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

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In its ongoing effort to improve its Scud-killing abilities, the U.S. Air Force last month launched a pair of Scuds — which it secretly obtained from an unspecified Warsaw Pact nation — from American soil for the first time. The firings, from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base out over the Pacific Ocean, were witnessed by U.S. and Israeli defense officials. Sensors on the missiles as well as aboard nearby ships and planes tracked the trajectory of the Scuds. "Because the new Patriot is 'hit to kill,' we need very accurate data on Scud performance," a Pentagon official said.

U.S. military officials say the stakes in any anti-Scud campaign would be high. While Saddam may have few missiles in his quiver, he might in a future campaign have the motivation — and ability — to load them with devastating chemical warheads. U.S. intelligence isn't sure why he didn't do this last time. Perhaps he was convinced by hints that Washington might retaliate with nuclear weapons. Or his engineers might have been unable to perfect the sophisticated fuse needed to spread a cloud of sarin or VX gas half a mile wide, a lethal fog capable of killing thousands of people in its path. Such devices — used to trigger car air bags — are now common.

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