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.
"The only way to bomb it is with a nuclear weapon," said Jack Spencer, a defense and national security expert for the Heritage Foundation. "But that would be overkill. It just would not be an option."
Either way — an ineffective attack that spread the pathogens, or overkill that assured their destruction — would run an immense risk of casualties, Stoll said. "If it was around downtown Baghdad, you'd think twice about targeting them."
Defining a Mobile Weapons Lab
In his recent book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, Kenneth M. Pollack, director for Gulf Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council from 1999 to 2001, wrote that Iraqi defectors have also alleged that "Saddam has taken the entire Iraqi program on the road."
"For example, [Saddam] has taken his BW [biological weapons] program mobile by breaking it up into small, self-contained units that fit into the back of generic tractor-trailers and can be driven all over the country," Pollack wrote.
But other experts have been more vague about the the extent and nature of these labs. The mobile weapons labs might be units for dispersing biological or chemical weapons in the event of a hostile action, or they might simply be parts of a weapons lab that was broken up to avoid detection.
"There's been a lot of speculation," said Anthony Cordesman, national security consultant for ABCNEWS. "Nothing has been destroyed or caught."
Iraqi officials might even use these vehicles to hide the elements that could be used to change civilian facilities into weapons-making facilities, experts said.
The trucks could contain dual-use items like fermenters, spray dryers, centrifuges, and all they would need to do is drive up to an electrical source and a water source to begin producing weapons, said Richard Spertzel, the former U.N. chief biological weapons inspector in Iraq from 1994 to 1998.
Dual-use items are necessary for legitimate civilian purposes, like making paint or animal feed, but they are also essential elements for making certain weapons of mass destruction.
Such mobile weapons labs could transform a civilian facility into a weapons facility "just by being there," Spertzel said.
Cordesman said it was unclear how many, if any, of these weapons labs exist, or what their exact configuration is, but he said there are "a lot of commercial vehicles, and there is not a single type of vehicle."
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked at a Pentagon press conference if he believed Iraq was using mobile biological-weapons laboratories in trailers.
"It's safe to say that Saddam Hussein and his regime have developed the ability to make any number of things mobile," he replied.
"They have mobile missiles. They have mobile radars. They move around a lot of things to avoid detection, or if not detection, at least to avoid having them attacked."
No Smoking Gun
Former weapons inspector Christopher Cobb-Smith has seen the extent to which Baghdad will go to hide its weapons of mass destruction.
"There's no doubt we were observed and interfered with," he said, reflecting on his years in Iraq, between 1996 and 1998, when he was part of some of the most intrusive inspections.
Cobb-Smith says he could see how Baghdad might be interested in creating mobile weapons labs, even in what he terms the "most photographed country in the world."
"There's a lot of road movement. You could disguise it among other convoys."
Spertzel, also a former U.N. weapons inspector, said mobile weapons labs would be nearly invisible, even if they were the kind that simply transported equipment, and didn't produce any weapons.
"If this happens they're just going to have to pray for a lot of luck," he said. "There are no signs at all, nothing at all peculiar," he said.
Spencer, of the Heritage foundation, said inspectors on earlier missions to Iraq even had a hard time finding standing biological weapons facilities until they were tipped off by insiders.
Finding mobile weapons labs "would be impossible to track down without any sort of an insider tip," he said.
The way to find these facilities, he said, is "mainly through human intelligence, info gathering, scientists willing to talk."
Despite the difficulties, Cobb said he was skeptical of the existence of such weapons laboratories. He said he didn't hear of any mobile weapons laboratories when he was there.
He said Baghdad would be risking the ire of Washington's hawks if it got caught in such a scheme.
"It's a dodgy field to get involved in," he said. "They're risking a lot."