The Great Scud Hunt

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JASSIM MOHAMMED/AP

U.N. arms inspectors visit the al-Nidaa company near Baghdad. Today, it's a metal works factory, but the U.N. says Iraq once manufactured Scud missiles there

U.N. arms inspectors in their Toyota Land Cruisers paid a visit last week to a company called al-Nidaa in the Baghdad suburb of Zafaraniyah. This was the place where Iraq once manufactured its modified Scud missile, al-Hussein, one of the most potent tools in its arsenal. The weapon has been forbidden to Baghdad since the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire, and the Iraqis claim these days that al-Nidaa makes only metal molds and tools. But the inspectors, armed with 1,240 unrevealing pages on missile programs that were part of Baghdad's recent accounting to the U.N., made their own inquiries, snooping around al-Nidaa and five other missile-related facilities. At one, the inspectors were treated to a test launch of a short-range missile arranged by the Iraqis to prove the device fell within the U.N.-permitted limit of 93 miles. "Of course, we have no Scud missiles, absolutely," General Hussam Mohammed Amin, Iraqi disarmament chief, told reporters. "And this fact is valid since the summer of 1991, O.K.?"

Well, not really. U.S. intelligence believes that Iraq possessed some two dozen hidden Scuds when the previous team of U.N. inspectors left the country in 1998; missile experts say that with proper maintenance they should work fine. Since then, Baghdad may have bought or built more. Media attention has focused on the risks posed by Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear capacities, but those dangers are multiplied if Iraq can arm missiles with these weapons and strike its neighbors at arm's length. In the 1991 conflict, Iraq did not fire missiles tipped with chemical or biological agents. But if the U.S. battles Iraq again, this time with the stated aim of removing President Saddam Hussein from power, as President Bush has threatened, intelligence analysts fear that Saddam, with nothing left to lose, will unleash his most pernicious arms. If he's got missiles and the U.N. doesn't find them first, that could expose not only U.S. troops but also millions of civilians in the region to Saddam's vengeance.

No group is more vulnerable than the Israelis. Iraq lobbed 42 Scuds at Israel during the Gulf War. Only one Israeli was killed by a missile, though 15 died of heart attacks, suffocation in their gas masks or reaction to a chemical-weapon antidote that some took in a panic. Pentagon planners are worried that in a new war, if Saddam again hits Israel with missiles — wishing to ignite a wider conflict that would pit Muslim nations against the U.S. and Israel — Washington would be unable to convince the Israeli government, as it did in 1991, that it should refrain from retaliating. If Israel launched a counterstrike, U.S. officials fear, America's Arab allies would find it difficult to align with Washington.

Thus Pentagon officials, who have little confidence that U.N. inspectors will unearth any illicit Iraqi missiles, have poured energy into devising ways to neutralize the Scud threat. Their plans involve putting Scud-hunting commandos on the ground fast, deploying improved technologies for detecting and destroying Scud launchers and missiles — even after they are shot — and shortening the chain of command for anti-Scud operations. Still, a recent independent review concluded that these efforts would probably fall short, which suggests that Iraq's Scuds could again be a complicating factor in any new war.

The last time around, the U.S. military's inability to defeat the Scuds turned out to be its biggest failure in the war. In 1991 the U.S. dedicated 2,493 missions to what came to be called the "Great Scud Hunt." But it did not score one confirmable kill against a mobile missile or its launcher in Iraq — though it did destroy what turned out to be a few fuel trucks as well as some East German decoys that looked like the real thing. Scuds caused not only mayhem in Israel during the month the missiles rained down on Tel Aviv but also the deaths of 28 U.S. troops whose barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, were demolished by a Scud. Those 28 accounted for a fifth of all U.S. deaths in the war. Part of the problem was that in the beginning, Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. Army general who ran the war, underestimated the Scud. After all, the crude, 40-ft. Soviet-designed missile, which is in the arsenals of some 25 nations, has a bull's-eye a mile across. Schwarzkopf called it a "mosquito" that was "clumsy and obsolete." He resisted sending commandos into Iraq to hunt down the Scuds.

Schwarzkopf's intelligence about the missile was poor. Before the 1991 war, the U.S. believed that the crew of the 45-ton, Soviet-made truck that carries and launches the Scud would require half an hour to disassemble the launch gear and leave the scene after shooting. That would allow a fair amount of time for U.S. military satellites equipped with heat sensors to detect the flash of the launch and provide coordinates to allied aircraft that could move in for the kill. The Iraqi crews, however, were not following the Soviet owner's manual the U.S. was relying on; they had found ways to cut corners and were fleeing in as little as six minutes, scooting into caves or culverts where they could not be seen. Intensive U.S. bombing — including nightly B-52 strikes on suspected Scud routes — reduced but did not stop the launches.

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