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April 6, 2003, 12:55AM

MAKING A DETOUR

Marines scour research facility for signs of chemical weapons

By JOHN KOOPMAN
Copyright 2003 San Francisco Chronicle

SOUTHEAST OF BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Tucked in a corner of a military complex not far from the Iraqi capital is a nicely furnished new building with air-conditioned offices and state-of-the-art, high-tech machinery.

A battalion with the 1st Marine Division advancing toward Baghdad paused Saturday evening to snoop around a suspicious area where Iraqis might have been storing or working on chemical or biological weapons.
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Dozens of metal lathes -- some with Russian markings -- were scattered around the sand outside the complex, with sandbags set around them. Inside a warehouse were two more metal-working machines, each the size of a bulldozer, surrounded by a chest-high wall of sandbags covered in plastic.

The sandbags turned out to be filled with sand -- not chemicals as some had suspected. But this was obviously a new and expensive research facility. Capt. Bryan Mangan, the battalion intelligence officer, and another Marine went through the buildings looking for clues.

Going room to room, sometimes kicking in doors, the Marines found a few computer disks, a handful of documents (mostly in Arabic) and brand-new office furniture, with leather chairs still in plastic wrap.

But what piqued Mangan's interest is what they didn't find. No personal effects, no pictures, no knickknacks. And no computers.

"Someone spent a lot of time sanitizing this place," Mangan said. "They knew this was the kind of place inspectors would come looking, and they took great care cleaning it out completely."

It will likely become a piece in the larger puzzle of research that went on in Iraq, Mangan said, and the nature of the work that went on here won't be known for sometime.

"Someone took a lot of care that this stuff would survive coalition bombing," Mangan said.

The whole detour was incongruous for this group of combat Marines. Before Saturday, they had been in some serious firefights in Basra, Diwaniya and Kut to the southwest.

On the drive that led them to the military complex Saturday, they expected a big fight. But the area was nearly deserted.

It was still ugly. Corpses of Iraqi soldiers still lay in the median of the divided highway leading to town. A dog was gnawing on one of the bodies until a Marine shot the animal.

The Marine column, including tanks and anti-tank missiles, drove slowly down the road leading to the military compound. They fired at anything that resembled a military target, but encountered no enemy.

They called it "recon by fire." Shoot at a house or bunker and hope the rounds make anyone inside jump or run out.

Marine infantry who arrived first broke down doors and checked the buildings for Iraqis. No one was found.

They did find a lot of anti-aircraft guns in the area and in the military complex. The tanks broke them up, or Marines tossed thermite grenades that cut through steel and destroyed them.

Along the route, a handful of Iraqis surrendered. Some walked out in only their underwear, flapping the fabric with their hands to show they were unarmed.

At checkpoints around the military compound, Iraqi civilians were stopped and searched. At one checkpoint, a couple of lance corporals stopped a taxi and discovered a Republican Guard general inside.

"He was trying to take off his uniform when we found him," said Lance Cpl. Robert Olsen, 21, of Roberts, Wis.

On top of the car was a flag-draped coffin with a body inside. No one knew why the general was returning to the compound, or who was in the coffin.

After scouring the military compound, the Marines were about to leave and continue their advance, when they got word of the research facility and stopped there for the night.

Mangan, surveying an office with air conditioning, joked, "This is where I'm sleeping tonight."





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