Defector claims he saw Saddam's bioweapon plants

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Evidence that Iraq has been developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons since the departure of United Nations weapons inspectors three years ago was offered by an Iraqi military engineer who fled the country this year.

The engineer, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, told The New York Times that he had seen evidence of such weapons programmes at 20 different locations, in government facilities, private villas and in underground bunkers designed to look like water wells.

He was hired to help prepare these facilities, insulating them against leaks and making them resistant to chemical erosion or contamination by biological agents. His last job was as recently as a year ago.

Mostly, he saw these places before any weapons work had taken place. But he also said he was shown biological materials in a facility beneath the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad.

For one repair job, at a facility in Waziriya, an industrial suburb of the Iraqi capital, he was required to wear a rubberised suit, gas mask and blue plastic boots – the same protective clothing associated with biological laboratories. Some of the facilities were duplicates intended to act as decoys.

To back up his claims, Mr Saeed produced documents and invoices showing that he had indeed worked for the government's Military Industrialisation Organisation and a related company called Al Fao. A number of experts cited in the New York Times report, including former UN weapons inspectors, said they found the testimony credible and consistent with their knowledge.

Mr Saeed's testimony could strengthen the position of hawks in the Bush administration who favour military action to overthrow President Saddam. It could also help to pinpoint possible targets for air strikes.

The paper's correspondent spoke to Mr Saeedin Bangkok last week. He was said to have been debriefed by American intelligence agencies.