March 13, 2005

Looting at Weapons Plants Was Systematic, Iraqi Says

By JAMES GLANZ and WILLIAM J. BROAD

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 12 - In the weeks after Baghdad fell in April 2003, looters systematically dismantled and removed tons of machinery from Saddam Hussein's most important weapons installations, including some with high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear arms, a senior Iraqi official said this week in the government's first extensive comments on the looting.

The Iraqi official, Sami al-Araji, the deputy minister of industry, said it appeared that a highly organized operation had pinpointed specific plants in search of valuable equipment, some of which could be used for both military and civilian applications, and carted the machinery away.

Dr. Araji said his account was based largely on observations by government employees and officials who either worked at the sites or lived near them.

"They came in with the cranes and the lorries, and they depleted the whole sites," Dr. Araji said. "They knew what they were doing; they knew what they want. This was sophisticated looting."

The threat posed by these types of facilities was cited by the Bush administration as a reason for invading Iraq, but the installations were left largely unguarded by allied forces in the chaotic months after the invasion.

Dr. Araji's statements came just a week after a United Nations agency disclosed that approximately 90 important sites in Iraq had been looted or razed in that period.

Satellite imagery analyzed by two United Nations groups - the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, or Unmovic - confirms that some of the sites identified by Dr. Araji appear to be totally or partly stripped, senior officials at those agencies said. Those officials said they could not comment on all of Dr. Araji's assertions, because the groups had been barred from Iraq since the invasion.

For nearly a year, the two agencies have sent regular reports to the United Nations Security Council detailing evidence of the dismantlement of Iraqi military installations and, in a few cases, the movement of Iraqi gear to other countries. In addition, a report issued last October by the chief American arms inspector in Iraq, Charles A. Duelfer, told of evidence of looting at crucial sites.

The disclosures by the Iraqi ministry, however, added new information about the thefts, detailing the timing, the material taken and the apparent skill shown by the thieves.

Dr. Araji said equipment capable of making parts for missiles as well as chemical, biological and nuclear arms was missing from 8 or 10 sites that were the heart of Iraq's dormant program on unconventional weapons. After the invasion, occupation forces found no unconventional arms, and C.I.A. inspectors concluded that the effort had been largely abandoned after the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Dr. Araji said he had no evidence regarding where the equipment had gone. But his account raises the possibility that the specialized machinery from the arms establishment that the war was aimed at neutralizing had made its way to the black market or was in the hands of foreign governments.

"Targeted looting of this kind of equipment has to be seen as a proliferation threat," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a private nonprofit organization in Washington that tracks the spread of unconventional weapons.

Dr. Araji said he believed that the looters themselves were more interested in making money than making weapons.

The United Nations, worried that the material could be used in clandestine bomb production, has been hunting for it, largely unsuccessfully, across the Middle East. In one case, investigators searching through scrap yards in Jordan last June found specialized vats for highly corrosive chemicals that had been tagged and monitored as part of the international effort to keep watch on the Iraqi arms program. The vessels could be used for harmless industrial processes or for making chemical weapons.

American military officials in Baghdad did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the findings. But American officials have said in the past that while they were aware of the importance of some of the installations, there was not enough military personnel to guard all of them during and after the invasion.

White House officials, apprised of the Iraqi account by The New York Times, said it was already well known that many weapons sites had been looted. They had no other comment.

Daily Looting Reports

Many of Iraq's weapons sites are clustered in an area from Baghdad's southern outskirts to roughly the town of Iskandariya, about 30 miles south. Dr. Araji, who like many others at the Industry Ministry kept going to work immediately after the invasion, was able to collect observations of the organized looting from witnesses who went to the ministry in Baghdad each day.

The Industry Ministry also sent teams of engineers to the looted sites in August and September of 2003 as part of an assessment undertaken for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the interim American-led administrative apparatus. By then, virtually all of the most refined equipment was gone, Dr. Araji said.

The peak of the organized looting, Dr. Araji estimates, occurred in four weeks from mid-April to mid-May of 2003 as teams with flatbed trucks and other heavy equipment moved systematically from site to site. That operation was followed by rounds of less discriminating thievery.

"The first wave came for the machines," Dr. Araji said. "The second wave, cables and cranes. The third wave came for the bricks."

Hajim M. al-Hasani, the minister of industry, referred questions about looting to Dr. Araji, who commented during a lengthy interview conducted in English in his office on Wednesday and a brief phone interview on Friday.

Dr. Araji said that if the equipment had left the country, its most likely destination was a neighboring state.

David Albright, an authority on nuclear weaponry who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said that Syria and Iran were the countries most likely to be in the market for the kind of equipment that Mr. Hussein purchased, at great cost, when he was secretly trying to build a nuclear weapon in the 1980's.

Losses at Enrichment Site

As examples of the most important sites that were looted, Dr. Araji cited the Nida Factory, the Badr General Establishment, Al Ameer, Al Radwan, Al Hatteen, Al Qadisiya and Al Qaqaa. Al Radwan, for example, was a manufacturing plant for the uranium enrichment program, with enormous machine tools for making highly specialized parts, according to the Wisconsin Project. The Nida Factory was implicated in both the nuclear program and the manufacture of Scud missiles.

Al Qaqaa, with some 1,100 structures, manufactured powerful explosives that could be used for conventional missile warheads and for setting off a nuclear detonation. Last fall, Iraqi government officials warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that some 377 tons of those explosives were missing after the invasion. But Al Qaqaa also contained a wide variety of weapons manufacturing machinery, including 800 pieces of chemical equipment.

The kinds of machinery at the various sites included equipment that could be used to make missile parts, chemical weapons or centrifuges essential for enriching uranium for atom bombs. All of that "dual use" equipment also has peaceful applications - for example, a tool to make parts for a nuclear implosion device or for a powerful commercial jet turbine.

Mr. Hussein's rise to power in Iraq culminated in his military building not only deadly missiles but many unconventional arms. After the 1991 gulf war, international inspectors found that Baghdad was close to making an atom bomb and had succeeded in producing thousands of biological and chemical warheads.

Starting in 1991, the United Nations began destroying Iraq's unconventional arms and setting up a vast effort to monitor the country's industrial infrastructure to make sure that Baghdad lived up to its disarmament promises. The International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, was put in charge of nuclear sites, and Unmovic, based in New York, was given responsibility for chemical and biological plants as well as factories that made rockets and missiles.

A Western diplomat familiar with satellite reconnaissance done by the International Atomic Energy Agency said it confirmed some of the Iraqi findings. For instance, he said, it showed that the Nida Factory had been partly destroyed, with some buildings removed, and some rebuilt. He added that the Badr General Establishment was almost entirely dismantled.

By contrast, he said, the agency's photo analysts found Al Ameer untouched, but only as seen from overhead. "The buildings could be totally empty," he said.

The diplomat added that the atomic energy agency's reconnaissance team found that Al Radwan was "significantly dismantled" and that Al Qadisiya had almost vanished. At the sprawling Hatteen base, he said, "parts are untouched, and parts are 100 percent gone."

Before the invasion, the United Nations was monitoring those kinds of sites. Two senior officials of the monitoring commission said in an interview that their agency's analysis of satellite reconnaissance photos of Iraq showed visible looting and destruction at five of the seven sites that had been cited by Dr. Araji.

The officials cautioned that the agency zeroed in on certain buildings of special interest in its monitoring work on unconventional weapons and that other structures or warehouses at a particular identified site might still be intact.

"You might have a place with 100 buildings but we'd have an interest in only 3 of them," an official said.

Officials at the United Nations monitoring agency said some areas of the sprawling Qaqaa installation involved in chemical processing had been wrecked by fire and possible extensive looting. Unknown is the fate of such equipment there like separators, heat exchangers, mixers and chemical reactors, all of which can be used in making chemical weapons.

The Badr General Establishment, they said, had been systematically razed. "It's fairly significant," one official said of the looting and disappearance of important buildings.

The Radwan site has been dismantled, they said, with the destruction quite extensive. And the Qadisiya small arms plant has been razed, they said, as have the buildings the agency monitored at the sprawling Hatteen installation. The two officials said the agency had no information on the condition of the Nida Factory or the Ameer site.

No Saudi or Iranian Replies

The recent monitoring agency report said Unmovic had asked Iraq's neighbors if they were aware of whether any equipment under agency monitoring had moved in or through their countries. Syrian officials, it said, replied that "no relevant scrap from Iraq had passed through Syria." The agency, the report added, had yet to receive a response from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Hasani, the Iraqi industry minister, said the sites of greatest concern had been part of the Military Industrialization Commission, a department within the ministry until it became a separate entity in the 1990's. The commission, widely known as the M.I.C., was dissolved after the fall of Baghdad, and responsibility for its roughly 40 sites was divided between the ministries of industry and finance, Dr. Hasani said. "We got 11 of them," he said.

Dr. Araji, whose tenure with the ministry goes back to the 1980's, is now involved in plans to use the sites as manufacturing centers in what the ministry hopes will be a new free-market economy in Iraq. He said that disappointment at losing such valuable equipment was a prime reason that the ministry was determined to speak frankly about what had happened.

"We talk straight about these matters, because it's a sad thing that this took place in Iraq," Dr. Araji said. "We need anything that could support us here."

"When you have good factories that could support that move and that transformation," he said, "it would be good for the economy of the country."

In an interview, a senior atomic energy agency official said the agency had used the reconnaissance photos to study roughly 100 sites in Iraq but that the imagery's high cost meant that the inspectors could afford to get updates of individual sites only about once a year.

In its most recent report to the United Nations Security Council, in October, the agency said it "continues to be concerned about the widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement that has taken place at sites previously relevant to Iraq's nuclear program."

Alarms to Security Council

Agency inspectors, in visiting other countries, have discovered tons of industrial scrap, some radioactively contaminated, from Iraq, the report noted. It added, however, that the agency had been unable to track down any of the high-quality, dual-use equipment or materials.

"The disappearance of such equipment," the report emphasized, "may be of proliferation significance."

The monitoring commission has filed regular reports to the Security Council since raising alarms last May about looting in Iraq, the dismantlement of important weapons installations and the export of dangerous materials to foreign states.

Officials of the commission and the atomic energy agency have repeatedly called on the Iraqi government to report on what it knows of the fate of the thousands of pieces of monitored equipment and stockpiles of monitored chemicals and materials.

Last fall, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, put public pressure on the interim Iraqi government to start the process of accounting for nuclear-related materials still ostensibly under the agency's supervision. Iraq is obliged, he wrote to the president of the Security Council on Oct. 1, to declare semiannually changes that have occurred or are foreseen.

In interviews, officials of the monitoring commission and the atomic energy agency said the two agencies had heard nothing from Baghdad - with one notable exception. On Oct. 10, the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology wrote to the atomic agency to say a stockpile of high explosives at Al Qaqaa had been lost because of "theft and looting."

During the American presidential election last fall, news of that letter ignited a political firestorm. Privately, officials of the monitoring commission and the atomic energy agency have speculated on whether the political uproar made Baghdad reluctant to disclose more details of looting.

James Glanz reported from Baghdad for this article, and William J. Broad from New York. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.