With the U.N.'s chief inspectors flying into Iraq in a last-ditch effort to persuade authorities to give up information about alleged banned weapons, the government said Friday that it had something it wanted to show the world media.
Iraqi officials then escorted scores of reporters to two of the top-secret sites mentioned by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his indictment of Iraq this week at the United Nations, and let them scramble up, down and around the facilities.
Managers at the sites said Powell had misconstrued the evidence entirely. They vehemently denied having any banned equipment or operations and pointed out that they had been under close monitoring and inspection since November by U.N. teams, which have not found any evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq threw open the sites to demonstrate that it would cooperate with the West.
As the threat of war becomes more acute, it has also taken such steps as allowing its scientists to meet privately with inspectors. Thursday, inspectors spoke with a scientist who worked in the biological weapons program, and on Friday they interviewed a missile expert, a chemical engineer and another senior scientist.
The sessions were supposed to be private, but U.S. officials are dubious, saying the hotel rooms could have been bugged.
The inspectors have refused to discuss any of their findings, leaving that to the top officials, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, to note in their upcoming reports to the U.N. Security Council.
But the U.N. confirms that there have been multiple visits by inspectors to the sites journalists got to see Friday.
As is so often the case in Iraq, it was impossible for the journalists at the sites, which are fenced off and protected by heavy sand berms, to determine anything of substance conclusively.
What was clear is that the country still puts considerable effort into building better rockets and missiles, even if it does -- as officials here say -- obey the requirement that no weapon exceed a range of about 90 miles.
Satellite imagery from the two sites -- the Al Rafah liquid-fuel rocket-engine testing station in Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, and the Mutasim missile assembly plant in Musayyib, 35 miles south of the capital -- were primary exhibits in Powell’s dramatic address to the Security Council.
At Al Rafah, Powell alleged, the Iraqis were in the process of constructing a larger test pad in preparation for developing powerful long-range rockets that would exceed the 90-mile limit and could conceivably threaten neighboring countries by delivering banned chemical or biological weapons.
In a satellite photo, he showed a new structure, about five times larger than the test pad it purportedly would replace, and said that the Iraqis had since put a roof over it so that satellites could not see what was going on underneath.
For Mutasim, he presented a satellite photo taken Nov. 10 of what he said was the loading of a cargo truck with missile components. “Why would Iraq suddenly move equipment of this nature before inspections?” Powell asked.
At Al Rafah, plant manager Ali Jassem was prepared with a simple explanation for the size of the new test pad.
It was designed, he said, to test the rocket engine lying down, rather than standing straight up, so that the blast from the test would be pointed away from the technicians and workers for greater safety if something went wrong.
“How can we be blamed for anything?” he asked. “The inspectors have been here five times since Nov. 27. They have seen the blueprints. They have seen our plans. They have found no problem with it. They were satisfied by everything.”
The inspectors visited the site just one day before Powell’s speech, he added.
The structure, 16 feet high, 112 feet long and 55 feet wide, has its corrugated metal roof only to protect the workers and the equipment from the elements -- the blazing sun and the rains that fall here in the Euphrates River valley, Jassem said.
The new test pad has never been used, he said, because it still lacks measuring equipment that Iraq has had a hard time acquiring due to U.N. sanctions.
The structure consists of a heavy concrete platform built over a deep, concrete-lined pit, with steel pegs protruding from one wall on which the rocket engine to be tested can be mounted. Extending out from the pit is a long, concrete-lined channel about 125 feet long to vent the blast from the rocket engine.
Steel girders on both sides and overhead form a frame over the structure, and are required for a traveling crane planned to move the heavy equipment into place, Jassem said.
Construction of the test pad began in 2000, he said, and is to be completed this year. It would have been sooner, but technical components have been difficult to obtain.
The inspectors have been given “all cooperation,” he added, even witnessing engine tests on the older pad. The rocket-testing facility has been bombed twice, Jassem said, in 1991 and 1998. At the Mutasim plant, factory chief Kareem Jabbar Youssef said the factory is involved in assembling and refurbishing solid-fuel Fatah rockets -- 22-foot-long weapons carrying warheads packed with explosives. Banned chemical or biological substances, he insisted, have never been here.
(As reporters crowded around and leaned over the deadly looking projectiles, an Iraqi official shouted helpfully, “No smoking, please!”)
Jabbar said that the plant works around the clock, except on Fridays, and that the completed rockets are shipped on to the army while faulty components are returned to their originating plants as a matter of routine.
“We were very surprised when we heard that Powell said our site was evidence of illegal activities,” Jabbar said, noting that the inspectors had visited the site 10 times since November and had verified that the missiles assembled there were permissible.
Missiles stacked up in front of the building bore U.N. stickers showing they had already been inventoried.
The photo Powell showed the Security Council was of a normal day, Jabbar said. When they checked their records, he said, they saw that the truck photographed that day had carried 10 defective components back to a sister factory of the Rasheed Co. in Amein. The very same tractor-trailer rig was now parked right outside the door, he added.
Jabbar said they always try to cooperate during the regular visits from the U.N. inspectors. Twenty days ago or so, he said, inspectors asked him to dig up a patch of ground near a pond on the plant grounds, suspecting banned missiles might be buried there.
They used metal detectors and other instruments for three hours to pick a spot, then brought in a digger and searched for four more hours -- but came up with only some old sheet metal, Jabbar said.
“In the end, they said they were sorry and left.”
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.