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Iraqi Factory's Product Germ Warfare
Or Milk?

By Al Kamen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 1991; Page A01

Post time line
Near the end of the first week of allied bombing of Iraq, a nondescript building in a Baghdad industrial park was heavily damaged by U.S. air attacks. Iraqi officials said it was the only factory in the country that made infant formula, and had no military purpose whatsoever. They took CNN reporter Peter Arnett to the plant and let him film the damage, and Arnett brought Iraq's accusation to the outside world on Jan. 23.

Later that day, however, Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Gallagher told reporters in Saudi Arabia that "this facility . . . has military guards around it, barbed-wire fence; it has a military garrison outside. And numerous sources have indicated that the facility is associated with biological warfare production."

In Washington, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure."

Yet in subsequent press accounts and interviews this week with The Washington Post, the French contractor who built the factory in the late 1970s, said it was constructed as an infant formula factory, and that the equipment could not have been used to make "chemical" products.

At the same time, New Zealand technicians who have visited it repeatedly said they saw it "actually canning milk powder" as recently as last May, and have raised other questions about parts of the U.S. account.

Three administration officials, asked this week about the New Zealand and French reports, offered inconsistent explanations of the plant's operations.

A White House official said the plant had been converted to germ warfare production last fall. An official at another U.S. government agency said the plant originally was constructed as a biological warfare facility, but was a "back-up" plant and was not in operation when it was attacked. An official at a third agency said the plant was not a full biological warfare facility but produced items that could be useful in the production of biological weapons. Spokesmen at the latter two agencies spoke on condition that their organizations not be identified.

Part of the problem in reconciling the various U.S. and foreign accounts is that administration officials said they were constrained by security considerations from revealing exactly how they knew about the plant. At the same time, the New Zealand technicians and the French builder were not at the plant after May and cannot be certain of what happened after their departure.

For example, they said they cannot dispute the White House official's statement that the plant was converted in the fall.

Michel Wery, director of Pierre Guerin, the company that constructed the plant, told the French newspaper Liberation in a story published Feb. 2, that the plant actually had produced infant formula and baby food. "It would have been impossible to transform this . . . into the making of chemical products."

Interviewed this week by The Washington Post in Paris, Wery said "the order for the plant came in in 1975" and assembly started in 1977 with production beginning in 1979. The plant closed in 1980, he said, when the last French technicians working for his company left Baghdad. No one from his company has been back since then, Wery said. Similarly, a representative from Sodeteg, the French company engineering firm subcontracted by Pierre Guerin, said its engineers had not returned to Baghdad. Wery said he had heard that production had restarted after the United Nations embargo put in place last fall, but he doubted whether that was possible after a 10-year lull.

Two New Zealand dairy experts directly contradicted some of the U.S. assertions about the plant's more recent status. They insisted all the equipment in the plant was related to dairy products production, no military garrison was guarding the facility, and no unusual security was evident there.

The two New Zealand technicians, Malcolm Seamark and Kevin Lowe, worked in Baghdad from January until May of last year, setting up a cheese factory on a site about half a mile from the bombed factory.

Lowe, interviewed by telephone at his home in Opunake, New Zealand, said he watched Arnett's CNN report and recognized the manager who appeared in a uniform that bore the words "Baby Milk Plant Iraq" in English on the back. Lowe, a dairy engineer who is now with a private firm, said he had been to the French-built plant "about four times" last year while a new team of French technicians, apparently unconnected with Pierre Guerin or Sodeteg, attempted to get the plant running again. He said it had been "mothballed" for several years before then.

When the French technicians left in May, Lowe said, the canning operation of what "was definitely milk powder" had been restarted, but none of the of the plant's other facilities was in operation.

Asked about assertions that the plant could be involved in making biological weapons, Lowe said he had been engaged in dairy engineering for the last 30 years and the equipment that he saw in the plant was that of a "typical milk powder plant."

"You could tin other stuff if you wanted to," he said, "but the rest of the plant would be completely unsuitable" for other purposes. "There was no way you could make chemical warfare with the plant I saw," Lowe said.

Seamark, interviewed this week by telephone from his home in Wellington, said he had been in the plant on numerous occasions since it was first built in the late 1970s, and had toured it and the massive storage facilities for the dairy and cheese operations in May. The equipment in the plant when he left was the original equipment, and the stored materials were dairy products. "You {Americans} were dumping a lot of powdered milk and cheese" on the Iraqi market, he said, and the storage facilities "were pretty full."

Asked if any of the equipment he saw at any time was unusual, Seamark, a New Zealand dairy board technician with 39 years' experience, said, "absolutely none. It was all typical dairy plant equipment." Seamark, however, disagreed with Wery's recollection that production was briefly underway in 1980, and said the production facilities had never been in operation.

Seamark said that he believed "that up until May there was no way," the plant produced biological weapons. "After May, of course, I can't be certain. But given the time it takes them to do things, I would say absolutely not."

Both Seamark and Lowe said while the facility was fenced, there was no unusual security or barbed wire when they were there. They said there was also an outer fence around the entire sprawling complex, an industrial park of several hundred acres, which included the cheese factory, a milk sterilization plant, a housing complex, a pharmaceutical plant and other facilities. A civilian armed guard was positioned at the main gates.

But "anybody could wander onto the site," Lowe said. Having a guard with a rifle at the gates was "typical," he said, of a military-run country.

Asked about the English writing on the backs of the uniforms seen in the CNN report, both men said the French originally supplied the uniforms -- white with blue letters -- when the facility was built, and they were worn in many locations within the industrial park, including the cheese factory.

Lowe said U.S. assertions that a military garrison guarded the plant were incorrect. "The garrison is four kilometers down the road," he said. "It's a complete army training post. I went by there every morning to get to work. They check everyone going by in both directions."

Both men said the pharmaceutical plant, located some distance away but in the same complex, would be a likelier place for biologicial weapons production. Lowe said he has never been to that plant.

In contrast to the bombed plant, the pharmaceutical facility was not on a main highway but back from it, "more closed in, tougher to see and to get to."

Raymond Zilinskas, a professor at the Maryland Biotechnology Institute of the University of Maryland, agreed that a pharmaceutical plant would be a likelier place for biological weapons manufacturing.

"That would make more sense. If you propagate an organism for antibiotic production, then you create" organisms that could be used for a number of things, including biological warfare. "There is no real apparent connection" between infant formula production and biological warfare production, Zilinskas said. "They don't use real fermenters for processing milk, and you need massive fermenters under aseptic conditions . . . for the bacteria to grow."

Asked about the New Zealanders' statements, the three U.S. officials said they had no doubt the plant should have been targeted.

"It has a role to play in the production of biological weapons," said one official. "There is no question in our mind that we were going after a military target. I can't say why. We have a lot of intelligence. We had people {in Baghdad} until January," when all Americans left Iraq, he said.

"It would not be impossible for the guy to work at the factory next door and not know what was going on that was important," he added.

"We still believe it was a biological weapons plant and we have seen nothing to change our view on that," a White House official said. But he said the plant "had been set up over a period of weeks from its former use to its weapons use. Colin {Powell} had identified this as one of the facilities that were being changed into a wartime setting several days before it appeared on CNN as being bombed. When we saw it on CNN, we checked with Colin to see if it was the same plant and he said, 'Yes, it was.'"

The White House official said the plant was "changed over in the fall. Powell gave the president a briefing a week before we bombed this place." Powell told Bush that they had altered the plant into a biological weapons plant, the official said.

A third official familiar with information received by the administration about the facility said the plant "never produced anything, not even baby milk. It was {from the outset} a backup plant to produce biological weapons. We can tell that by the cost of the facility, the type of equipment and the extensive security.

"It wasn't producing {biological weapons} at the time" it was bombed, he added, but it "definitely would have had the capability to produce BW. It was built for production of BW."

The nearby pharmaceutical plant, he said, was actively engaged in biological warfare production and that was likely destroyed by now, too.

Staff writer Ann Devroy, researcher Ralph Gaillard Jr., and special correspondent Anne Werther, in Paris, contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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