An Iraqi chemist who worked in Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program says he is happy to be free of the former Iraqi leader, who he says, made every Iraqi live in fear. But when it comes to the issue of weapons of mass destruction, the scientist told VOA Iraq quit producing them after the Gulf war in 1991.
In 1986, Khalid Francis Thomas, a Christian Iraqi, graduated at the top of his class from Baghdad University with a degree in chemistry.
But soon after, he would face a decision that he says changed his life forever. He says he still has nightmares about it.
The regime of Saddam Hussein, still at war with Iran in 1986, required all young men who were not in school, to join the military.
But because of his chemistry degree, Mr. Thomas was given a choice.
"They choose the most smart people from many different places," he said. "I was just graduated from my college at that time and I have to choose either I go to the war with Iran, and that is very dangerous, or I be in the scientific establishment. So, I prefer to be in the scientific establishment."
Little did he know he would soon become involved in Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program, that U.S. officials say was still active until the start of the coalition attack in March.
U.S. officials have said it is just a matter of time before they find banned weapons in Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told The Washington Post this week that Iraq's well-practiced deception cannot be penetrated overnight. Mr. Wolfowitz said the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was based on what he called a widely-shared intelligence assessment, and that there was no controversy about it.
U.S. officials say troops in Iraq have already found mobile laboratories that could only have been used to develop chemical and biological weapons.
But as far as Mr. Thomas knows, there are no such facilities or weapons.
In 1990, he became a supervisor in charge of the biological evaluation laboratory and quality control analysis in the VX nerve agent program.
"If there is anything happening in this field, I will know about it," he said.
What Mr. Thomas says he knows is that in 1991 orders were given for the laboratory to abandon VX testing and instead switch to analysis of pesticides and herbicides. At the time the order was given, Mr. Thomas was responsible for testing VX nerve agent on cats.
In 1998, Mr. Thomas quit the laboratory and has since become involved in the sale of hunting weapons.
But in March 2003, he and other scientists were called back to the laboratory. He says instructions were given by Amer al-Saadi, the Iraqi liaison to the U.N. weapons inspectors, not to agree to be interviewed in private, as the inspectors had been demanding.
"Just one month before the war started and he warn us not to speak anything outside the country or even at a diplomatic building. And he said that is from the mouth of Saddam Hussein. That if they ask you, you must ask for three people from our side to be with you as witnesses because they might lie and say that you said like this and like this. It was for your sake, as he said at that time," he said. "And you should answer them just if they insist to have you outside Iraq, you can interview me here, why outside Iraq, or even in the diplomatic building?"
The man who gave those orders, Amer al-Saadi, was one of the coalition's 55 most wanted Iraqis. Shortly after the war ended, he surrendered. That day he told an Arab satellite television station that no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq because, he said, Iraq abandoned the program in 1991.
U.S. officials do not believe that. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday the arrested Iraqi officials like Amer al-Saadi may be the coalition's best hope of finding out what happened to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
"We may end up finding out precisely. We are now interrogating, I think we have picked up, about half of the people in the top 55 in that deck of cards. And we are doing the interrogations," he said. "It is also possible that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict. And I do not know the answer, and I suspect that we will find out a lot more as we go along and keep interrogating people."
The former Iraqi chemist, Mr. Thomas, says if he were asked he would insist that as far as he knows there has been no Iraqi chemical or biological weapons program since 1991. But U.S. officials have heard such claims before, and they say they are determined to keep looking for the weapons they firmly believe are there.