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Iraq will begin destroying thousands of tons of toxic material drained from its vast arsenal of chemical munitions later this month, a U.N. chemical weapons expert said Saturday.

Briton Ron Manley, who inspected plants built for the task at Iraq's main Muthana facility, told reporters in Bahrain he had asked Iraqi experts to modify the equipment before they begin bulk disposal of nerve agent and mustard gas.But he said he would recommend that the U.N. Special Commission charged with scrapping Iraq's weapons give Baghdad the go-ahead to begin the destruction process, expected to take between six months and one year.

A chemical hydrolysis plant the size of a three-story house will be ready to begin neutralizing nerve agents in a couple of weeks while a more complex 15-feet-long furnace will begin incinerating mustard gas in about two months, he said.

"The situation is that the hydrolysis plant is basically OK. It will work but there are number of things that need to be done and that will take a couple of weeks," he said.

"The incinerator is a much more complex system. It is complete, it is operating but there are a combination of things which we have to get right and sort out," he said.

Manley said Iraqi experts had already drained one by one around a third of an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 bombs, rockets and shells brought to the remote Muthana com-plex 80 miles northwest of Bagh-dad.

He said the total amount of chemical agent stored there would run into thousands of tons but it was impossible to estimate precisely because so many of the munitions were corroded and leaking or had not been full to start with.

"The priority at the moment is to get the munitions empty. That's why we're not worried about the time to get the destruction plants running," he said.