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Was Saddam testing bio and chem weapons on prisoners?
What haunts the former Iraqi intelligence officer most about the men he helped kill in 1987 wasn't their numbed silence or their defeated gazes. It was the strange cloud that seemed to come from nowhere, the cloud that killed them.
It was misty white, he said, and it blossomed above the gulch near the Iranian border where he and his security men had deposited 10 truckloads of political prisoners. Hours later, waiting at a nearby roadblock, he watched the trucks return. They were piled with dead bodies. Civilian technicians accompanying the grim convoy angrily ordered him to keep his distance.
"That's when I realized this was no ordinary execution," said the officer, a retired colonel with the Iraqi Second Army Corps who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The government was using prisoners to test its chemical weapons."
And what regime's tactics does this sound like?
Still, interviews with former intelligence officials and U.N. documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune suggest that scores of hapless prisoners may have been sacrificed to such secret testing in Iraq. And the evidence stretches back decades, to the earliest days of rule by Iraq's Baath Party.
"Everyone knows it started back in 1972, even before Hussein took power," said a senior chemical weapons engineer who worked for seven years at the Al-Muthanna State Establishment, a notorious weapons lab that U.S. planes bombed to rubble in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
According to the engineer, who like many of those closely involved in Iraq's weapons programs refused to be identified by name, prisoners jailed at the Al-Sha'emiya Prison southeast of Baghdad were selected by the Internal Security Directorate - the forerunner of Saddam's dreaded secret police - for crude experiments with home-brewed mustard gas.
"My colleagues were trying out dosages and recording the prisoners' reactions," he said, hastening to add that he only used rabbits in his experiments. "The facilities were crude - just some brick laboratories inside the prison."
Throughout their frustrating years of cat-and-mouse searches, the U.N. inspection teams stumbled across several chilling clues that hinted at human testing projects in Iraq.
According to Spertzel, inspectors found two "aerosol test chambers" discarded in rubbish heaps outside Al-Muthanna and Salman Pak, Saddam's two main WMD laboratories. The chambers were human-sized, and were designed to test chemical and biological agents, Spertzel said. The Iraqis said they were used on donkeys.
In an unrelated case, inspectors went to Salman Pak in 1994 to investigate a series of mysterious trenches that had been dug at night and hastily refilled by the Iraqis during the gulf war. Officials told Spertzel the holes contained bodies.
"I rather suspected these might have been Kuwaiti POWs," he said. "But they might have been test subjects."
The Iraqis blocked access to the site, claiming it was "holy," Spertzel said. The government later flooded the area with water from the Tigris River.
The most compelling case involved alleged biological weapons tests carried out on Shiite political prisoners by a mysterious Unit 2100, a U.N. inspection team document shows.
According to the document, at least 50 prisoners from Abu Gharib prison west of Baghdad were rounded up in 1995 and sent to a secret testing facility in Al-Haditha, a remote community in Iraq's western desert.
"Unit 2100 was subordinate directly to the Ministry for Military Industry ... which was headed by Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamil," states the document, which is based on intelligence supplied by a senior Iraqi defector.
"The unit conducted experiments on human subjects using chemical and biological warfare agents," the document goes on. "Prisoners who were sent to Unit 2100 did not return."
As for the Iraqi army intelligence officer who claims to have witnessed the test gassing of hundreds of prisoners at an open-air site in the desert near Jalula, on the Iranian border, he asserted that the bodies he saw also were unmarked.
"It was like they were asleep," he said with lingering awe.
Informed that the Americans had probed the mass grave of the alleged chemical test victims and turned up nothing, the officer seemed unfazed. Instead, he produced a colleague, a lieutenant in the Iraqi Second Army Corps that purportedly oversaw the operation, who confirmed the broad outlines of his story.
"The Americans," the officer insisted, "have a lot more digging to do."
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