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.