NEW YORK -- The Iraqi scientist who headed Saddam Hussein's long-range missile program has fled to neighboring Iran, a country identified as a state sponsor of terrorism with a successful missile program and nuclear ambitions, US officers involved in the weapons hunt said.
Dr. Modher Sadeq-Saba al-Tamimi and other top weapons makers from Hussein's deposed regime have found themselves eight months out of work, but with skills that could be lucrative to militaries or terrorist organizations in neighboring countries. US officials have said some are already in Syria and Jordan.
Specialists long feared the collapse of Hussein's rule could lead to the kind of brain drain the United States tried to prevent as the former Soviet Union collapsed. But the Bush administration had no plan for Iraqi scientists, and instead officials suggested they could be tried for war crimes.
"There are a couple hundred Iraqis who are really good scientists, particularly in the missile area," said Jonathan Tucker, a former UN inspector now with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California.
Only now is the State Department exploring the possibility of a program to block a scientific exodus and prevent Iraqis from doing future research in weapons of mass destruction. Initial cost estimates for the program run about $16 million, according to a Nov. 3 draft proposal obtained by the Associated Press.
Two members of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency involved in questioning scientists in custody said the Iraqis continue to deny the existence of illicit weapons programs. Dozens of Iraqi scientists have been questioned, and less than 30 remain in custody. All of them, including senior members of Hussein's regime, have been subjected to lie detector tests, which have come up clean on weapons questioning, the Pentagon officers said.
But US scientists and weapons specialists, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, said they're having trouble finding some scientists in Iraq and have no way of tracking ones they've met.
"They could leave Baghdad tomorrow and we'd never know," said one senior official involved in the hunt. "Very few are obligated to tell us where they're going or what they're up to."
UN inspectors spoke with Modher in Baghdad a week before the US-led war began on March 20. Two US weapons investigators say they believe he crossed the Iraq-Iran border on foot at least two months after US forces took the Iraqi capital.
His activities in Iran are unclear and may explain why his disappearance hasn't been publicly disclosed. The CIA declined to discuss its efforts with Iraqi scientists or identify individuals.
Thought to be in his mid-50s, the Czech-educated scientist specialized in missile engines. He met numerous times with UN inspectors during the 1990s and earlier this year when he contended that the Al-Samoud missile system under his command wasn't in violation of a UN range limit. The inspectors determined otherwise when tests showed it could fly more than 93 miles. They quickly began destroying the Iraqi stock, much to his frustration.
"Dr. Modher was declared by Iraq to have been one of the principal figures in their missile programs," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the UN inspectors.
In the late 1980s, Modher headed up part of an Iraqi effort to produce engines for longer-range missiles.
He was the protege and favored colleague of Lieutenant General Hussein Kamel, Hussein's right-hand man and son-in-law who briefly defected to Jordan in 1995. There, Kamel told UN inspectors about his work and Modher's efforts to build a missile powerful enough to strike most major European cities.
According to interrogation transcripts, Kamel said Modher and a nuclear physicist named Mahdi Obeidi both took work and documents from their offices. UN inspectors investigated the claim but found nothing.
In July, Obeidi gave the CIA papers and a piece of equipment that had been buried in his backyard for 12 years. In return, he became the only Iraqi scientist allowed to move to the United States since the beginning of the US occupation and is living on the East Coast with his family.
Another scientist known to have left the country is Jaffar al-Jaffer, who founded Iraq's nuclear program in the 1980s. He is in the United Arab Emirates, where US troops are stationed, and has been questioned by US and British intelligence officials.
But Jaffar, like a handful of senior scientists being held by US forces in Iraq, hasn't provided any information on the whereabouts of suspected chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
David Kay, the chief weapons hunter, has said his teams so far have found new information on Iraqi missile systems. But a conversation with Modher could have cleared up unanswered questions about Iraq's true capabilities for delivering weapons of mass destruction.