A chicken farm outside Baghdad was the unlikely hiding-place for 147 boxes of documents on Iraq's germ-warfare programme which United Nations inspectors had long wanted to find.
Rolf Ekeus, head of the UN special commission in charge of destruction of Iraq's most lethal weapons, said the papers proved that biological warfare, not the nuclear bomb, was Iraq's ``secret weapon'' which it considered using during the Gulf war in 1991.
The way the UN finally learnt about Iraq's successful development of strains of anthrax and botulinum was equally peculiar. Mr Ekeus was on his way to Baghdad airport on 20 August when he and his advisers were diverted to a farm which Iraqi officials said was owned by Lieutenant- General Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and head of Iraqi military procurement, who had fled to Jordan on 8 August.
The UN inspectors noticed that the documents, computer disks and videos looked surprisingly clean, given the condition of the chicken farm. One of the UN team who spoke Arabic talked to a gardener at the farm. "The special forces brought them here on 10 August," he said, undermining the Iraqi official line that Gen Hussein Kamel was personally responsible for concealing the programme for biological-warfare.
The significance of what Mr Ekeus discovered has been largely masked since by the melodrama of the flight of President Saddam's two sons-in- law. Gen Hussein Kamel also muddied the waters by claiming - untruthfully, UN officials now believe - that Iraq was within months of developing a nuclear device.
But the chicken-farm documents show that Iraq had not only successfully developed biological-warfare agents but had loaded them into 191 bombs, artillery shells and missiles which were ready to be fired. In contacts before the war, the US threatened Iraq with retaliation if it used chemical or biological weapons - a threat which, it seems, Iraq took seriously.
"These were the papers the UN had been chasing around for years," said a West European diplomat in Amman.
The discovery ensures sanctions on Iraq will continue into next year as the UN analyses the documents. Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, said the discovery of the programme, after five years of denials by Iraq that it even existed, showed how little Baghdad was to be trusted.
The research into bacteriological-warfare agents appeared to have begun in 1988 at Salman Pak, an hour's drive from Baghdad. Placing of the biological- warfare agents in weapons was carried through at al-Hakim, where 50 bombs were filled with the bacterium and then anthrax and 100 bombs with botulinum. The same toxins - together with aflatoxin, which causes cancer, were put in missile warheads capable of reaching Saudi Arabia and Israel.
"It was a very dangerous situation," Mr Ekeus said. "We suspected they were working on biological weapons but not the enormous force and dynamism [of the programme]."Reuse content