| US soldiers guard the oil ministry building in Baghdad on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 23 (AP): Six Iraqi scientists working at different Baghdad research institutions were ordered to destroy some bacteria and equipment and hide more in their homes before visits from UN weapons inspectors in the months leading up to the war, the scientists said in separate interviews.
All the scientists said they were involved in civilian research projects and none knew of any programmes for weapons of mass destruction.
It was not clear why their materials, ostensibly for non-military research, were ordered destroyed.
But their accounts indicate that Saddam Hussein’s government may have had advance knowledge of some of the inspectors’ visits, as the US suspected, and that the former Iraqi regime was deeply concerned about any material that could raise the suspicion of UN experts.
“An hour or two before the inspectors came to the university I got my orders from the chairman,” said a biochemistry professor at the 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.”
He said the petri dishes held staphylococcus and e.Coli bacteria and a fungus that can cause severe skin problems — all commonly used for experiments.
“They were even joking about it when they were here. They were never serious. You don’t search for weapons of mass destruction under the carpet.”
So far, US forces haven’t found any conclusive evidence that Iraq has weapons it was banned from possessing after the 1991 Gulf War.
Officials hope scientists and other Iraqis will feel free to provide information now that the regime is gone.
US officials are questioning several top Iraqi officials who were involved in former weapons programmes and the Pentagon has offered rewards of up to $200,000 for information on weapons of mass destruction.
None of the scientists interviewed in their homes and on the campuses said they had any such information to provide.
But four graduate students in the biotechnology department at Saddam University said they too received orders from their department head to get rid of bacteria that could be used to produce toxins for biological weapons.
“We destroyed some species of bacteria and were told to hide others,” one of the students said. “Some students took their samples to their houses.”
At a biotechnology laboratory at the Baghdad University for Science and Engineering, researcher Majid Rasheed said that inspectors visited three times, but that his chairman had ordered investigators to destroy and hide materials in November, just as the inspections resumed.
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,” he said.