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Saddam uses loophole to keep making weapons

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SIX YEARS AGO, for 40 days and 40 nights, Iraq was pummeled by the largest air-and-bombing assault in the history of the world.

When it was over, the country was in ruins, a monumental rubble that was the direct result of the madness of its leader, Saddam Hussein.Since the 1991 gulf war, Iraq has been crushed further by a series of U.N. resolutions that have imposed oil and trade embargoes until Saddam dismantles and destroys all chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic missile materiel.

Yet in the past six years, the Iraqis - with the same tenacity, deception and drive used to amass their formidable war machine in the first place - have now rebuilt much of their military complex, according to our intelligence sources. Despite the U.N. inspections and the oil embargo, Iraq has:

- Managed to reconstruct more than 80 percent of the military manufacturing capability it possessed before Desert Storm. Neither the United Nations, nor the IAEA, has been able to do anything about this.

- Succeeded in reinvigorating its clandestine procurement network, relying on known front companies in Jordan, France and Germany to purchase critical items and spare parts for its weapons industries.

- Manufactured T-72 tanks, artillery munitions and even short-range ballistic missiles and is operating more than 40 major weapons plants. At the same time, Iraq has repaired and returned to service most of the 2,500 main battle tanks and 250 fixed-wing aircraft that survived Desert Storm.

The recent showdown with Iraq over U.N. inspection teams that include Americans have highlighted Saddam's intention to secure the weapons of mass destruction he had before the gulf war.

But lost in all the coverage about this showdown is what U.N. officials - in more than a dozen interviews with our associate Dale Van Atta - call "the big loophole": the fact that none of the U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iraq calls for the dismantling or monitoring of Iraq's conventional weapons plants.

Under the authority of the current resolutions, U.N. teams have inspected some of the conventional weapons plants - but only within a very limited framework.

As one senior analyst with the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq said, "We can't be bothered with counting how many 155 mm shells the Iraqis can make, as long as they do not violate the terms of (resolution) 687. We have too much to do as it is."

In other words, Iraq is fully allowed by the terms of the cease-fire to continue making conventional weapons and ammunition at whatever rate it desires - even in the same plants that are suspected of being part of Iraq's nuclear program.

Iraq has tried to take advantage of this loophole to prevent the destruction of equipment used for the production of the Badr 2000 (Condor II), a 625-mile-range ballistic missile believed to be far more accurate than Iraq's upgraded Scuds.

Starting in 1985, the U.S. government led a major campaign to prevent the sale of critical manufacturing equipment to the Condor II program, parts of which were being conducted jointly with Argentina and Egypt. Before the U.N. inspections began in Iraq, it was widely claimed that halting the Condor II program was the largest single success of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

UNSCOM inspectors soon discovered four separate bomb-damaged facilities in different parts of Iraq that had produced Badr 2000s only days before Desert Storm began.

All four missile plants appeared to have been built by German and Italian firms, although the bulk of the solid fuel technology is said to have originated in the United States and to have reached Iraq via France and Italy.

Iraqi authorities promised to modify the plant to meet U.N. demands.

United Feature Syndicate Inc.