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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - The No. 1 Iraqi official wanted for questioning about chemical and biological weapons in the country surrendered to U.S. forces Saturday in a move that could provide a major boost to the hunt for any weapons of mass destruction.
Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, who was Saddam Hussein's point man on chemical and biological weapons, arranged his surrender with the help of Germany's ZDF television network.
He said he had no information on Saddam's whereabouts. Before leaving his Baghdad villa with his German wife, Helga, and presenting himself to an American warrant officer, he insisted that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.
"He's a really big fish," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. weapons inspection team. "But who knows whether he will tell them anything or just stick to his guns."
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized al-Saadi's surrender as extremely important. The official said al-Saadi is expected to know where weapons are hidden, how many of each type was produced, and possibly the whereabouts of other weapons scientists.
The Bush administration has said it went to war in order to disarm Iraq of the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons it is convinced that Saddam had. But much of the world wasn't persuaded and believes the United States failed to provide enough evidence to back up its assertions.
So far, U.S. forces haven't found any weapons of mass destruction. Officials had said they expected the search to get easier once the regime fell, allowing senior officials and scientists to speak freely in a way that they were not able to do with U.N. inspectors.
Al-Saadi is believed to be the first of the 55 regime figures sought by U.S. forces to enter custody. His official title was Saddam's science adviser and he negotiated with inspectors on behalf of the regime.
In February, Secretary of State Colin Powell vilified al-Saadi in a speech to the U.N. Security Council, accusing him of being on a committee set up by Saddam to spy on inspectors.
"Saadi's job is not to cooperate, it is to deceive; not to disarm, but to undermine the inspectors; not to support them, but to frustrate them and to make sure they learn nothing," Powell said.
Al-Saadi denied the charges then and suggested that evidence Powell presented to the council was fabricated. A month later, U.N. nuclear inspectors said a piece of intelligence on Iraq's nuclear program provided by the United States was a forgery.
Former and current inspectors describe al-Saadi, a scientist in his mid-50s with an advanced degree in chemistry, as extremely intelligent, professional and mild-mannered.
Educated in Britain and Germany, his excellent command of the English language made him an ideal spokesman and he often led news conferences about the inspections when they resumed in November.
Al-Saadi's main areas of expertise are in the fields of chemical and biological weapons but U.N. inspectors have long believed that he had a deep understanding of the country's missile and nuclear programs as well.
Iraq claimed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War that it had ceased its chemical and missile programs denied it had nuclear or biological programs _ which were later discovered by inspectors.
He only began dealing with inspection teams in 1995 and attended high-level meetings between the sides dealing with Iraq's efforts to produce the VX nerve agent and as well as biological weapons.
He came to U.N, headquarters in New York last year to restart talks with inspectors, who were banned from working in Iraq at the end of 1998. He also met with inspectors in Vienna in July and October of last year and was the most senior Iraqi official to meet with chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei during their three visits to Baghdad this past winter.
Despite the close dealings however, "we never really got to know him or what he was really thinking," Buchanan said.
On Saturday, al-Saadi told ZDF he had spent the war in his cellar and emerged after he saw a British TV report that he was being sought.
"I know the programs for weapons of mass destruction and have always told the truth about these old programs, and only the truth. You will see, the future will show it, and nothing else will come out after the end of the war," he said in an interview with ZDF, according to the broadcaster's German translation.
"Because I know the program, together with my colleagues, because we have always worked together and nobody intervened. Nobody ever told me what I should say."
The polished al-Saadi first caught Saddam's attention with his scientific and organizational contributions as Iraq expanded its arsenal to include long-range missiles and chemical weapons.
Saddam's confidence in him continued to grow and al-Saadi's loyalty to the president remained unquestioned though he hardly ever mentioned the Iraqi leader in public and showed visible signs of discomfort when asked a political question.
Al-Saadi is a member of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. He was dismissed from the army when the Baath Party came to power in 1968 because he was married to a German woman and was not a party member.
His chemical weapons expertise, however, later led the army to take him back. He became a Cabinet minister in the 1990s and was a member of a select group thought to be instrumental in the development of Iraq's weapons programs in the 1980s.
At the height of the Iraq-Iran war, al-Saadi pooled together Iraqi missiles experts in an undertaking that in 1987 gave Iraq a modified Scud-B, ground-to-ground missile with a range of 400 miles, enough to hit Iran's capital Tehran.
Al-Saadi has been Iraq's top armament official since Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan in 1995, then was killed shortly after being lured back to Iraq. Al-Saadi had worked as Kamel's deputy in the secretive military industries sector.
(Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)