Searching for Saddam's sarin

A purloined videotape leads to a wild tale of smuggling, greed, intrigue, thuggery, sex and Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction.

Published September 20, 2003 7:29PM (EDT)

In the State of the Union address he gave shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush presented a nightmarish scenario to the American people. "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.

"We will do everything in our power," the president intoned, "to make sure that day never comes." Seven weeks later, the first bombs exploded in Baghdad.

Today, more than five months after the fall of Baghdad, none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush cited as justification for the invasion, whether nuclear, biological or chemical, have been found. Despite the best efforts of the Iraq Survey Group, a team of 1,400 American and British inspectors led by David Kay who have been scouring the country for four months, not a single shred of evidence has so far appeared supporting the president's assertions. On Sunday, the Times of London reported that American and British officials had decided to delay indefinitely publishing the group's report. The reason: The inspectors had found no evidence that the weapons existed.

Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said this week that he doubted any WMD would ever be found: "I'm certainly more and more to the conclusion that Iraq has, as they maintained, destroyed all almost of what they had in the summer of 1991." Blix theorized that Iraq's evasive and suspicious behavior might have been part of a scheme to fool the U.S. into believing that it had WMD, to ward off a possible invasion -- a gambit which, if real, would have constituted the biggest misjudgment of Saddam's erratic career.

As the lightning victory over Iraq's pitifully overmatched army has turned into a bloody, ruinously expensive guerrilla war of attrition, and the American people are increasingly beginning to ask if it was worth the cost in lives and treasure, the question of the missing weapons of mass destruction looms larger and larger.

By a peculiar combination of circumstances, this reporter and a colleague stumbled upon a tiny piece of this gigantic puzzle. We obtained a videotape made in 2000 in which the all-powerful head of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's secret police, along with one of his informers and the head of Iraq's military intelligence science department are shown discussing a sting operation they mounted to retrieve a missing canister. The canister disappeared under mysterious circumstances at least seven years ago from Iraq's main chemical-weapons facility and ended up on the black market. It contained a chemical used in the production of nerve gas. The remarkable thing about this conversation, which we have confirmed was authentic, is that these top-ranking Iraqi officials say they turned over the canister to the National Monitoring Directorate -- an agency set up to coordinate activities between the Iraqi government and the U.N. inspectors -- and that they are going to harmlessly dispose of the material by having it turned into detergent. In short, the tape catches them apparently behaving in a responsible fashion -- and this during the four-year period when no United Nations inspectors were even present.

It is impossible to draw any firm conclusions from this videotape about the state of Iraq's chemical weapons program, if it existed, in the year 2000. There are too many unknown factors, and too many possible interpretations of the evidence. If anything, the byzantine tale of the rogue canister shows how fiendishly hard it is to reach any conclusions about what happened to Iraq's chemical weapons program -- or, for that matter, any of its weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, what we found tends to support, in however weak and inconclusive a way, those, like Blix, who argue that Iraq had destroyed its chemical weapons after the first Gulf War.

Scott Ritter, the controversial former chief weapons inspector in Iraq who is noted for his outspoken opposition to the war, said after hearing the details, "This is some of the hardest evidence that Iraq did not have a secret chemical weapons program."

The current U.N. inspectors would not go nearly that far. But UNMOVIC spokesman Euan Buchanan called it "surprising that the Iraqis did that even without the presence of UNSCOM [the previous U.N. weapons-inspection mission]."

Beyond the light, however faint, that the videotape sheds on Iraq's chemical weapons program, it also offers an extraordinary look at the workings of the Mukhabarat. It reveals the tribal side of Iraqi society, and the threat of violence that has always accompanied it -- even under Saddam. And it reveals, in ways that are by turns chilling and farcical, how ordinary Iraqis made their accommodations with Saddam's brutal regime -- which may help to explain why the American occupation has met with so much resistance and bitterness.

The story begins in the early morning on March 20, 2003, in the ritzy Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour. Before dawn, the quiet neighborhood was shaken by an enormous explosion: American cruise missiles, after flying through hundreds of miles of darkness, smashed with deadly precision into a large house. The explosions -- the famous "decapitation strikes" intended to kill Saddam Hussein -- marked the beginning of the war. An Iraqi businessman whom we shall call Ahmed (for reasons of security he insisted his name be withheld) lived just a few streets away from the house destroyed by the missiles. Shortly after the attack, one of his young sons, curious, wandered into the house next to the one hit by the missiles. When he came home he told his father that in one of its rooms he saw the flag and desk that Saddam Hussein used in his taped television addresses during the war. Ahmed believes that he knows the very house Saddam Hussein was staying in.

Three weeks later, on April 9, the day Baghdad fell to U.S. and British troops, Ahmed saw something else strange in his neighborhood. Three men appeared at another posh house in the neighborhood, carried everything inside the house outside, and began systematically burning it -- files, computer disks, photographs and videotapes. Ahmed had long suspected that the building had been used by Iraq's dreaded Mukhabarat. Now he was sure. Mukhabarat officials had apparently decided to store their archives in a remote location, knowing that the main Mukhabarat compound, the Hakamiyeh, was likely to be attacked during the war.

Joined by other curious neighbors, Ahmed decided to take a look inside the house. Under normal circumstances this would have been unthinkable, but Saddam's forces had melted away, and the three Mukhabarat men were only concerned with destroying evidence. Ahmed tried to take two videotapes out of the house, but the men stopped him and ordered him to throw them on the fire. For three days, the men continued to burn files, while U.S. troops mopped up the last pockets of resistance in the Iraqi capital. On the last day, Ahmed's youngest son, 8 years old, went to have a look at the house again. Waiting until the Mukhabarat men were not looking, he simply grabbed a videotape from a pile that was to be burned, hid it under his shirt and brought it home.

Ahmed, in turn, gave the videotape to a journalist colleague and travel partner, telling him it might be worth investigating. In early August, we watched the videotape in a hotel room in Baghdad -- an experience that set in motion a strange and fascinating odyssey.

The videotape, filmed with two cameras that change angles, shows a room decorated in a style somewhere between kitschy and frumpy. It is apparently a routine secret recording of a meeting. Three middle-aged men are present. One, balding and chain-smoking, sits in an easy chair in the middle, with his back to a wall. He is unmistakably the most dominating figure in the room. He is Tahir Jalil Habbush, the head of the Mukhabarat -- the Jack of Diamonds in the American deck of most-wanted Iraqis, whose whereabouts remain unknown. To his left, on a couch, sits a nervous, fidgety man who talks too much and doesn't always make sense, like a man who knows he's in trouble. This is the informer, Salah Abed Nasser, a factory owner who also owns a farm. To Habbush's right sits Abdel Wahab, the head of the science department of the Istikhbarat, the department of military intelligence. Now and then a servant comes in to pour coffee and orange juice.

The tape begins with Habbush asking, "Is this the same subject again or a different one?" Abed Nasser replies, "No, no sir, it's the same subject that I told you about ... By the grace of God, we reached good results and God willing we'll keep on going." Abed Nasser goes on to say, "This is about the canister that they were convinced was VX, about nerve gas." VX is one of the most lethal chemical agents known to man. Iraq used it to turn back Iran's massive human-wave assaults toward the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

It soon becomes clear that Abed Nasser had just run a successful sting operation at his farm. Posing as a buyer, he lured the possessors of the canister to his farm. The cylinder was retrieved and three of the people involved were arrested. Most of the videotape concerns the sting's bungled coverup, which led members of his wife's clan to threaten Abed Nasser's life -- a bizarre, at times almost ludicrous saga to which we shall return. But the matter of most interest concerns the Iraqi officials' discussion about what was in the canister, where it came from and what to do with it.

Abdel Wahab, the scientist, tells Habbush that he had one of his people first test the material in the canister to see what they were dealing with. "Sir, the first test proved it came from Al-Muthanna establishment, where they used to make chemical weapons ..."

Al-Muthanna (also known as Samarra) was the major plant where Iraq developed and manufactured its chemical weapons. The complex of laboratories and factories near Baghdad was bombed by the allies during the first Gulf War and was subsequently heavily scrutinized by UNSCOM inspectors. It is widely accepted that Iraq manufactured chemical weapons, including the nerve gas Sarin, at the site before 1991.

Then, in the crucial passage of the videotape, Abdel Wahab says that the intelligence service is planning to hand over the canister to the National Monitoring Directorate (Da'erat Al Raqaba Al Wataniyah) "so that we won't make the country lose anything. They won't bring the name of our apparatus into it." The "beneficiary," he says, is the "Arab Cleaning Company" -- also known as the Arab Company for Detergent Chemicals, or Aradat. The Arab Cleaning Company is a plant at which some of the chemicals from Al-Muthanna that were destined for use in Iraq's chemical weapons program were shipped to be turned into detergent, with U.N. approval.

In short, top Iraqi officials are planning to give the canister to the NMD, which would then sell it to the Arab Cleaning Company, which would then use it in its aboveboard production of detergents.

What is the significance of Abdel Wahab's somewhat cryptic statement "so that we won't make the country lose anything" and "they won't bring the name of our apparatus into it"? The most likely interpretation is that Iraq did not want to be blamed by the U.N. for holding back a canister containing a chemical that could be used for making WMD, and therefore wanted to keep the Mukhabarat's name out of it.

Scott Ritter, for one, takes this view. "The Mukhabarat appears to have been trying to do the right thing without getting their name involved." He adds, "That does not mean they did the right thing all the time." According to him, the NMD was a responsible agency: If the Iraqis handed it over to them, "The NMD would deal with it according to the rules and regulations."

If Ritter is right, the tape contains a small piece of evidence that tends to support the idea that Iraq did in fact dismantle its chemical weapons program after 1991. Former arms inspector Rolk Ekeus argues that Iraq did just that. In a June article in the Washington Post he argued that after the war, Iraq knew its chemical-weapons stocks (which he says were intended for use against Iran and internal opposition, not to use against the U.S.) were degraded to the point of uselessness and therefore retooled its program to "design and engineering, with the purpose of activating production" if needed to fight Iran. Presumably in this scenario Iraq would have destroyed its remaining stocks of chemicals, since they would have been useless and only aroused suspicion.

But no ultimately convincing theory can be advanced about the case of the rogue canister, because there are too many unknowns. (It is even theoretically possible that the entire tape was a fake, made by Saddam's henchmen and intended to "prove" his compliance with the U.N. -- but considering how the tape was acquired and its content, the odds of that being true are long.) Although we were able to establish many facts about the canister and the people involved with it, we were unable to find out three crucial things: why the canister was taken from Al-Muthanna, when it was taken, and what happened to it. Even beyond that, even if Iraq acted in the utmost good faith on this one occasion, it's not possible to draw any final conclusions about its chemical weapons program.

The timing of the container's removal is significant. If the container was removed immediately before being deposited in Saddam City, that would mean 1996, when the U.N. inspectors had already been working on the site for several years, inspecting the facilities and destroying chemicals that could be used in the production of chemical weapons. The fact that a canister could disappear would raise questions about UNSCOM's ability to account for all of Iraq's chemical weapons-related material. In fact, one former U.N. inspector who headed a team at the time, Ron Manley, says "Given the state of the site and the size of the site, it is not unlikely that one cylinder could have gone amiss."

If, on the other hand, the container had already been counted by the inspectors, it could explain the later actions of apparent compliance on the part of the Iraqis once they retrieved the container: It would help them maybe fill a tiny gap in their declaration.

But all this is speculative: It is impossible to determine the date of the container's disappearance from Al-Muthanna. It could even have been taken out in 1991, after the Gulf War and before the inspectors arrived.

As for why the canister was smuggled out of Al-Muthanna, the most likely explanation is that whoever did it intended to sell it on the black market -- which is, of course, exactly what happened.

Another critical -- and ambiguous -- factor in assessing the story is the actual substance in the canister. Despite the talk on the videotape about the deadly gas VX, our investigation confirmed that the canister contained something much less deadly: the dual-use chemical hydrogen fluoride, or HF. Dual-use chemicals are internationally controlled substances that can be used in the production of chemical weapons but that also have legitimate applications. Even under sanctions, the U.N. allowed Iraq to import HF for use in its chemical industry, although the end-use was supervised and the facilities inspected to see that none of the material went missing. HF is used as a catalyst in various industrial processes, including the production of detergents, as well as in the manufacturing of the nerve gas sarin and the enrichment of uranium to make nuclear weapons.

The amount of HF in the canister is hardly significant for military purposes and by itself, without the presence of known chemical-weapons precursors, it seems to say very little about Iraq's chemical weapons program. But the fact that this particular cylinder, and others like it that we found later on, were manufactured in Al-Muthanna indicates that it was more than likely destined to be used in the production of sarin. Iraq produced large quantities of this nerve agent in the 1980s, using it against Iran and possibly in the infamous 1988 gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja.

Of course, it was Iraq's failure to account for the difference between its known stocks of chemical weapons and "precursors" (chemicals that can be used to make WMD) and its later declaration that it had none that the U.S. cited as one of the reasons for the invasion.

The obvious question this affair poses for those who maintain that Saddam still had an active chemical weapons program after 1991 is: Why did they turn the canister over to the monitoring agency? With no U.N. inspectors around in 2000, the Mukhabarat could if it chose have used the retrieved cylinder for some nefarious purpose. If Iraq still in fact had a covert program to produce sarin, as the U.S. claimed, it could have used the container, despite the small amount of HF it contained, to produce "terrorist quantities" rather than military quantities of the nerve agent. Or it could have been used to train scientists, in preparation for a renewed program.

Then there is the nuclear-weapons connection. In the now infamous British dossier, the U.K. government claims that Iraq was seeking HF to use in uranium enrichment. The cylinder's amount in this context is totally insignificant, but if the government of Saddam Hussein was indeed looking for ways to import or skim off HF from legitimate purposes, would it not also have used even the smallest amount?

None of these things apparently happened.

It is of course possible that Iraq did have covert WMD programs, and that it did not need such a small amount because it had set up separate routes of supply. Indeed, transferring the retrieved cylinder to such programs might have carried a risk of exposure by providing a trail. Also, if such programs existed very few people probably knew about it. Finally, it cannot be ruled out that the cylinder did not end up at the Arab Cleaning Company, even though that was the destination discussed on the videotape.

For any conclusions at all to be reached, the story must be airtight -- and it is. Apart from the evidence on the videotape, we managed over the course of several weeks to track down and interview some of the major players in the affair, including the informer himself, one of the people who was involved in selling the container of chemicals on the black market and one of his family members. Our investigation confirmed the main facts on the tape.

This much is known. After leaving Al-Muthanna under unknown circumstances, the container was acquired by an engineer, who apparently bought the phone-booth-sized canister at a scrap auction in 1996, intending to resell it. This engineer stored it in a backyard in the impoverished Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Saddam City for at least four years. In 2000, some two years after UNSCOM had withdrawn its inspectors from Iraq, he decided to try to sell it. He brought in a friend, Majed al-Ezzi, who in turn called a family member, Abed Nasser -- who turned out, of course, to be an informer for the secret service.

Abed Nasser immediately betrayed Majed -- but by doing so he put himself in a delicate position. Majed was his wife's cousin, and Majed's powerful clan, the al-Ezzis, would be sure to demand vengeance if his role became known. Here begins the Keystone Kops element of the tale. The hapless Abed Nasser made a major mistake: To convince the other people arrested in the sting operation that he was also a victim rather than an informer, he was supposed to spend time in jail with them. But Abed Nasser, perhaps too confident after years of working for the Mukhabarat, overreached: He made only a brief and unconvincing stay behind bars before checking himself into a luxurious hotel, the Babylon on the river Tigris -- a favorite haunt of Saddam Hussein's hedonistic son Uday. Unfortunately for Abed Nasser, his family somehow found out that he had checked into the posh hotel, rather than travelling to the northern city of Mosul which had been his cover story.

On the tape, Abed Nasser tells his bosses his family may have suspected he was seeing another woman.

Habbush, not surprisingly, is irritated by this screw-up, and berates his subordinates: "If you would have told me that you were going to send him to a hotel I would have said not to. At least you should have spent two or three days with those who were arrested."

But Abed Nasser's real problem is not suspicions of infidelity, but the fact that his wife's family, the al-Ezzi clan, found out that he was responsible for the arrest of Majed. Majed, who used to be an engineer at Iraq's Nuclear Energy Council, was a middleman in the sale of the cylinder, which was initiated by one of his colleagues. Apparently the al-Ezzis received the news of Majed's arrest from a family member, Walid al-Ezzi, who was an officer in the Mukhabarat.

On the tape, Abed Nasser tells his bosses that the al-Ezzis have threatened to kill him if he doesn't get Majed out of jail. Habbush finally agrees to let Majed go -- after some deft footwork to make sure Abed Nasser gets credit -- and then orders the arrest of the leak in his organization, Walid al-Ezzi. With one phone call, he tells an officer to put Walid in an isolation cell. For a few moments things look decidedly bleak for this al-Ezzi, until Abdel Wahab reminds Habbush of the rather obvious point that arresting Walid will also get Abed Nasser into trouble. With one simple phone call from Habbush the arrest order is cancelled.

For Abed Nasser it must be a jarring experience to be confronted out of the blue three years later by two journalists who seem to know all the details of the case. After some searching, through the sheik of the al-Ezzi clan we located Abed Nasser's house and his textile factory in the Wazariyeh district of Baghdad. The factory lies close to a main highway out of town; according to our driver, a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein used to decorate the side facing the road. We catch Abed Nasser in the middle of his siesta in his small, cluttered office to the side of the factory. Despite his obvious anxiety he is willing to talk.

"My life is still in danger from this affair," is one of the first things he says. It appears that Majed's family is convinced that Abed Nasser received a lot of money from the Mukhabarat for his role in the affair, and they are applying pressure on him to pay up. Later, when talking to Majed, we find out that this is not the end of it. The two people who had the cylinder in their possession in 2000 and who were arrested in the sting operation were actually freed in the general amnesty that the regime announced last year. One of them is from a large Shiite family: it was probably at his house or shop in Saddam City that the cylinder was stored for so many years before he tried to sell it. This Shiite man, who is only referred to as Salaam, and his family came to Majed in June this year and demanded that he pay them for the value of the cylinder, or else. Majed had to pay Salaam 5.5 million Iraqi dinars, about $300. Now he and his family are trying to make Abed Nasser pay them back that money, which they hold him responsible for. Majed does confirm, however, that he himself only did a couple of months in jail because of Abed Nasser's intervention.

For his part, the former informer is convinced that everybody else, including Habbush and Abdel Wahab, made a lot of money off the cylinder. He was paid just 250,000 Iraqi dinars, according to the tape. Also on the tape, Abdel Wahab estimates -- correctly, as it turns out -- the retail value of the container at some $3,000 at best. "Frankly speaking, they made a good deal of it," says Abed Nasser. "I lost a lot of money on it; I was the victim."

Abed Nasser contends that when Majed and his friends first contacted him, they wanted him to sell the container to Iran. He thinks that the Mukhabarat has sold it to Libya. These claims seem weak, even absurd, considering that HF is not that hard to come by for those countries, and they certainly didn't need to get it from Iraq. But since the end of the war Abed Nasser has been approached by "the coalition." He is also convinced, despite our repeated denials, that we are from the CIA. "I know lots of things," says Abed Nasser tantalizingly. He seems to be angling for a lucrative new job with Iraq's new rulers, along the lines of the duties he used to perform for the old regime.

But Abed Nasser has one more role to play in this tangled tale. Incredibly, he remembers what was written on the containers. It was made in Holland "by a factory starting with an M," he says. He even has photographs of the cylinder on which the words "Hydrogen Fluoride" can clearly be made out: The cylinder is lying in a backyard against a brick wall, probably the same backyard where it spent four years in the middle of Saddam City -- an innocent-looking canister that contained enough HF to make the people living in the area very sick, had it leaked or exploded. Abed Nasser also indicates that he knows that the government sometimes shipped material to the Arab Cleaning Company.

We have one last place to visit.

One day in August we approach the Arab Cleaning Company in Beji. A dozen or more chimneys belch out cumulus clouds of black smoke over the massive refinery near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Oil production and other industries that were shut down by the war are back on line in this dusty, sun-baked landscape. The wind is blisteringly hot.

On the edge of the refinery complex the Arab Company for Detergent Chemicals, also known as the Arab Cleaning Company, looms like an oasis of order, cleanliness and sanity. Row upon row of containers for industrial gases surround the factory. Inside the fence surrounding the company's land, hundreds of empty HF containers can be seen.

The company's acting general manager, Zuheir Abed Rashid, and his production manager, Mutia Sa'id, seem very cooperative. (The previous general manager lost his job when the old regime fell.) They say that the facility was regularly visited by the U.N. inspectors and that they used to show them all the books. They say their company received 203 tons of HF from Al-Muthanna in 1991. Most of it was in very large containers but some of it came in 14 smaller containers that exactly match the pictures Abed Nasser showed us. They take us out in their pickup truck to have a look at the empty containers that they still keep on the terrain. "Container disposal is one of our biggest problems," says Abed Rashid.

The installation turns kerosene into something called LAB, which is then used to produce detergents. For every ton of LAB produced a certain amount of HF, which acts as a catalyst in the process, is lost. Even more HF is lost when the system is cleaned, the manager says.

At the very back of the facility, behind a noxious-smelling pool and a facility wafting with poisonous-looking fumes, the cylinders stand in the burning sun. There can be no mistake: They are white cylinders with black letters reading "hydrogen fluoride" and "shippers Melchemie -- from Holland to Baghdad." They contain 688 kilograms. They were filled with HF in 1983, according to the labels, and probably shipped to Iraq not much later. These are the only 688-kilogram containers of HF ever received by the company, says Mutia Sa'id, a veteran of the plant, and they came from Al-Muthanna. At the very least this seems to indicate that the government knew then that it had to get rid of part of its visible and well-known nerve gas program.

And then -- nothing. The company management and its bookkeepers insist that it never again received a 688-kilogram cylinder from the government, neither from the NMD nor from the Mukhabarat. Our missing container remains missing. We use Abed Nasser's pictures as a reference, but are unable to find the cylinder at the site. The 14 containers of 688 kilograms are all accounted for: They came straight from Al Muthanna in 1991. When we suggest that the bookkeeping might be shoddy, they bristle: "Not one gram can get in here without me knowing it and it being registered," says Abed Rashid. Of course they may think they have good reason to conceal the fact that they received more chemicals from the government. They may just not want any trouble. Says Ron Manley, a former U.N. weapons inspector, "The Iraqis are good at keeping paperwork, but they are also good at keeping paperwork that's required rather than that which is accurate."

Did the Mukhabarat indeed dispose of the cylinder by handing it over to the NMD, to be turned into soap by the aptly-named Arab Cleaning Company? Or did it end up somewhere else? And what does this whole story say about Iraq's missing WMD programs -- the reason for which the United States went to war? On this scorching and desolate plain, there are no answers.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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