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DOES IRAQ PLAY CHICKEN WITH THE U.S.?

Under the watchful lenses of U.N. surveillance cameras, a top Iraqi microbiologist checks high-protein chicken feed coming out of a complex machine.

The United States says al-Hakam is an active germ warfare facility. Iraq says the sprawling complex, which is protected by anti-aircraft guns, is a high-tech chicken plant designed to produce plumper drumsticks and bigger eggs.In another building at the 7-square-mile site, Iraqi workers collect eggs from 600 hens that dine on the high-protein feed.

The visible activities suggest the Iraqis are indeed cooking chicken feed - not biological bombs - at al-Hakam these days. At the very least, it smells of feed and chickens and chicken dung.

"Our country now needs fat chicken and lots of eggs, so we are trying to do just that here," Rihab Taha, a British-educated microbiologist who directs the Al-Hakam project, told journalists Saturday.

The United Nations says Taha is one of Iraq's top scientists for biological weapons. Secretary of State Warren Christopher asserts Iraq is bent on developing biological weapons, based on U.S. intelligence on this plant.

Information Minister Hamed Yousef Humadi has called such allegations "political fabrications" by the Clinton administration, designed to keep a U.N. embargo on Iraqi oil exports in place.

Iraq says it needs more and better chickens to help feed its 20 million people, who are suffering under U.N. sanctions imposed after President Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The sanctions are to remain in place until the U.N. Security Council is satisfied that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass des-truc-tion and neutralized plants that made chemical and biological weapons.

After Iraq lost the 1991 gulf war to a U.S.-led military coalition, the U.N. dispatched inspectors and installed cameras to monitor Iraq's compliance.

Many of Iraq's stockpiles of nonconventional weapons were wiped out during the gulf war and by U.N. experts afterward. But the United States and Britain maintain that Iraq still can reactivate its biological weapons program.

Iraq says the plants have been converted to the production of chicken feed, chlorine, pesticides and fertilizer.

Al-Hakam, which makes chicken feed and pesticides, previously was used to conduct research on anthrax and botulin agents.