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Tracking down Iraq's arms


Are you smart enough to operate a high-tech laser but willing to do the work of a warehouse stock boy? Able to spot a buried Scud hidden in a grainy satellite shot? Unfazed by whizzing bullets or wilting 120-degree desert heat? If so, then you have what it takes to be a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq.

Today, representatives of the United Nations and Iraq will meet in Vienna to work out the details of the return of inspectors to the country after a four-year absence. If and when inspectors finally get the green light, they'll face the ultimate game of hide-and-seek: Uncovering evidence of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in a sand-locked country slightly larger than California. If past experience offers any indication, it won't be easy.

"We're like policemen trying to find one murderer among millions of people," Jacques Baute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, told reporters this month. "But if you use the right techniques, the chances become quite good."

Baute's team would hunt for signs of nuclear weapons. Their counterparts at the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in New York would look for biological and chemical arms. Both start with a secret list of factories, government laboratories and other potential hiding spots. The list, compiled using satellite photographs and other intelligence-gathering techniques, has more than 700 sites, including 100 where weapons may have been stored or made in the past few years.

Then, former inspectors say, it's a matter of combining old-fashioned detective work with high-tech tools designed to ferret out bomb-making components such as enriched uranium, or anthrax bacteria.

In Saddam's Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq's Hidden Weapons, former U.N. inspector Tim Trevan describes some of the technology teams have tried in the past: ultraviolet lasers that scan industrial smoke for signs of weapon-making and infrared satellite sensors to spot the heat of a hidden factory.

They have rigged helicopters with ground-penetrating radar to locate underground tunnels and wired the country with a web of sensors to sample air, soil, water and vegetation for signs of chemical or biological agents.

And inspectors are hopeful that technological advances made since they were kicked out of Iraq in December 1998 may make their job even easier.

Nuclear weapons inspectors plan to tote two hand-held sensors with them dubbed "The Ranger" and "Alex." Made by Quantrad Sensor in Madison, Wis., the devices were not available to them on their previous trips.

The Ranger is a battery-operated, handheld gamma ray and neutron detector developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The device, according to the company, is capable of sniffing out a single gram of plutonium behind a half-inch of steel, or one gram of unshielded enriched uranium from 5 feet away. Using a sophisticated computer algorithm, The Ranger can identify what the radioactive isotope is, where it is, and how much of it there is, according to the company.

Alex is a 16-pound X-ray fluorescent device typically used in scrap yards to identify the composition of metals. In Iraq, it may be used to determine whether vehicles or other laboratory equipment have come in close contact with radioactive materials.

But tools such as The Ranger and Alex are useful only when inspectors know exactly where to look.

"You're not going to be able to stumble around blindfolded in the desert with these devices and be able to find anything," notes Raymond Klann, a nuclear engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

That's where the detective work comes in. As they did in the past, inspectors will interview Iraqi scientists, hoping to catch them in lies, and carefully study the country's infrastructure. A nest of high-voltage utility poles, for example, might be a tip off that a power-hungry uranium processing factory is not far away.

"You can't put things out in the sand unless you have utilities," says Dr. Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist who served as a U.N. inspector in 1994. "Yes, you can probably hide a Scud missile. But a laboratory is something quite different."

Still, finding biological or chemical weapons workshops won't be easy, experts say.

Iraq is rumored to use rolling weapons labs that can cook up anthrax from the back of a semi. Bioweapons factories can also be hidden in plain sight--since the equipment used to brew beer or make life-saving vaccines can also be used to make deadly chemical or biological weapons.

"Even the most intrusive inspection regime would have difficulty getting at all of [Iraq's] weapons of mass destruction," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testified this month. "They can be hidden from inspectors no matter how intrusive."

Zilinskas spent his days visiting labs and factories to measure, photograph and tag all so-called "dual use" equipment--fermenters and other devices that could be used to make beer or biological weapons, for example.

The tamperproof tags he attached were each inscribed with a unique serial number that was recorded in a U.N. computer database. That way, says Zilinskas, future inspectors would know whether the Iraqis are robbing their own factories and laboratories for bomb-making equipment they are not allowed to import.

As Zilinskas was tagging, his colleagues were wiping equipment to collect dust and grease samples, or pulling out air filters and unscrewing plumbing to search for molecular evidence of bomb-making.

Experts say it is unlikely that inspectors will be lucky enough to stumble on a cache of enriched uranium or a biological weapons factory because the Iraqis have had years to hide them.

Instead, inspectors try to find indirect evidence. As Trevan recounts in his book, inspectors once came upon a crane that sent their sensors singing. The crane, inspectors deduced, had been exposed to a very strong electromagnetic field -- the type that could have come only from a uranium processing center.

The Iraqis have proven to be crafty at confounding inspectors in the past -- haggling over where inspectors can park their helicopters and using other stall techniques. They also use technological tricks.

During the Persian Gulf war, for example, Iraqis often boasted they knew the exact times spy satellites were sweeping overhead.

David Albright, a theoretical physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, says he knows of cases in which Iraqis built not one but two false floors to cover up evidence. The Iraqis assumed -- correctly, Albright says -- that inspectors would remove only one false floor.

If inspectors do return, it will be months before they can start high-tech sleuthing. And the first piece of equipment they use may be something a little more low-tech -- like a mop.

U.N. officials report that pigeons have been spotted roosting in the organization's long-deserted Baghdad office, bombarding the furniture there with some biological weapons of their own.

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