As U.N. weapons inspectors begin their work in Iraq today, there are fears Saddam Hussein may still have the means to kill thousands of people hidden among the fleets of motor vehicles across his country.
Civilian experts and government officials say Iraq has put many of its weapons laboratories on wheels, making them not only nearly impossible to detect and destroy, but also posing a grave threat in the event of war.
The weapons labs might be hidden in anything from 18-wheel tractor-trailers to recreational vehicles to bread trucks — making a search for them in Baghdad, a city of 5 million, as futile as last month's search in Washington for white-paneled trucks driven by the Beltway sniper.
In a recent address to the National Press Club, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned "there is evidence to support mobile production capability for chemical and biological weapons [in Iraq]."
"It does not take a lot of space for some of this work to go on. It can be done in a very, very small location. And the fact that you can put it on wheels makes it a lot easier to hide from people that might be looking for it."
Even more worrisome, experts say, is the fact that these mobile weapons labs, which a report in the Los Angeles Times dubbed "Winnebagos of Death," could be ready at a moment's notice.
In its report to parliament this year titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction," Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee said that some Iraqi chemical and biological weapons could be ready for deployment within 45 minutes.
All it would take is an order from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, or from his youngest son Qusay, head of the regime's most powerful security service, the report said.
The United Nations earlier this month unanimously approved a new resolution to force Iraq to disarm or face "serious consequences," after weeks of war threats from Washington.
The first of what is expected to be as many as 100 inspectors began a mission in the country today after a four-year absence. The inspectors are expected to give their first report to the U.N. Security Council by late January.
Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, Iraq is expected to produce a full account of its weapons program by Dec. 8.
Human Shields for Weapons of Mass Destruction
Since the departure of U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998, intelligence agencies around the world have kept a close eye on Saddam's weapons development efforts through satellites and other forms of surveillance.
But even if the mobile weapons laboratories can be accurately tracked, experts warned that they present another problem: how to assure the destruction of what is inside, which could be chemical or biological agents and/or weapons systems to deliver them.
An ineffective missile strike would run the risk of spreading the pathogens inside, said Ric Stoll, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
And in the event that such a vehicle was found, Stoll said it would likely be spotted by the Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle that can stay in the air for almost two days, and was used for surveillance and attack purposes in the recent conflict in Afghanistan.
However, it's unlikely that the Predator's two 100-pound Hellfire missiles could obliterate all the chemical or biological agents in a mobile weapons laboratory.