STEVEN LEE MYERSFlight tests by Iraq show progress of missile program
July 1, 2000
WASHINGTON, June 30 -- Eighteen months after American and British warplanes badly damaged its missile factories, Iraq has restarted its missile program and flight-tested a short-range ballistic missile, Clinton administration and American military officials said this week.
The tests -- eight in all, including one on Tuesday -- have involved Al Samoud, a liquid-fueled ballistic missile that could carry conventional explosives or the chemical and biological weapons that Iraq is still suspected of hiding, the officials said.
Because its range is less than 150 kilometers, or under 95 miles, the missile does not violate United Nations restrictions imposed on Iraq after the Persian Gulf war in 1991. But the flight tests show that production plants and research labs destroyed in four nights of American and British strikes in December 1998 have been rebuilt and have resumed work, the officials said.
The missile's range, shorter than that of the Russian-made Scud missiles that Iraq fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the war, does not pose a significant threat to Iraq's neighbors or American forces in the Persian Gulf, the officials said.
But they view the testing as evidence that Iraq is still working to perfect its ballistic missile technology, which could be adapted to missiles with a longer range.
Iraq's program has intensified fears within the administration and the Pentagon that in the prolonged absence of international weapons inspectors, President Saddam Hussein may already be covertly working on, though not testing, longer-range missiles. Such work would violate the United Nations restrictions and would confront the United States with the difficult choice of how to respond.
"We're starting to see things up and functioning," Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, said in an interview on Monday, before the most recent missile test. "What he learns from these tests, the technological developments and the other things he picks up, are transferable to longer-range missiles. I mean it's not a stretch."
The United States and Britain attacked Iraq in 1998 to punish Mr. Hussein's government for halting all cooperation with international inspectors searching for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as the missiles that can carry them. Iraq agreed to forsake those weapons as a condition for the United States and its allies ending the gulf war in 1991.
A significant number of the targets struck in the 1998 raids -- 12 of 100 over all -- were industrial and military factories involved in Iraq's missile program, including one in the Taji military complex north of Baghdad and the nearby Ibn al-Haytham missile research center, where Al Samoud is made.
American officials acknowledged earlier this year that Iraq had managed to rebuild many of the structures damaged or destroyed, but the extent of its missile program and its continued testing has not previously been disclosed.
"We never claimed it was permanent," a senior Defense Department official said of the damage done 18 months ago. "Whatever you can build, you can rebuild."
Officials said the new missile did not appear to be ready for deployment. They said their analysis of the tests -- monitored by American satellites, radar and aircraft patrolling the "no flight" zones over northern and southern Iraq -- found significant problems with the missile.
"They have all kinds of problems with it," an official said. "They can't get the guidance to work right. They can't get the engines to work right. It's not close to going into production, but they are persistent."
Before the war, Iraq had many missiles, so presumably it still has the technology to build them, even though for a decade it has been proscribed from working on longer-range missiles and from buying equipment.
The disclosure of the missile tests comes at a time when the administration's policy toward Iraq has faced intensifying diplomatic criticism and international concern that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations are punishing the Iraqi people, not Mr. Hussein's government.
The administration's policy is also emerging as an issue in the presidential campaign between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
"The word policy is probably an overstatement in describing the administration attitude toward Iraq," Richard Perle, a former assistant defense secretary and now an adviser to Governor Bush's campaign, said to a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. "Paralysis is probably more appropriate."
Since the attacks in 1998, there have been no international inspections of Iraq's weapons programs, and for months before there there was little meaningful monitoring because of Iraq's refusal to cooperate.
Earlier this year, the United States joined the other members of the United Nations Security Council in approving a new inspection system, but the system's new director, Hans Blix, has moved slowly to assemble a team of inspectors.
Despite an offer to ease the sanctions if the new inspections find no evidence of weapons programs, Iraq has insisted that it will not cooperate with any new inspectors.
Iraq began work on Al Samoud -- which in Arabic means resistance -- after the Persian Gulf war. The missile is believed to be a variant of the Soviet-era SA-2, the type of surface-to-air missile that shot down the U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in 1960.
Iraq first tested the missile in 1997 under supervision of the previous team of international inspectors, which sought to ensure that the missile remained within the prescribed range.
With the American and British strikes in 1998, Pentagon officials said they set back Iraq's missile program one to two years. But the damage to the missile centers now appears to have derailed the program far less significantly.
Flight tests resumed as early as May 1999, when Iraq fired a test into the desert west of Baghdad. Since then Iraq has conducted seven more tests, including the one on Tuesday, the officials said.
All of the missile flights have stayed within the United Nations limits, they said. "They are being very careful," one said. "They are not giving us any reason to go clobber them."
Previous American reports, including one by the State Department in 1998, have said Iraq imports missile parts and other equipment through "clandestine procurement networks," and the officials said Iraq was still seeking to acquire parts on the international arms market.
American intelligence experts also estimate that Iraq still has 20 to 40 Scud missiles that it has hidden since the end of the Gulf war.