BAGHDAD, Iraq – 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 U.N. weapons inspectors in the months leading up to the war, the scientists told The Associated Press.
In separate interviews, all of the scientists said they were involved in civilian research projects and none knew of any programs for weapons of mass destruction. It was not clear why their materials, ostensibly for nonmilitary research, were ordered destroyed.
But their accounts indicate the government of Saddam Hussein may have had advance knowledge of at least some of the inspectors' visits, as the United States suspected, and that the former Iraqi regime was deeply concerned about any material that could raise the suspicion of U.N. experts.
"An hour or two before the inspectors came to the university, I got my orders from the chairman," said a biochemistry professor at 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."
An autoclave uses superheated steam, most often to sterilize equipment.
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.
The scientist and several others would only speak on condition of anonymity.
While U.S. troops are firmly in control of the Iraqi capital, university officials, some of them linked by blood to Saddam, remain in their academic positions and scientists fear they could be fired if they are discovered providing information that slights their bosses.
Saddam University's assistant dean, Ameer Abbas Ameer, said inspectors visited his university three times, checking the chemistry, biology and physics departments. He denied ordering professors and researchers to destroy or hide materials.
"The inspectors never found anything because there wasn't anything to find," he said. "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."
But the professor and other scientists said orders came from Ameer's office, through the department chairman, to hide and destroy materials when the inspectors were on their way.
"The chairman told us not to answer questions from any inspectors, to go to the cafeteria and stay there until they left," the professor said. "They were afraid. What they were afraid of, I don't know."
President Bush claimed during his State of the Union address that Iraqi spies had penetrated the U.N. inspections. While some inspectors privately suspect as much, none of the inspection teams found any firm evidence to support the president's claim.
"Clearly we were well aware that the Iraqis were trying to figure out our inspection plans and we took many practicable precautions against that," said Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. inspectors. He said information was handled on a "need to know" basis and precautions included "silent briefings" between inspectors to elude any listening devices the Iraqis may have placed at U.N. offices in Baghdad.
U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq last November after a four-year hiatus. Over a period of 3 1/2 months, they conducted hundreds of visits to factories, universities and military facilities. Despite the insistence of the Bush administration that Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, the inspectors found no such evidence before the U.S.-led war on Iraq forced them to leave in mid-March.
So far, U.S. 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. U.S. officials are questioning several top Iraqi officials who were involved in former weapons programs and the Pentagon has offered rewards of up to $200,000 for information on weapons of mass destruction.
None of the scientists interviewed by the AP in their homes and on 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 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."
Such laboratory equipment, used by scientists to grow bacteria for study, could theoretically be used to create biological agents such as anthrax. But the equipment would be much too small to generate biological weapons in the quantities Iraq has been accused of producing.
Rasheed said none of the materials were being used for weapons development, but that he was unsure whether any were banned by U.N. resolutions adopted at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, which prohibited Iraqi research into weapons of mass destruction.
"Maybe some were banned. I don't know. We just wanted to avoid problems," Rasheed said.
Another professor from Ibn al-Haithem University said he saw a member of the Iraqi intelligence service, who had been sent to pursue a chemistry degree, taking materials out of the university just before the inspections began.
"I don't know what it was," said Alaha al-Qaisi, a chemistry professor.