WASHINGTON -- In apparent defiance of international sanctions against Iraq, a number of Europeans portrayed as hostages in Baghdad actually are technicians working voluntarily to keep the country's weapons facilities and other key industries operating, American investigators now suspect.
Although the number of foreign nationals involved is believed to be small, investigators said they are helping to maintain key facilities, including Iraq's main chemical weapons plant. Some are Germans who appear to be moving in and out of Iraq freely through Jordan.
The suspicions are based in part on accounts provided by freed hostages who have reported seeing Europeans at work, apparently voluntarily, at strategic sites where "human shields" have been held to deter a possible U.S.-led military strike.
The critical assistance poses a threat to the effectiveness of the United Nations embargo against Iraq and is a source of particular frustration to U.S. officials eager to find a way to stop the workers.
German federal prosecutors confirmed that they were investigating 20 to 30 cases involving companies and individuals believed to be providing illegal services and commodities to Iraq.
"We suspect there are Germans who indeed may be doing things they are not supposed to be doing," said a Bonn official who spoke on condition that he remain anonymous. "We can't do anything to stop them if they are over there already. We can't exactly shoot their families or confiscate their property here."
Former hostages have reported that as recently as last month some Germans were seen working at a cannon factory north of Baghdad, while others have been working at Iraq's main chemical-weapons plant in Samarra.
The evidence indicates that other foreign nationals, including Brazilians and Japanese, may also be assisting Iraq under the guise of being held hostage, a U.S. congressional investigator said yesterday.
When he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was asked privately by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to contact the German and Brazilian governments about the status of their nationals in Iraq.
In testifying before a House committee that day, CIA Director William H. Webster said the sanctions had curtailed Iraq's imports and exports substantially. But he acknowledged that most vital industries were still operating, and that some goods were being smuggled into Iraq.
Many Western businesses, including U.S. ones, provided technology and expertise to Iraq before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. For instance, a congressional panel reported yesterday that the U.S. Department of Commerce approved sales of $700 million worth of sensitive equipment to Iraq in recent years, including more than 20 shipments of biological agents that could be used to develop biological weapons.
By far the largest suppliers in recent years have been the Germans.
The German government source said that the number of German workers who have stayed behind in Iraq was between 10 and 20, and that all "had a chance to get out but decided to stay."