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S P E C I A L: Inspecting Iraq

U.N. downplays Iraq's arrest of germ expert; U.S. uncertain

Nassir al-Hindawi
March 24, 1998
Web posted at: 3:19 p.m. EST (2019 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said Tuesday that Baghdad's arrest of an Iraqi biological weapons expert could make it harder for the government of President Saddam Hussein to prove it had nothing to hide from U.N. inspectors.

But the U.N. Special Commission for disarming Iraq (UNSCOM) played down the arrest of Nassir al-Hindawi, an anthrax specialist seen as the architect of Iraq's germ warfare program.

UNSCOM inspectors are responsible for determining that Iraq has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction.

Former 'key player' now has 'limited value'

United Nations officials acknowledged that Hindawi was a "key player" early in Iraq's biological weapons program but, they added, what he knows is of limited value.

Hindawi was not involved in Iraq's biological weapons program during the key years of 1989 and 1990, according to UNSCOM spokesman Ewen Buchanan.

"We have not sought to see Hindawi in the last year," said Buchanan, when asked about a New York Times report that Hindawi had been arrested as he prepared to flee Iraq with a forged passport.

Buchanan confirmed that Iraqi Oil Minister Amer Mohammad al-Rashid had informed UNSCOM officials in Baghdad "two weeks ago" in a letter that Hindawi had been arrested.

Rashid submitted to UNSCOM "about 200 pages" of documents reportedly held by Hindawi and relating to Iraq's germ warfare program, Buchanan said. "We said thanks very much, but we already had the vast majority," he added.

Would-be defector?

Rashid's letter did not say when Hindawi was arrested or when he might have been planning to defect. Cohen, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon, declined to say whether the United States had attempted to assist the scientist.

"I can't comment on whether (the arrest of) this particular individual would be an intelligence loss to the United States," Cohen said.

The Times article quoted Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon as saying that Hindawi is in an Iraqi prison after he was found with documents relating to the country's biological weapons program and evidence that he was about to leave Iraq illegally.

Cohen said the Iraqi action may make it even more difficult for Iraq to convince the United Nations of its full compliance with weapons inspections and to win a lifting of sanctions imposed after the Persian Gulf War.

"This may be evidence of an attempt on the part of Saddam Hussein to continue to hide and to prevent the UNSCOM inspectors from receiving information that would help them in their duties," Cohen said, "and if so, that would only complicate the ultimate resolution."

UNSCOM leader Richard Butler, who leaves Baghdad on Thursday, says his talks with Iraqi officials in recent days have reflected a "new spirit" of cooperation following a deal worked out last month that averted a threatened U.S. and British attack on Iraq to force entry to disputed presidential compounds.

Correspondent Jamie McIntyre and Reuters contributed to this report.


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