BAGHDAD -- All but eight of the dozens of Iraqi scientists who have been questioned or detained as part of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction have been released by US intelligence, officials at the American-run Science Ministry in Baghdad said.
Those who remain in custody were involved years ago with former biological programs such as anthrax, suggesting the US-led weapons hunt is holding out hope for success in that area after finding no evidence there were recent chemical or nuclear weapons programs before the war.
Many Iraqi scientists in those fields who claimed for years that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction have been rehired by the Science Ministry eight months after the United States went to war to disarm Iraq.
In one case, Alaa Al-Saeed, the scientist who oversaw stockpiles of the deadly nerve agent VX, was promoted and is now in charge of overseeing other weapons scientists.
Senior US officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, promised to find hidden Iraqi weapons and said some Iraqis could be punished.
But with so few people in custody and no weapons uncovered, the possibility of prosecutions is waning.
"We had meetings with British intelligence and American intelligence, and we told them the truth," said Saeed, whose VX program was mentioned by President Bush in his State of the Union address last January.
"To the best of my knowledge, there are no weapons of mass destruction. They were either destroyed by UN inspectors or unilaterally by Iraq years ago, and I still insist on that," he said in an interview at the Science Ministry.
US officials were convinced Saeed was telling the truth, said Khidhir Hamza, the US-appointed adviser to the ministry.
"The Americans thought he was good enough to keep on the outside and that he's all right. He's very cooperative," said Hamza, who in September gave Saeed the run of the National Monitoring Directorate, a government agency that employed most of Iraq's top weapons scientists.
"You want an insider," he said.
But former UN weapons inspectors were astonished by the appointment.
"This is absurd," said Jonathan Tucker, a former UN inspector now with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California.
"The function of that organization was to manage the UN inspections process through minders and other means, with the aim of limiting its effectiveness."
Several members of the organization, known as NMD, are among the eight Iraqi scientists held, Saeed said.
Half of the detained group were on the US "Most Wanted" list.
Six were heavily involved with former biological weapons programs and two were specialists on delivery systems. All continue to claim there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to US officers involved in the hunt.
The CIA would not comment on individuals and David Kay, who leads the weapons hunt on behalf of the CIA, turned down a request for an interview. The names of those held were provided by Al-Saeed and his staff.
Former UN inspectors said that at the very least those in custody should be able to clear up whether the biological program was more extensive than previously thought; what biological agents were produced, in what quantities; and when and how they were destroyed or retained.
The rest of the NMD's senior staff have been rehired, in part to keep them from leaving the country. Some Iraqi scientists have already gone to Iran, Syria, and Sudan, according to US and Iraqi officials.
About 9,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians who worked for Iraq's military industries or in weapons research have been rehired by the new ministry. Hundreds more have found jobs at the industry or defense ministries. An additional 25,000 are unemployed but getting paychecks of about $100 a month until the Science Ministry figures out which sectors need to be privatized and what else will be incorporated into the new government.
Money is tight.
Much of Iraq's scientific infrastructure was destroyed during the war and the new ministry's budget totals just $26 million, a figure that pales in comparison to the reported $600 million the weapons hunt got from Congress last month to continue searching until next June.
"Top scientists are now getting paid about $400 a month," Hamza said.
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, scientists such as Saeed made $8,000 a month.
Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in 1994, wrote a memoir titled "Saddam's Bombmaker." During dozens of media appearances, articles, and testimony before Congress in the past two years, he claimed Iraq was actively trying to build an atomic bomb.
Like the claims made by other defectors before the war, Hamza's assertions have not been confirmed by the evidence.
Kay said in a report to Congress in October: "We have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons."
Hamza refused to discuss the report.
"I'm just not going to talk about it," he said during an interview at his office, located inside the Baghdad Palace now serving as the headquarters for the US occupation.
He hasn't even asked Iraqi scientists about it because he doesn't want to "contaminate" the search, he said.
Kay's operation, known as the Iraq Survey Group, is based at a former presidential compound near the Baghdad airport and is staffed by more than 1,000 intelligence analysts, interrogators, and translators sent here to investigate everything from weapons of mass destruction to alleged Al Qaeda ties.
While some were recently reassigned to help the military fight a growing Iraqi insurgency, US military officers said, the search has been ongoing for nearly eight months.
In his October report, Kay told Congress that no weapons of mass destruction had been found but his teams had uncovered information on Iraqi missile plans and were learning more in the biological arena.
"They may believe that biological is the most promising area for further investigation," said Tucker, the former weapons inspector. "It is certainly the area with the most unanswered questions."