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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U.N. Weapons Inspectors Come Across Chemical Warheads in Iraq

Aired January 16, 2003 - 13:48   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: U.N. experts, weapons inspectors actually coming across chemical warheads in Iraq. We were told that they were found in an ammunition storage area. The inspection team had gone there to inspect a large group of bunkers that were constructed in the late 1990s. The question is, how big of a deal is this? Is this old junk left over from year's past, or is this a smoking gun and leading us one step closer to war?
We'll bring in David Ensor, national security correspondent.

As far as David can tell, we are told, no smoking gun, right, David?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATL. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. As Jaime was just saying to you, Kyra, on the face of it, you can't say this is a smoking gun, you can't say necessarily that it isn't. One thing to keep in mind the Iraqis declared in the '90s that they had destroyed large amounts of weapons of mass destruction material, whether it be chemicals, biological material, pieces of weapons, and that they had not kept a full accounting of the destruction process. And one of the things that the U.N. inspectors were talking to Iraq about prior to their departure from Iraq in '96 is, where's your accounting, where's the paperwork? You claimed you destroyed all these chemical weapons, prove it. It seems like these empty shells are leftover from that process that Iraq claims it conducted of destruction of a large number of weapons.

As others have said before me just now, the U.S. destroyed a good number of weapons, but the Iraqis claim that they, themselves, destroyed even more, but did not keep proper records on that destruction process.

So, there's an awful lot of loose ends involved in this process. This is what we're seeing now. You can't rule out that empty chemical weapons that cannot be reported to the United Nations and turn up somewhere could be part of an ongoing chemical weapons program that can't be eliminated.

So this is significant evidence, and something you can be sure the U.N. inspectors are going to want to pursue further.

I could also tell you a little bit about conversations I have been having with Bush administrations about their goals for this process in the coming weeks.

As you heard yesterday, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser had the previous day a fairly pointed meeting, we understand, with Hans Blix and with other senior U.N. officials about how the U.S. thinks the process should go now. The U.S. is pressing for the arms inspectors to get tough, to warn Iraq that it must, itself, come up with more evidence about its programs, that the inspectors and some of the governments that they're getting information from know there's an ongoing weapons program, and they want Iraq to come clean and help with the disarmament process.

This isn't supposed to be cat and mouse. The Iraqis are supposed to come clean and help. The issue of scientists, the U.S. is saying to Iraq, is saying -- excuse me -- to Hans Blix and the others, we don't think you should be asking Iraqi scientists whether they're welling to tell you and willing to come overseas to Cyprus and be interviewed. We think you should produce a list of those scientists, taking it to the Iraqi government, telling them we want these people and these families at such and such a place to be transported out of the country for interviews.

So the U.S. is pressing the inspectors to get tough, and it's saying to the United Nations officials that these discussions are being held with, you're not doing Iraq any favor, and you're not going to avert war unless you tell them bluntly, this is not cat and mouse -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, David Ensor, our national security correspondent, coming to us there from D.C.

David, thank you so much.

Now I am told we're going to hook up with Richard Roth. He's in Paris. He's been travelling with Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector.

First reaction from you, Richard, as this news comes down about chemical warheads being discovered in Iraq.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SR. U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think as many of your guests have already said, it is way too soon to jump to any conclusions. Even U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, back in New York said so. He said based on the press reports, he's not ready to make any comment or have the security council rush to convene.

What you should know is that the United Nations has a spokesman in Baghdad, and they are always interested in transparency and giving the press corps there as much up-to-date information as possible. And we can see now, this is the second time there is a statement made, in this case, empty chemical weapons, war shells, but there's not much context, and they need more investigation, but it still came as news to the members of the Security Council back in New York. That probably is not sit well with that many ambassadors. So two weeks ago, the spokesman says, we received very important information about a program from an Iraqi scientist who was interviewed, and of course, that frightened the Iraqi scientist out of his wits, because it sounded like he spilled the beans about something, and it was clarified that it was background information, and not something incredibly sensitive. We may see this again, but nevertheless, these shells can be linked to Iraqi shells from the Iran/Iraq war from the 1980s. And if so, that leads one to the famous document called the "Air Force Document," which Iraq for years refused to turn over to the U.N.

They baited U.N. officials by bringing it to U.N. headquarters and then admitted later they had it in a briefcase. They still didn't turn it over. At one point it was in the hands of an inspector in Baghdad, and it was taken back in a leap by an Iraqi official.

This document, this -- quote "Air Force Document" points out, according to U.N. officials, that Iraq may not have exactly clarified and pinpointed all of its chemical weapons that were used up in the Iran/Iraq war, thus it may still have a lot more. Perhaps we are seeing that these empty shells may be some of this evidence.

Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector, Kyra, has accused the U.S. of not taking into account that there are going to be -- quote -- "accounting errors," that there's no way to keep track of everything, and that a lot of it would have expired or gone out of force due the nature of 10 years sitting on a shelf. You can find a lot of opinions on chemical or biological. Those are two of the big areas. The weapons inspectors have had major questions. That's where a lot of the gaps are in the weapons inspectors conclusions of the Iraqi 12,000-page declaration.

I mean, the numbers can be staggering, but it still doesn't account for everything. In that chemical weapons field, the U.N. weapons inspection teams, nearly 39,000 chemical munitions, more than 3,000 tons of agents and precursors were destroyed after the Gulf War, but they still want to account for aerial bombs and mustard gas shells, these type of things. So it's an interesting conclusion about what these things may be. It may lead to something. Too soon to say, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, and quickly, obviously, everyone is coming forward and saying there is no smoking gun, you can't have a smoking gun when you have warheads that are empty. Now I am hearing from you possibly an accounting error, possibly an act of deception. Is that fair to say it could be one of those?

ROTH: Right, I mean the shells could be part of something that someone lost track of, or they will lead to something, the tip, and it would be interesting to know why did they go there, what led them there, and maybe that's the important thing, is someone may have some good information and this is just the first piece.

PHILLIPS: All right, our U.N. correspondent Richard Roth there in Paris, France. Thank you, Richard, very much. He is traveling with Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapon inspector, as this news comes about. We will continue to follow this breaking story out of Baghdad, U.N. weapon inspectors coming across 11 empty chemical warheads during an inspection of a storage area in Iraq.

Now another story coming to us, another piece of exclusive news, and this is from "Time" magazine, reporting that Saudi Arabia pursuing a plan for Iraqi generals to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This just coming in to us at CNN.

Scott MacLeod, Cairo bureau chief on the phone with us.

Scott, another developing story. Why don't you tell us what you have for us?

SCOTT MACLEOD, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, what's happening is that the Saudis have developed a initiative which they have been discussing with interested parties in the region, such as the Egyptian government and the Turkish government to try to head off a war. They're very concerned that a war will have devastating consequences for the region.

So the plan is, because the Saudis, I believe, are convinced that America will now, in fact, go to war is to, at the last minute, or sometime between now and the last minute, get the U.N. to offer amnesty for the vast majority of Iraqi officials and military personnel, and the idea behind this would be to send a signal to those people that you can save your own skins if you turn against Saddam now. And you have a last chance to do so.

And the feeling is that these people have basically stuck with Saddam through this, you know, long period of his regime because they're bound with him and, maybe at one time they, in fact, wholeheartedly supported him, but there's a very big feeling that he's alienated the military, but they're afraid that, you know, if there is a war they're going to go down with him and they're afraid if they turn against Saddam, that Americans will target them.

So, the idea is to promise them amnesty guaranteed by the United Nations before a war starts and hope that they would then say, OK, if we turn against Saddam, we have got nothing to lose.

PHILLIPS: Are those guarantees for amnesty? Could that actually become a reality?

MACLEOD: Well, this will be up to the Security Council, but the Saudi plan basically is being developed now as an Arab plan. It remains to be seen whether this plan gets off the ground. But certainly the Saudis and other parties are very interested in pursuing this, and the idea is that they would take it to the Security Council. And the Security Council -- I think everybody wants to avoid a war. If you can disarm Iraq, get rid of Saddam without a war, this is the best scenario, I think, for most people.

So the idea is to get the Security Council members to agree to publicly announce or have a U.N. resolution for an amnesty of the vast majority of Iraqis, excluding of course, the ruling clique headed by Saddam Hussein, and that this would be very publicly and powerfully delivered to the Iraqi people, that turn against Saddam now, and everything can be avoided.

And Iraq has a long history of coup de tats. Saddam has made himself coup-proof for a number of reasons, with a variety of measures, but the feeling is that if Iraqi generals realize that war is going to be on their head within a matter of days or weeks, and they can avoid it and save their own skins by turning against Saddam, ultimately, Saddam will not be able to prevent that.

PHILLIPS: Scott, has there actually been communication between the Saudis and the Iraqi generals, or is this just a plan that has been proposed? Has there been actual communication?

MACLEOD: No, what's happening is very quietly, because the Saudis are not people who like to make a lot of noise. Very quietly, they've developed this proposal because they're extremely concerned about the consequences of a war. And they've developed a plan, they talked to the United States, they talked to Turkey and Egypt and other friendly countries to Saudi Arabia, and the idea is that this will gestate into a proposal that would then be put to the Security Council for approval. And of course there's a lot of diplomacy that has to go into this.

But the way it would work is that as the war drums continue pounding, and the march to war continues, just before a natural war, a natural assault on Iraq would begin, either unilaterally by the U.S. or under a U.N. resolution. The Saudis would call -- would ask for a timeout or the Arabs would ask for a timeout, and this message would be delivered from the Security Council to the Iraqi people, that you have amnesty unless you're one of the one hundred or so people who have formed the inner circle of Saddam Hussein's regime. You have amnesty, and now you have time to take out Saddam. If you do it, you're going to save yourselves and the rest of the world from a war.

But if you don't, you're going to be pursued to the ends of the Earth, just like Saddam Hussein will be. And the feeling is that Saddam's rule is so brittle, that this will be literally the straw that breaks the camel's back.

PHILLIPS: A time.com exclusive, Scott MacLeod with "Time" magazine, the Cairo bureau chief, talking about the time.com exclusive about Saudi Arabia pursuing a plan for Iraqi generals to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

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