A headline on page C2 of yesterday's Outlook section incorrectly identified the country involved in chemical weapons development. It should have read, "Iraq's Deadly Search." (Published 9/26/88)
WHEN CHEMICAL engineers Joseph M. Culotta and Morris Gruver of the Pfaudler Co. arrived in Baghdad in late 1975, a nice man from the Ministry of Agriculture explained why the Iraqi government was so interested in building a pesticide plant.
Iraq was the location of the biblical Garden of Eden, explained the Iraqi agriculture official. But now, because of misuse of the land, it had become an area of hunger. A modern pesticide plant could change that, the Iraqi official said. To Gruver, who had been doing volunteer work for his church on the world hunger problem, the Iraqi argument about the need for pesticides "made a lot of sense." The Pfaudler engineers went home to Rochester, N.Y. to prepare preliminary drawings and specifications for the pesticide project.
But within a few months, it became clear to Culotta and Gruver that there was something odd about the Iraqi scheme. For one thing, the Iraqis seemed in a terrible hurry to complete the project. Moreover, they didn't like Pfaudler's plan to start with just a small pilot plant and then scale up to full production. And oddest of all, the Iraqis specified that they wanted to produce four pesticides that were unusually toxic and dangerous -- organophosphate compounds that were chemically very close to nerve gas.
Pfaudler -- worried about safety problems -- lost interest in mid-1976 and never built the pesticide plant. But that wasn't the end of Iraq's search for organophosphates. Iraq next approached a British company about building a plant that would make the same four toxic chemicals. When the British said no, the Iraqis tried to contact an Italian company, then a German company.
Eventually, in the 1980s, the Iraqis seem to have gotten the help they needed. According to newspaper reports, the Iraqis built a pesticide plant at Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, with equipment provided by a subsidiary of another German company called Karl Kolb. Kolb has stressed that the pesticide plant wasn't designed to produce poison gas. However, U.S. officials have gathered evidence that since about 1984, the Samarra plant has been diverted to production of nerve gas, and that Iraq has used this deadly gas against Iran.
The adventures of the two Pfaudler engineers from Rochester, though only a footnote to the tragic story of Iraq's use of chemical weapons, underlines an important historical point: The Iraqis seem to have begun their hunt for chemical-weapons capability far earlier -- in 1975 -- than most analysts have recognized. At that time, Iraq's main enemy wasn't Iran, but Israel. And it may be Israel, in the long run, that has the most to fear from Iraq's chemical-weapons arsenal.
The Reagan administration has gathered other evidence indicating that the Iraqis began their quest for chemical-weapons capability long ago. U.S. officials believe that a top-level committee of Iraqi officials decided in 1974 to acquire the technology to make such weapons, and that soon after that they began contacting European companies. The genesis of the Iraqi chemical-weapons program was to find new weapons that could be used against Israel, U.S. officials believe.
The Pfaudler story, as outlined in commercial documents prepared by the company in 1976 and made available to The Washington Post, also shows how easily Third World countries can acquire the technology needed to make chemical weapons. Western nations have begun in recent years to control export of the raw materials used to make such weapons. But the hardware for pesticide plants -- reactors, pumps and pipes -- remains available through commercial channels, and there are few controls -- even now -- that limit its export. Indeed, but for the caution exercised by the Pfaudler employes in 1976, the Iraqis might now be using an American-built plant to make nerve gas.
The Pfaulder story begins in mid-1975, when the company was contacted by NACE Corp., a now-defunct U.S. susbisidiary of a French engineering concern, about building a pesticide-blending plant in Iraq. Pfaudler was an obvious choice, since it's a leading producer of the corrosion-resistent, glass-lined steel vessels that are used to produce and blend many toxic chemicals. It looked like a relatively minor job -- less than $1 million for Pfaudler -- but the company expressed interest. There were hints, too, that the Iraqis might place a larger order.
When Culotta and Gruver went to Baghdad in late 1975, their Iraqi hosts confirmed that yes, indeed, they were interested in a larger project: not just a blending plant, but one that would make pesticides from scratch. That promised to be much more lucrative for Pfaudler -- up to $20 million in sales. "This looked to be a big dollar project for us," recalls Culotta. "It was kind of an attractive job."
The Iraqis specified that they wanted to produce four particular pesticides in large amounts. A Pfaudler document prepared in 1976 summarizes the Iraqi shopping list: 600 metric tons a year of Amiton; 300 metric tons of Demeton; 150 tons of Paraoxon; and 150 tons of Parathion.
These four pesticides are all unusually toxic, according to "Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products," a standard reference book for the chemical industry. Amiton is "one of the most toxic of the organic phosphorus insecticides." Paraoxon is described the same way, with the added warning that "relatively high stability may cause residue problems." Parathion, too, is given the highest toxicity rating, and Demeton is described as "almost as toxic as Parathion in animals when given orally or by inhalation."
Building a plant to produce these toxic chemicals bothered Culotta and Gruver. "We were very concerned," recalls Culotta. "We knew that they were dangerous." They weren't thinking about the possibility that the plant might be diverted to chemical-weapons production; they were worried about plant safety.
The Pfaudler men wondered why the Iraqis needed such lethal pesticides when less-toxic substitutes were probably available. They thought perhaps the Iraqis had used these four pesticides in the past and were reluctant to try new alternatives. "We said these are old materials, they may not be the most efficient for your use," recalls Culotta. But the Iraqis stuck with their specifications.
Pfaudler prepared a detailed proposal dated Jan. 24, 1976. Their solution for the safety problem was to start slowly, with a small pilot plant that could test the technology for making the pesticides and hopefully find safer substitutes that could do the same job.
Recalls Culotta: "We said it could take a year or so to put the pilot plant together, and some time to get expertise in making the compounds. We said you really shouldn't finalize the big plant until you had data from the pilot . . . . We thought it was a reasonable, prudent way to proceed, given the toxicity of the materials."
But the Iraqis didn't like the pilot plant idea. By this time, a whole new crew of Iraqi officials had taken charge of the negotiations. The nice man from the Ministry of Agriculture had disappeared. In his place was a team from the Ministry of Industry, headed by a short, stocky man named Hussein, who dressed in suits with impossibly wide stripes. Hussein and his associates stressed that they didn't want the success or failure of the pilot plant to be a condition for building the larger facility. (Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Abdul-Amir Al-Anbari, says that officials from the ministries of Agriculture and Industry who might have been involved in the discussions with Pfaudler can't be reached for comment.)
The showdown came at a meeting in mid-1976 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The Iraqis sent a large delegation, headed by Hussein from the Ministry of Industry. The meeting went badly. The Pfaudler men kept stressing the need for caution. The Iraqis kept pushing for rapid construction.
"'We don't want the pilot plant to be a red light," Culotta remembers an Iraqi official saying. "'We want a green light all the way!'"
"They said, 'We want a commitment to proceed now.'" recalls Gruver.
Pfaudler stuck to its insistence on the pilot plant. "We didn't want it to boomerang on us," says Culotta. "We were concerned about the safety of our people and their people in the start-up."
The meeting at the Waldorf broke up without agreement. "After that," says Culotta, the project "sort of petered out" for Pfaudler.
But not for Iraq. After hitting a snag with Pfaudler, the Iraqis approached Imperial Chemical Industries PLC, the giant British firm, with the same proposal to build a plant that would produce the same four toxic pesticides: Amiton, Demeton, Paraoxon and Parathion.
Derek Dewey-Leader, ICI's chief press officer in London, describes what happened: "We were approached in 1976 and we declined to build the plant. We declined because of the sensitive nature of the materials and the potential for misuse." He adds that the British government issues guidelines restricting sale of "chemical weapons precursors," and that it is "company policy to scrutinize any such request very carefully." (The chemical processes for making organophosphate pesticides are very similar to those for making Tabun and other nerve gasses, and both require similar manufacturing facilities with corrosion-resistant reactors, pipes and pumps. Thus, pesticide plants can be easily converted.)
After the Iraqi approach to ICI, the track gets muddy. One source who was, at the time, close to the Iraqis says that the design specifications prepared by Pfaudler (which the Iraqis had kept) were given to a German company and an Italian company. The German company denies it was approached. The Italian company told the London Observer (which reported portions of the Pfaudler story in 1984) that it never built any pesticide plant in Iraq.
What's clear is that starting in about 1980, the Iraqis began construction of a major pesticide plant in Samarra, about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. They purchased equipment and supplies for Samarra primarily through the Iraqi State Establishment for Pesticide Production, which was created in 1980.
A recent study by Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on Middle East defense issues who works for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, summarizes the argument that the Samarra pesticide plant was converted to military use: "The first Tabun nerve agents used by the Iraqis are believed to have been made at Iraq's Samarra chemical complex, at a former pesticide plant. This seems logical, given the close chemical relationship between nerve agents and various organophosphate insecticides."
Cordesman notes one additional, grisly link between insecticides and nerve gas. In an item broadcast in 1982 by Baghdad's Voice of the Masses radio, the Iraqis warned the Iranians that there was "a certain insecticide for every kind of insect." Cordesman reports that since then the Iranians, too, have developed their own extensive chemical-weapons program.
As for the Iraqis, their defense minister, Gen. Adnan Khairallah, told reporters 10 days ago in Baghdad that Iraq's "policy is not to use" chemical weapons, but that "each rule has an exception."
David Ignatius is an associate editor of The Washington Post and editor of the Outlook section. Post librarian Lynda Edwards provided research assistance for this article.