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 Monday, 23 December, 2002, 14:15 GMT
Seeking Saddam's weapons scientists
UN inspectors search an aircraft hangar
Weapons inspectors continue to search suspected sites

Saddam Hussein's top scientists may hold the key to the secrets of Iraq's weapons programmes, but tracking them down and interviewing them is posing one of the biggest challenges to weapons inspectors.

The US administration wants inspectors to talk to scientists involved in previous and current chemical, biological and nuclear programmes as a matter of priority. The UN has asked Baghdad for a list of personnel and failure to comply could provide the trigger for war.

The idea is that you are looking for people with credible information - once you've done that they will have to be offered asylum

David Albright, former weapons inspector
But, while the latest UN Security Council resolution provides for the interviews to take place inside or outside Iraq, the wording is vague and the logistics involved are proving difficult.

The scientists, for example, are only likely to agree to go somewhere where they can speak freely and only if their families accompany them.

Jordan, Turkey and Cyprus are three options that are reportedly being discussed for initial interviews. But where will the scientists go after that? Many will be unwilling to return to Iraq, for fear of reprisals.

Interviews

So far, the US has not agreed to grant political asylum to scientists or their families, according to reports.

UN inspectors, however, are keen to guarantee that the safety of the scientists will be assured.

Why wouldn't they want to go, if they are given a chance to live in freedom for the rest of their lives with their families?

Khidar Hamza, Iraqi defector
According to reports in The Washington Post, UN officials are worried that the US or other governments may refuse asylum requests by scientists who are thought to have not given significant information.

While the names of past and present scientists and technicians could run into the thousands, experts say that it is likely that only about 100 can divulge key information about the programmes.

"You're not talking about taking hundreds of Iraqis and putting them into detention camps in a third country," David Albright, a former weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, told BBC News Online.

"One way would be to interview people at the UN headquarters in Iraq in a soundproof, bug-proof room. Then, if you feel they have something to say, offer to take them out of the country. The idea is that you are looking for people with credible information - once you've done that they will have to be offered asylum."

Defections

Khidar Hamza, a former senior scientist who defected to the US in the 1990s after working with many of Iraq's top weapons researchers, says scientists would jump at the chance to defect if their safety could be guaranteed.

"They are paid about $10 a month and their freedom of movement is restricted," he told BBC News Online from his home in Virginia. "Why wouldn't they want to go, if they are given a chance to live in freedom for the rest of their lives with their families?"

But Mr Hamza said it would be unlikely that scientists would want to be interviewed inside Iraq because the process would be "too leaky".

"The scientists definitely wouldn't talk to the UN if there was any chance they would be going back to Iraq," he added.

UN weapons inspector in Iraq
Previous inspections turned up names of key scientists
He says that weapons inspectors would only need about 10 or 20 scientists to glean key information about the programmes.

US officials and weapons experts point to the defection in 1995 of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law and former super weapons chief General Hussein Kamal al-Majid as an example of the importance of human knowledge to uncover weapons secrets.

The defection blew the lid off a biological weapons programme which Iraq had denied.

Interviewees identified

Weapons experts and US officials say key weapons scientists have already been identified by defectors, through captured Iraqi documents and UN reports and CIA intelligence.

The White House is said to be drawing up a list, including a number who were trained at British and American universities.

Near the top of the list is likely to be 47-year-old biologist Rihab Taha, who is believed to have been a senior figure in one of the country's biological warfare programmes.

Rihab Taha is thought to have headed up the germ warfare programme
Rihab Taha earned the name Dr Germ from weapons inspectors
She is thought to have carried out work on germs that cause botulism poisoning and anthrax infections at the top-secret biological research lab al-Hakim in the late 1980s.

At this time, she was reported to have ordered and received biological specimens from US companies.

She gained her doctorate after studying plant disease at Britain's University of East Anglia, and earned the name Dr Germ from weapons inspectors who interviewed her after General Majid's defection in the mid-1990s.

Rihab Taha is married to General Amir Mohammad Rashid, the country's oil minister. She is now thought to have retired.

Anthrax expert Abdul Nassir Hindawi is said to have worked with Rihab Taha. According to reports, weapons inspectors would want to know about his work developing anthrax in the late 1980s after writing to a British military laboratory asking for a sample. He is said to also have knowledge of uranium enrichment.

But this US-educated scientist was sent to prison after trying to defect and his whereabouts are unknown.

Another scientist said to have been involved in secret germ research is Hazem Ali, a smallpox virologist.

He attracted the attention of UN officials who were investigating whether Iraq may have planned to try to use smallpox in germ warfare. But they were unable to track him down. Mr Ali earned a doctorate in England.

Officials would also probably be keen to interview US-trained nuclear scientist Mahdi Obeidi. While it is not known if he is still involved in weapons programmes, experts say his knowledge would be crucial in shedding light on how close Iraq came to building a nuclear weapon.

One of the best-known Iraqi nuclear scientists is Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, who headed the country's bomb programme.

He was extensively profiled in Khidar Hamza's book Saddam's Bomb Maker. Mr Hamza says Saddam Hussein used imprisonment and torture of other prisoners to persuade Mr Jaffar to head the programme.

The scientist is said to have promised to build Saddam Hussein a bomb within 10 years, and reports say that plan appears to have come close to success.

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  The BBC's Jane Bennett-Powell
"United Nations' arms experts have made 150 inspections so far"

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20 Dec 02 | Americas
19 Dec 02 | Americas
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