“The most dangerous place on earth” it was dubbed by was sensationalist media. It was not completely without reason.
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From the air it was a roughly 25 square km patch of desert South of Samarra and East of the Therthar irrigation canal in central Iraq. It was isolated and far from any population centers and only occasionally bypassed by desert dwelling nomadic families. The location had probably been chosen for a multitude of reasons, far from the Iranian border, deep in Sunni territory and distance to population. Another reason was secrecy as the goings behind the outer and inner barbed wire fences was of national security concern and had lethal consequences.
It was in September 1991 our bus pulled up to the gates of the innocuous sounding Muthanna State Establishment for a first look. Not the first foreigners on-site but we were here to destroy rather than build. It was still short sleeve hot in the Iraqi desert as we a multinational team collectively called UNSCOM 12 lead by a Canadian walked along a hardtop road and counted bombs. First up dark green 500 lb. bombs casings with two lighter green bands marked WP procured from a NATO country in Southern Europe. The seller may very well have been aware that the missing WP fill would be replaced by something far more sinister. There were also 250 lb. casings, 6000+ empty 122 mm rockets; some dozens of R-400B parachute retarded bombs with a heavy cast iron nose cone all declared as Chemical weapons. The R400B were later re-designated by the Iraqi’s as intended for anthrax or other Bio weapons agent fill. A bit further off the road scattered willy-nilly in the desert sand were what had installed the greatest fear during the Gulf War and caused fatalities in Israel without ever having left Iraqi soil, thirty SCUD Chemical warheads.
The MSE may have been an Iraqi state secret but it was known to the coalition in the lead up to the ground war and therefore had been designated a priority target due to its Geneva convention violating activities. Much of it built with German and other foreign engineering. It was here the cocktail of Chemical weapons destined for Iranian soldiers and the over 5000 Kurds killed in Halabjah three years earlier had been produced.
Much of the partially underground industrial production facilities had been literally been blown to bits, Research and Development facilities flattened under heavy bombardment and even the large Cruciform storage bunkers had taken a beating and a few of them were just too dangerous to enter but of this we knew nothing yet.
The dust whirled as the tracks of the Komatsu bulldozer methodically chewed on the round 500 WP bombs, crushing the thinner 250 pounders and deformed the 122 mm rocket casings into unusable scrap-metal. It was with a certain pleasure and satisfaction I walked alongside the heavy machine documenting the ongoing “hands-on” disarmament. The heavier R400-B were cut in pieces with an acetylene torch exposing the innards with baffles and a paint coating which lead to a bit of a discussion amongst the experts. The Iraqi explanation was that the CW agent was aggressive to the metal which is true and therefore the interior was coated. The story was plausible but a lie, one of many we had already been served over the last three months. However it would take a years before the truth came out that these bombs in fact were intended for Anthrax or other BW fill. The parachute retardation in the tail would slow the velocity down and increase the area contaminated with agent.
Once the dozer had finished crushing cases in what we referred to Area A it was to take on the additional 6000 or so 122mm rocket warheads once filled with agent during the Iran/Iraq was but drained once the war was over. These were located at the location of the former filling plant of the Muthanna Sate Establishment an area we called Area E several kilometers away. The task to verify the destruction was given to our Dutch team member Thom who was supported by a Kiwi medic on-site. The remainder of the team was completing the count of the destroyed items in Area A and was getting ready to verify the destruction of the SCUD warheads.
Of the 30 SCUD warheads 14 were filled with lethal Sarin (GB) agent and 16 only with alcohol marked with a simple letter A. We were to verify the draining of the 16, a harmless procedure with the Sarin filled warheads to be destroyed at a later stage. As I stood next to Jim the Canadian team leader the Iraqi counterpart came up to stand next to him. In front of us an Iraqi worker in blue coveralls was bent inside the rear end of the 88 cm rounding of the rear of the warhead hammering away on the filling plug. Clonk, clonk, clonk. Once the filling plug was loosened a crane would lift the nose of the warhead into a vertical position to gravity drain the alcohol into the desert sand.
“Mr. K**, I think that it has been a mistake and that one of the warheads are filled with agent”. This simple line sharpened our senses and we without thinking pulled our respirators (gasmasks) out of the bag and masked up before retreating. Fortunately it turned out that there was no mix-up of warheads and we are still all here to tell the story.
In Area E the former munitions filling area outcome was different. The warheads were so tightly packed on the hard surface road that the weight of the bulldozer could not deform them sufficiently with only one pass. An Iraqi worker was walking in a ditch next to the road and as the machine rolled over the warheads correcting their position to allow sufficient deformation in the next pass. As the dozer reversed and moved backward over the metal cylinders one of them took off. It passed by the Iraqi worker who walked by the machine continued through a wooden box once holding a rocket and landed possibly hundred meters away. The Iraqi worker collapsed. Seeing what had happened form their vantage point dozens of meters away the inspectors (Thom and the Kiwi) masked up as did their Iraqi escort. Thom used the handheld Motorola walkie-talkie calling somewhat frantically to Jim. The message was garbled by distance and obstacles in between and it did not become immediately clear what had happened. An Iraqi ambulance took the worker who showed signs of Nerve agent exposure to the on-site clinic. It was concluded that the warhead must have had residual agent inside and having been placed in the desert sun and compressed by the bulldozer the pressure caused the warhead to take off disbursing the agent residue in as propellant much like a filled balloon from which air is released. The Iraqi worker was later visited by our team doctor who confirmed symptoms of Nerve agent poisoning. There are antidotes (atropine) which can be administered within minutes of such exposure to minimise the effects and whether it was done is unclear. What is clear is that once we had completed the teams’ task and were about to leave Muthanna our doctor wanted to revisit the patient but he was no longer in the clinic. We inquired as to his whereabouts but never received an answer from the Iraqi’s leaving us wondering if we had witnessed the lethal effects of nerve agent.
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