Wmds For The Taking?

From the very start, one of the top U.S. priorities in Iraq has been the search for weapons of mass destruction. Weren't WMDs supposed to be what the war was about? Even so, no one has yet produced conclusive evidence that Iraq was maintaining a nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) arsenal. Two very suspicious trailer rigs turned up last week in Mosul. The Pentagon called them mobile bio-labs. Maybe, but although they "looked like a duck and walked like a duck," as one U.S. officer put it, they didn't quack. The first of the huge, truck-drawn labs, intercepted at a roadblock, had been swabbed clean. The other, discovered Friday, was stripped by looters before U.S. troops found it. So far there's a lot more belli than casus.

Looters outran the WMD hunters almost every time. "Once a site has been hit with a 2,000-pound bomb, then looted, there's not a lot left," says Maj. Paul Haldeman, the 101st Airborne Division's top NBC officer. In the rush to Baghdad, Coalition forces raced past most suspected WMD sites, and looters took over. After Saddam's fall, there were too few U.S. troops to secure the facilities. Roughly 900 possible WMD sites appeared on the initial target lists. So far, V Corps officers say, fewer than 150 have been searched. "There aren't enough troops in the whole Army," says Col. Tim Madere, the overseer of V Corps's sensitive-site teams. "There just aren't enough experts to do everything."

Some of the lapses are frightening. The well-known Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, about 12 miles south of Baghdad, had nearly two tons of partially enriched uranium, along with significant quantities of highly radioactive medical and industrial isotopes, when International Atomic Energy Agency officials made their last visit in January. By the time U.S. troops arrived in early April, armed guards were holding off looters--but the Americans only disarmed the guards, Al Tuwaitha department heads told NEWSWEEK. "We told them, 'This site is out of control. You have to take care of it'," says Munther Ibrahim, Al Tuwaitha's head of plasma physics. "The soldiers said, 'We are a small group. We cannot take control of this site'." As soon as the Americans left, looters broke in. The staff fled; when they returned, the containment vaults' seals had been broken, and radioactive material was everywhere.

U.S. officers say the center had already been ransacked before their troops arrived. They didn't try to stop the looting, says Colonel Madere, because "there was no directive that said do not allow anyone in and out of this place." Last week American troops finally went back to secure the site. Al Tuwaitha's scientists still can't fully assess the damage; some areas are too badly contaminated to inspect. "I saw empty uranium-oxide barrels lying around, and children playing with them," says Fadil Mohsen Abed, head of the medical-isotopes department. Stainless-steel uranium canisters had been stolen. Some were later found in local markets and in villagers' homes. "We saw people using them for milking cows and carrying drinking water," says Ibrahim. The looted materials could not make a nuclear bomb, but IAEA officials worry that terrorists could build plenty of dirty bombs with some of the isotopes that may have gone missing. Last week NEWSWEEK visited a total of eight sites on U.N. weapons-inspection lists. Two were guarded by U.S. troops. Armed looters were swarming through two others. Another was evidently destroyed many years ago. American forces had not yet searched the remaining three.

Not finding WMDs doesn't mean there are none. "We haven't found Saddam Hussein yet," says a senior Bush administration official. "Does that mean he didn't exist?" Last week the ground-forces commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, told NEWSWEEK he's confident evidence will emerge. "We haven't found yet the big, hard evidence, but I think that will come," he said. Officials in Washington spoke more cautiously. "I think we're going to find that they had a weapons-of-mass-destruction program," said Stephen Cambone, under secretary of Defense for intelligence--carefully not saying the weapons themselves would be found. Proving Saddam's guilt is almost beside the point. The urgent job now is to keep his WMD materials out of terrorist hands--if it isn't already too late.