April 6, 2003,
MAKING A DETOUR
Marines scour research facility for signs of chemical
weaponsBy JOHN KOOPMAN
Copyright 2003 San
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,
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
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
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
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."