the country for banned arms, including missiles that can travel more than 93 miles. Powell displayed a satellite photograph of the workshop, which he said was taken Nov. 10. To ministers and diplomats assembled around the Security Council chamber, he pointed out missile-storage canisters, warhead canisters, missile airframes and a cargo truck, all of which, he said, suggested unusual goings-on.
To respond to Powell's contention, Iraq's weapons-monitoring directorate organized a field trip for about 100 journalists, escorting them to Al Musayyib and another rocket-testing facility. At both sites, officials insisted they test and assemble only missiles whose ranges and payloads do not violate U.N. disarmament resolutions.
Powell's "allegations are untrue and absolutely baseless," said the facility's director, Karim Jabbar. On any day, he said, "Colin Powell can claim there is intense activity here . . . because we are busy assembling and testing."
Jabbar said the solid-propellant Al Fatah missiles assembled and tested at Al Musayyib have a range of less than 93 miles. Asked if biological or chemical warheads were ever placed on one of the missiles, he responded with an icy "absolutely not!"
Conspicuously absent during the workshop visit were workers. "It's Friday," an amused official from Iraq's weapons-monitoring directorate explained. Friday is the Muslim Sabbath, and in Iraq, it is the day of the week people do not go to the office. Every other day, said Jabbar, "there is constant activity here."
At the other facility to which the journalists were escorted, the Al Rafah missile test stand, site director Ali Jassem maintained that the liquid-propellant Al Samoud missile engines he tests are within the approved range, despite Powell's contention that a new testing unit on the grounds is designed for longer-range missiles.
The two sites were among the least-sensitive of those Powell mentioned in his presentation. U.N. inspectors have visited both of them more than once. The inspectors even observed a missile engine test at Al Rafah, which is near the town of Al Fallujah about 50 miles west of Baghdad. The inspectors also have placed small metallic identification stickers on missiles at Al Musayyib, which is about 50 miles south of Baghdad.
It was impossible for the journalists to determine whether the missiles on display at Al Musayyib or the design of the stand at Al Rafah violate U.N. resolutions passed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War to limit Iraq's weapons. But in his report to the Security Council last month, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, did not mention either site as a potential concern -- a point Iraqi officials were quick to point out today.
"The inspectors looked at everything technical. They copied all the plans. They asked many questions," Jassem said. "They found no problem with it."
But Blix did say that the Al Fatah and the Al Samoud have been tested to a range in excess of 93 miles. "Some of both types of missiles have already been provided to the Iraqi armed forces, even though it is stated that they are still undergoing development," Blix told the council on Jan. 27.
What has prompted concern among U.S. intelligence officials at Al Rafah is a new engine-testing unit so large it is housed in a four-story concrete-frame hangar. Powell asserted that the unit "is larger than anything [Iraq] has ever had" and is designed for missiles that can fly 750 miles.
But Jassem said that, because the new unit is designed to test engines horizontally, instead of vertically as it was previously done, the unit needs a large exhaust vent and a cavernous structure. He also disputed Powell's contention that the structure has a corrugated tin roof to prevent satellite observation. "We are covering it because of rain and dust," he said.
Jabbar said the activity at Al Musayyib on Nov. 10, captured in a grainy black-and-white satellite photo, was not intended to sanitize the facility in anticipation of inspections. With Iraq facing a possible war with the United States, Al Fatah missiles are regularly brought to the site for alignment and testing, he said, adding that "we do this every day."
Walking over to the truck parked outside, he pointed inside the empty cargo compartment. That day, he said, the truck was loaded with 10 separate missile components. "It was just machine parts used in the assembly of the missiles," he said. "There was nothing forbidden."
Jabbar said he could think of only one reason Powell mentioned his facility. "It was to mislead," he said. "What he said was not the truth."