He has germ of idea in Iraq hunt Researcher: A former U.N. inspector, Raymond A. Zilinskas says Hussein's maze of plants that grow deadly germs provides plenty of 'circumstantial evidence' but no 'smoking guns.'

March 07, 1998|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Raymond A. Zilinskas vividly recalls that hot June morning when he sat in a school bus loaded with chemists and biologists as they rolled down a desolate highway, through the sandy wasteland west of Baghdad.

"For miles, you didn't see anything but desert," says Zilinskas, 59, a researcher at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute who was serving a tour of duty as a United Nations weapons inspector. "Then you see a huge structure way up on the horizon." The Oz-like outcrop of buildings, he says, shimmered in the heat like a mirage.

This was the Al Hakam Single-Cell Protein Plant. The Iraqis claimed it was used to make animal feed and pesticides. Eventually, they admitted it was a biological weapons plant, designed to brew tons of deadly microbes for use in bombs and rockets.

Today, the Al Hakam plant has been cut up with torches, bulldozed and dynamited. But no one thinks the threat has disappeared.

After a crisis that brought Iraq to the brink of war, U.N. inspectors yesterday continued their high-stakes scavenger hunt for Iraq's technology of mass destruction. They hope, under the terms of the latest agreement, to enter some previously forbidden sites, including government ministries and Saddam Hussein's numerous presidential palaces.

Zilinskas says inspectors will look for secret laboratories, germ-laden bombs and huge fermenting tanks filled with lethal microbes. But he thinks they're likely to find more ambiguous evidence: documents, witnesses and sophisticated biomedical equipment.

"There are no signatures" of biological weapons development, Zilinskas says. "It's a whole web of circumstantial evidence. Never can you get a smoking gun."

Take Al Hakam. Not even Western intelligence agencies knew it existed until the Iraqis told weapons inspectors about it after the end of the Persian Gulf war.

When Zilinskas visited the massive plant in 1994 with the U.N. inspection group, called UNSCOM, everything about it seemed suspicious. It was isolated, surrounded by barbed wire, protected by air defenses and numerous guard posts. Inside, the main plant had a maze of computer-controlled pipes, valves and fermenters, and state-of-the-art stainless steel fermenting tanks.

Still, there was no proof.

Only in the face of documents proving that they imported tons of germ food, called growth medium, did the Iraqis admit that Al Hakam was used to make thousands of gallons of lethal biological agents, including anthrax bacteria and the botulinum toxin.

These are deadly and terrifying microbes. A pinhead-sized dot of anthrax bacteria can smolder for days in the lungs, like a delayed fuse, then explode in lethal pneumonia. The Iraqis admitted making almost 2,000 gallons of anthrax slurry. Just 2 1/4 gallons of the botulinum toxin, sprayed from an airplane, could kill everyone inside an area of about 38 square miles. The Iraqis, Zilinskas says, produced almost 5,000 gallons.

The Iraqis claimed to have destroyed hundreds of germ bombs built before the gulf war, but can't prove it. Zilinskas is suspicious of Iraqi claims, but not concerned. Those bombs, he says, were filled with wet rather than dry anthrax. They wouldn't store well and if any are still around, they're likely filled with "muck."

Even if some of them worked, they wouldn't work very well. They were crude devices designed to disperse their agents when they exploded. But the explosion itself destroys a lot of the microbes.

In searching the sites Iraqis have tried to put off limits, UNSCOM inspectors will look for hidden labs. But Zilinskas says they're not likely to find any.

He thinks Hussein forbade the inspection of offices and palaces in hopes of "establishing a principle" that he could use to shield future weapons production, not to hide a working plant.

UNSCOM inspectors also will hunt for biotech equipment, including freeze dryers and egg incubators. But finding them won't tell them much. Most of the devices used to make biological weapons are what arms controllers call "dual use" machines -- they can be used both for biological weapons and for legitimate medical or agricultural purposes such as testing people's blood for infectious diseases, or producing vaccines.

There are about 80 labs with this type of equipment scattered through Iraq, Zilinskas says. All the machines at those sites have been pinpointed, photographed and cataloged.

So UNSCOM probably will concentrate on searching for the missing paper or computer records of Iraq's aggressive bio-weapons development program, which began in the mid-1970s.

These records should be very hard to find, but some are probably still around. "They have had seven years now to hide information," Zilinskas says. "The funny thing is, when you go on a site, you still find information."

UNSCOM inspectors will likely search computer hard drives and file cabinets. They'll scrounge through desk drawers for handwritten notes, and even check under manholes for dumped files. All have yielded information in the past.

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