- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

BAGHDAD — Six Iraqi scientists working at different Baghdad research institutions were ordered to destroy bacteria and equipment and hide more in their homes before visits from U.N. weapons inspectors in the months leading up to the war, the scientists say.In separate interviews, all of the scientists said they were involved in civilian research projects and none knew of any programs for weapons of mass destruction. It was not clear why their materials, ostensibly for nonmilitary research, were ordered destroyed.But their accounts indicate the government of Saddam Hussein may have had advance knowledge of at least some of the inspectors’ visits, as the United States suspected, and that the former Iraqi regime was deeply concerned about any material that could raise the suspicion of U.N. experts.”An hour or two before the inspectors came to the university, I got my orders from the chairman,” said a biochemistry professor at Saddam University for Science and Engineering.”The order was to hide anything that might make the inspectors suspicious. Any bacterium, any fungus. I destroyed seven petri dishes in the autoclave and I put the others in the trunk of my car.”An autoclave uses superheated steam, most often to sterilize equipment.He said the petri dishes held staphylococcus, E. coli bacteria and a fungus that can cause severe skin problems — all commonly used for experiments.Saddam University’s assistant dean, Ameer Abbas Ameer, said inspectors visited his university three times, checking the chemistry, biology and physics departments. He denied ordering professors and researchers to destroy or hide materials.”The inspectors never found anything because there wasn’t anything to find,” he said.But the professor and other scientists said orders came from Mr. Ameer’s office, through the department chairman, to hide and destroy materials when the inspectors were on their way.”The chairman told us not to answer questions from any inspectors, to go to the cafeteria and stay there until they left,” the professor said. “They were afraid. What they were afraid of, I don’t know.”President Bush said during his State of the Union address that Iraqi spies had infiltrated the U.N. inspection team. While some inspectors privately suspect as much, none of the teams found any firm evidence to support the president’s claim.”Clearly, we were well aware that the Iraqis were trying to figure out our inspection plans and we took many practicable precautions against that,” said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. inspectors. He said information was handled on a “need to know” basis and precautions included “silent briefings” between inspectors to elude any listening devices the Iraqis may have placed at U.N. offices in Baghdad.U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last November after a four-year hiatus. Over a period of 3½ months, they conducted hundreds of visits to factories, universities and military facilities. Despite the insistence of the Bush administration that Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, the inspectors found no such evidence before the U.S.-led war on Iraq forced them to leave in mid-March.The United States now has deployed its own inspectors, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte made clear Tuesday that the Bush administration doesn’t want the U.N. team to return anytime soon.Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said he didn’t see “any adversarial arrangement” between his inspectors and the U.S.-led coalition’s teams. “We’re all interested in finding the truth about the situation, whatever it is,” he said.However, in an interview to British Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday, Mr. Blix said the United States and Britain exaggerated assertions that Saddam had amassed weapons of mass destruction.”I think it’s been one of the disturbing elements that so much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seemed to have been shaky,” he said.So far, U.S. forces have found no conclusive evidence that Iraq has banned weapons. None of the scientists interviewed by reporters in their homes and on campuses said they had any such information to provide.At a biotechnology laboratory at the Baghdad University for Science and Engineering, researcher Majid Rasheed said inspectors visited three times, but that his chairman had ordered investigators to destroy and hide materials in November, just as the inspections resumed.Mr. Rasheed said some basic materials were destroyed just to avoid any suspicions that they could be used for military purposes.”We took home media for culturing bacteria and shaker-incubators used for fermentation,” he said. “Now we will bring them back.”

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