Wednesday, December 11, 2002

LONDON Many of the Iraqi scientists U.N. arms inspectors want to interview have been spirited abroad or switched to innocuous posts and their places taken by unknown technicians, according to Iraqi exiles and Western officials.

As the weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix prepare to summon the first of several hundred potential interview subjects, the Baghdad authorities have put some beyond reach and moved others to jobs with no direct involvement in Iraq’s nuclear-, chemical- or biological-weapons programs.

“Most of those working on the nuclear program in the 1980s and early 1990s have been sent away to university or industrial positions. Some have been sent outside Iraq, including those working on chemical- and biological-warfare agents,” said Hussein Shahristani, a former chief researcher with Iraq’s atomic energy organization who spent 11 years in jail before fleeing abroad.

Among scientists the inspectors want to question are Rihab Taha, a biological-weapons expert known as “Dr. Germ,” who is now described as a Baghdad housewife, and Hazem Ali, a virologist who was said to be no more than a university tutor in 1998.

The moves have made the task of the inspectors more difficult. They need information on the steps taken by Saddam Hussein to conceal stockpiles of chemical and biological agents many of which are thought to have been hidden in private houses and on the extent of Iraq’s developments over the past four years.

Iraqi personnel are seen as the best source of such information, and the United Nations has ruled that its inspectors must have the right to “unrestricted,” “unimpeded” access to anyone they want to interview.

They are relying, however, on lists of several hundred scientists and technicians, drawn up during the 1990s, as the starting point for their inquiries. Many of these people are now thought to have very limited knowledge of developments since the previous team of weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

“Once you have worked out how to make the ingredients of chemical and biological weapons, you don’t need many scientists to make them,” said one arms expert.

Mr. Shahristani predicted that the government would feign ignorance of some of the people the inspectors ask to see. “They’ve been sent to hide on farms somewhere, and Iraq will say it simply has no idea where they are.”

Even if the inspectors find some of the right people to interview, Baghdad has taken steps to restrict information: scientists, technicians and administrators have been told that their families’ safety will be jeopardized if they reveal sensitive information, some sources said.

Some key workers have been sent abroad to sympathetic countries, including Libya, Sudan and Syria, and told to remain there while inspections continue. Their families are being kept in Iraq to ensure that they do not defect.

“These are the people with the know-how, so the best way to hide the know-how is to hide the people,” one Western official said.

The United States is pressing the U.N. inspectors to take key figures in the arms program out of Iraq for interviews an option included in the U.N. resolution and is offering them a “witness-protection program.”

•Inigo Gilmore contributed to this article from Jerusalem.

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