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What Can a Defiant Nation Hide From World? Anything It Wants

Shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, when much of Iraq's infrastructure had been reduced to ruins, President Saddam Hussein ordered the radio tower in Baghdad to be rebuilt.

But even in defeat he chose to be defiant: As a "challenge" to the West, the new pinnacle was erected slightly taller than the Tower of London.

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So it came as little surprise to United Nations inspectors - ordered by the Security Council to destroy all Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological, and ballistic-missile weapons programs - when officials obstructed their work.

The continuing struggle to expose Iraq's secrets raises questions about what other so-called "rogue" states - or any determined nation - can hide from the eyes of the world.

The short answer: everything.

Though Iraq was forced to accept the strict UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), the most restrictive conditions in the history of arms control, Iraqi leaders chafed under its requirements.

The reason? Except for Israel, Iraq had secretly developed the most advanced weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile systems in the Middle East.

None of the 39 Scud missiles Iraq launched at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the war carried chemical or biological warheads - probably for fear of an American or Israeli nuclear retaliation - but all of them could have.

Weapons loaded with deadly anthrax and Botulinum toxin were ready. And on the eve of the war, Iraqi scientists tried to speed up production of their first atomic bomb by cannibalizing enriched uranium from several sites, according to United States Department of Defense documents.

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That effort was halted by coalition bombing. But intelligence failed elsewhere: Only seven of Iraq's 25 major weapons of mass destruction sites were attacked during the war - several reportedly by mistake - and they were not destroyed, says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

UN inspectors have faced a daunting "policy of systematic concealment, denial, and masking" to hide Iraq's true capabilities, notes the April report of UNSCOM chairman Rolf Ekeus.

"We have documentary evidence about orders from the leadership to preserve a strategic capability," he said in June.

Tough UN sanctions will not be lifted until UNSCOM certifies that these lethal abilities have been made harmless.

"They come up with a new explanation every time," said Mr. Ekeus, who left his post as chief inspector July 1. "They tell the most incredible stories. It is like 'The 1,001 Nights,' where every night they must tell a different story to save themselves."

"UNSCOM has shown that it is very, very easy to conceal this sort of thing," says Creena Lavery, the special assistant to the director of UNSCOM in Baghdad, reached in Britain. Anthrax capability, for example, "could be a vial in the back of a refrigerator.

"We've been here six years and have a very intrusive mandate," she says. "We can ... go anywhere and take anything away. But we still can't confirm we know everything. It raises questions about what other countries can get away with."

Many of the most important revelations have come since the surprise August 1995 defection of Hussein Kemal, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq's military industries.

Blaming General Kemal for all past lies, Iraqi officials suddenly "discovered" half a million pages of documents hidden in metal trunks at a "chicken farm."

UNSCOM now watches more than 300 sites with remote-control cameras and chemical and radiation sensors linked with microwave signals. Satellite imagery, sonar, and helicopters are also used.

Ekeus made clear the risk of not completing the job in his report: "If one single missile warhead were filled with the biological warfare agent anthrax, many millions of lethal doses could be spread in an attack on any city in the region."

Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, rejects the UN claims. "This game was played for six years, and now it is nearing its end," he said in a rare interview. "We are sure that the next few months ... will prove that nothing is concealed."

Compounding the problem are dual-use items. Pesticides for insects and rats are required because of Iraq's severe food shortages. Even chlorine, needed for drinking water, can play an integral part in weapons production.

These imports are monitored now, but would be lost in the flow of goods if sanctions were lifted.

To conceal the enormous scale of Iraq's programs, Iraqi officials have tried to thwart the mission:

* Nuclear weapons: From the early 1970s, Iraq is believed to have spent $10 billion on a vast nuclear program with extensive help from European companies.

Shocked and embarrassed by the scale of Iraq's hidden program, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has disabled more than 16 facilities in Iraq involved in nuclear-weapons production. But experts say that with fissile material, Iraq could quickly come close to building an atomic bomb again.

* Ballistic missiles: Iraq first claimed that it had only 48 ballistic missiles, 14 warheads, and six mobile launchers, but later admitted concealing the bulk of its missile force.

An Iraqi map showing its homemade missile plans includes targets as far away as Paris, and chunks of China and Russia. UNSCOM has discovered advanced computer simulations, a "Project 1728" to produce missile engines, and believes several missiles remain hidden. For months Iraq also blocked the removal of missile-engine remnants unearthed by UNSCOM. And in an indication that Iraq still seeks long-range missiles, a shipment of advanced guidance gyroscopes was intercepted en route to Iraq in 1995.

* Chemical weapons: Iraq dropped the first nerve-gas bombs ever used in battle in 1984, and Saddam killed 5,000 of his own people in a chemical attack on a Kurdish village in 1988.

UNSCOM has destroyed large stocks that include half a million liters of live chemical weapons agent, 28,000 chemical bombs, and 1,000 tons of forbidden chemicals. Despite Iraqi denials, UNSCOM uncovered work on the nerve gas VX and says that 3,800 kilograms of VX is missing.

* Biological weapons: For years Iraq emphatically denied that it even had a biological program, and only admitted so in mid-1995 after confronted with evidence that included an array of bacteria, viruses, and toxins.

The UN was alerted by pre-war Iraqi imports of 39 tons of material used to grow spores. The amount was 200 times what was needed for medical uses. Some 17 tons have yet to be found.

Citing "rather chaotic" reporting by the Iraqis, UNSCOM has asked for a seventh "full, final, and complete disclosure" from Baghdad. Experts conclude that Iraq has still "underreported the production of bulk biological warfare agents."

In an unusual written rebuttal, Mr. Aziz said UNSCOM's conclusions were "mere suspicions," adding, "Iraq's decision to abandon the weapons of mass destruction and not possess them in the future is a clear decision."

In the interview, Aziz clarified: "If you go to Beijing or Moscow or Paris, they say that generally Iraq has done what is to be done. But Mr. Ekeus has not said that to the Security Council because the Americans are not allowing him to. They have developed a policy that could be an endless case."

The suffering of Iraqi civilians under UN sanctions has been eased by December's oil-for-food deal. But Iraq is also in heavy debt and required to pay billions in war reparations - which could have major political repercussions.

For one diplomat in Baghdad, UNSCOM's strict mission is the only safe one: "You can't take a chance.... If you lift sanctions, one day you will wake up and find batteries of missiles with biological warheads. What will you do then? Fight another war?"

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