The trail to Samarra: how Iraq got the materials to make chemical weapons

The house at No. 6 33rd Street, in the Karada section of Baghdad, is an unremarkable two-story brick structure surrounded by a low wall. But the business conducted from it is far from unremarkable.

The house is the Baghdad office of a West German company that sold millions of dollars' worth of corrosion-resistant vessels and pipes, as well as sophisticated measuring devices, to the Iraqi State Enterprise for Pesiticide Production. The equipment was installed at a massive chemical manufacturing complex near Samarra, north of Baghdad, during the early 1980s.

At the time, the transactions might have seemd routine. But Western intelligence agencies say this equipment provided the Iraqi government something it had pursued, with steely determination, for nearly a decade: the ability to wage chemical warfare.

According to United States intelligence sources, the State Enterprise for Pesticide Production, or SEPP, is a front for the Iraqi military. The Samarra complex, they add, is the prime production facility for Iraqi mustard gas and nerve agents.

SEPP officials would not grant an interview about the Samarra facility, parts of which are enclosed by high-security fences and under military guard. The Iraqi government would not allow a Monitor reporter and photographer to visit the plant, or even travel down the highway that runs alongside it.

But US intelligence analysts say that many of the chemical bomb payloads used during the Iran-Iraq war came from Samarra.

The way Iraq acquired its chemical warfare capability is a textbook case of the spread of these poisons to more and more countries. MOST nations have obtained the materials for their chemical weapons plants clandestinely or under false pretense.

Their efforts have been made easier by lax export laws, inattentive Western governments, and private companies that either aren't alert or don't seem to care that the technology, instruments, and chemicals they sell are used to produce weapons of mass destruction.

The US now lists 22 nations as confirmed or suspected of possessing chemical weapons, or of being in the process of acquiring them. (See story and map, Pages B8 and B9.)

Understanding how Iraq obtained its chemical warfare capability helps to reveal the problems in stopping other nations from doing the same. After interviewing government officials, intelligence officers, and other sources in the US, Europe, and Iraq, the Monitor was able to trace many of the companies that supplied the Samarra complex.

Many were small players in a global market that provides the chemicals that keep industrial societies going. But chemical plants, and their products, often have dual uses. A plant that turns out pesticides or fertilizers can, with minor modifications, switch to nerve gas. A chemical that in one compound makes the ink flow freely from a ball-point pen, can, in another mix, cause blinding, choking, agonizing agonizing death.

The companies the Monitor found to be Iraq's suppliers were a mixed group. Some were small specialty suppliers. Others were trading companies, with few fixed assets, that have since gone out of business. At least one was a subsidiary of a major US corporation.

In some cases, the sales were made before export laws were put into effect. In other cases, where sales might have violated existing laws, investigations are under way. Officials of the companies uniformly stressed that they had no way of knowing that Iraq intended to make chemical weapons at Samarra. Some deny that Iraq does so, even now.

But the available evidence suggests otherwise.

Furthermore, it is likely that a country determined to acquire chemical weapons can still do so. Most Western nations have imposed at least minimum controls on the export of chemicals that are easily converted into warfare agents. Virtually all of the restrictions were established only within the last four years.

But there are still almost no controls on the export of equipment useful for making chemical weapons. A Western diplomat who specializes in chemical disarmament calls this ``the soft spot'' in international controls.

Even when there are laws in place, a determined buyer and seller can often thwart them by mislabeling export goods, using third-country ``cutouts'' to transship products, setting up front companies to camouflage suspect transactions, or just choosing not to report exports in the first place.

One well-placed US official says there are companies throughout the West that actively help nations acquire chemical weapons materials and technology.

``There's quite an elaborate infrastructure, worldwide, that's involved in this,'' the official says.

Iraq, it seems, became intimately familiar with this shadowy marketplace - and, indeed, may have helped create it. Following the trail from Samarra helps explain how. The house at No. 6 THE trail leads through Baghdad, a city of back streets and bazaars, hard by the brown Tigris River. It's a city not far from Babylon, the cradle of civilization. It's also the capital of a society that, for nine years, has been under the iron rule of Saddam Hussein. Western intelligence analysts say he has been the driving force in Iraq's search for the means to wage chemical war.

The men at No. 6 33rd Street deny they provided those means. A plaque to the left of the door says this is the William Shammas Trading Company. But, although no sign says so, this is also the Baghdad office of Karl Kolb GmbH & Co. of West Germany. The firm markets instrumentation and equipment for laboratories and chemical plants worldwide; it specializes in third world sales.

Until recently, the offices also served as the Baghdad base for Pilot Plant, an affiliate of Karl Kolb. Pilot Plant, like other companies the Monitor traced, was apparently set up for a specific purpose: to cut deals with countries, such as Iraq, which involved not only sales of components for plants, but also construction and training contracts. Some, like Pilot Plant, now exist only on paper, their chief legacy being a welter of investigations, lawsuits, and unanswered questions.

Even now, Karl Kolb officials emphasize that Pilot Plant is a separate firm, unconnected with their ongoing worldwide business in instrumentation and measuring devices. But they admit that the two companies had overlapping owners and managers, and operated out of the same anonymous office block in a suburb of Frankfurt, West Germany.

Pilot Plant went into liquidation in 1985, company officials say, ``due to the uncertain situation'' created by a West German government investigation into the activities of both companies. The probe aims to determine whether the firms violated the country's export laws when they sold Iraq equipment for the Samarra complex.

The two firms also shared an address in Baghdad, the house here in Karada.

On a recent September day, two Polish technicians are at work in the room to the right of the entrance, fixing electronic measuring devices and other equipment used in chemical production. Through an entryway and to the left is the office of William Shammas, a silver-haired, soft-spoken Iraqi Christian, who represents Karl Kolb here. Over a cup of strong, sweet tea, Mr. Shammas gives polite but emphatic replies to a visitor's questions.

``We do not,'' he says flatly, ``supply things for chemical warfare.''

Bernd Herrmann, a spare young man with brownish-blond hair, is Karl Kolb's chief representative in Iraq. He says the Samarra complex is not being used for chemical weapons production.

``I have been in that plant while it was operating,'' Mr. Herrmann says. ``If it was making nerve gas, I would be dead.''

But he will not specify just what Karl Kolb supplied to the Iraqi government.

``We are getting more and more fed up with answering questions,'' he says, referring further inquiries to Karl Kolb's home office in West Germany. Cultivating a low profile KARL KOLB'S headquarters is in Dreieich, a leafy suburb south of Frankfurt. The two-story office building, nestled in an industrial park, has the utilitarian look of a 1960s elementary school.

Indeed, the company has actively cultivated its low profile.

The firm yanked down its large outdoor sign earlier this year, after unidentified attackers lobbed a firebomb into a neighboring building.

``They must have thought this was all one big chemical plant,'' says the firm's managing director Helmut Maier, pointing to the nearby building that was attacked.

Company officials say they are the target of frequent threats, most from groups identifying themselves as Kurdish activists protesting the company's links to Iraq.

Mr. Maier, an intense man who was managing director of Pilot Plant and is still Karl Kolb's managing director, shifts uneasily until he is sure a reporter is willing to listen to his version of events.

He acknowledges that the firm sold the equipment for four separate chemical ``pilot plants'' at Samarra. (Pilot plants are larger than experimental ones, but smaller than full-fledged facilities.) Maier denies, however, that the Samarra complex is a chemical weapons facility. He says his engineers serviced the plants until late 1987, because of ``warranty obligations.''

``None of the employees have ever seen any activity in this area that would indicate such production is going on,'' he says. Each of the four plants, says Maier, contains more than 50 flanges, or connections, that aren't welded. That, he says, would be foolish in a plant that produces chemical weapons.

One of the Pilot Plant engineers who oversaw the assembly of the plants agrees, adding that ``there are many components which could be produced to create an airtight system. But we have all ordinary, off-the-shelf components that are subject to leakage.''

In Washington, the Monitor asked an expert consultant to the US government to comment on those claims. He agreed to do so, on condition that his name and agency be withheld.

``The concept that you have to have welded [connections] ... is not true,'' he says.

The specific chemicals used at Samarra are not lethal until mixed, at the very last stage of the production process, he says. Until they are mixed, they act like countless other industrial chemicals, and would not require welded connections. Then what about Herrmann? WHAT about Herrmann's claim that being in the plant during production would have killed him?

``Definitely not,'' says the expert, noting that countless tons of nerve agents have been produced in various plants worldwide without the death of the operators or others inside.

Maier, of Karl Kolb, stresses that the Samarra pilot plants are a relatively modest size.

Karl Kolb provided the Monitor with details about the size of key components in the plants. Using these figures, the US expert concluded that each year the Iraqi government ``could amass a quantity of at least 600 tons of nerve agent - which is, I would say, a significant quantity.''

``The term `pilot plant,''' he notes dryly, ``is relative.''

Karl Kolb is one of 10 firms under investigation by West German authorities in a probe of possible violations of export laws. Investigators have seized tons of documents. Karl Kolb and Pilot Plant merited special attention. When investigators finished combing through the two firms' files, they needed a truck to carry away the haul.

A West German government official declined to say when, or if, charges would be brought.

It was only in 1984 that West Germany began requiring licenses for the export of plants, parts, and equipment that could be diverted to chemical weapons production. The West German constitution gives companies a far-reaching ``right to export'' which can be limited only under certain circumstances. In the US, by contrast, the government can easily intervene to block exports - citing ``national security'' reasons.

But no sooner had Bonn slapped on export restrictions in 1984 than Pilot Plant's owners challenged the move in court, claiming the restrictions were too broad and illegally applied. A financial court in Kassel eventually ruled in favor of the company, but the government has appealed. That leaves a question mark over the validity of the export rules.

``Under this rule, it would be illegal to export a coffee cup - since I could use it to mix a chemical component,'' says Maier of Karl Kolb. A faded label on a mailbox IRAQ obtained tons of chemicals to run the Samarra complex. Some, at least, were funneled through small trading companies - firms that tap into a multinational network of suppliers to fill the shopping lists of their clients. Unlike large manufacturers, who have high visibility and reputations to protect, small traders can pop up or vanish overnight. A web of interlocking relationships between the companies tends to blur the trail of transactions.

``Eventually, the products can trickle down to a company with questionable motives,'' a European official says.

In one case, the trail from Samarra led down the back streets of the West German port of Hamburg, to a red-brick building at 50 Leunastrasse.

Behind a white metal door on the second floor is a cluttered four-room suite where, until late last year, Water Engineering Trading GmbH (WET) did brisk business with SEPP. The only outward trace of the company now is a faded address label on a mailbox outside the building's front door.

The firm, its lawyer says, sold Iraq more than $11 million worth of machinery and equipment as well as tons of chemicals, including phosphorous trichloride. The chemical has industrial uses, but it is also a precursor to nerve agents. The sales, coordinated through this tiny office, began in 1984 and continued until late 1987.

Last December, government investigators confiscated many of WET's files and business records as part of their ongoing probe of possible violations of West German export rules. WET has gradually shut down its trading activities since then.

``They just quietly closed up one day a few months ago,'' says a woman who answers the door at a printing shop on the third floor of the building.

``WET has reduced activities more or less to zero,'' says Thomas Marx, the company's lawyer. The WET office, its entrance decorated with a huge map of the Persian Gulf, is now only a mailing address.

The Monitor was able to contact some of the firm's former principals. They deny any wrongdoing and insist they had no way of knowing the uses to which Iraq might have put the products they sold. Notably, some of the principals previously worked together at other firms doing business with Baghdad. One of WET's partners is an Iraqi by birth.

An official at the public prosecutor's office in Darmstadt, West Germany, confirms that Karl Kolb and WET are among the firms being investigated for export violations.

But the severity of prosecutions, if there are any, may hinge on determining whether the companies knew the materials they sold might be converted to military use. Proving that in the case of WET may be difficult.

``The key problem,'' says Dr. Marx, WET's attorney, is the ``dual nature'' of the equipment sold to Iraq. None of the goods sold by WET, he says, were designed for making chemical arms. Still, Marx says he expects his clients to be indicted.

Company managers failed to apply for permission to ship the materials to Iraq, he says, in violation of West German export rules. Marx says WET's managers knew the clearance was necessary, but shipped the goods anyway. They were motivated by commercial expediency, he suggests, not an effort to hide suspect transactions.

``It takes time, sometimes 12 months, to get such an [export] allowance,'' Marx says.

He says his clients, if found guilty, face a maximum penalty of three years in prison. But, he adds, a hefty fine is more likely. We didn't know ... `THE supplier is never able to know how an item will be used,'' says Peter Leifer, one of WET's owners. ``With modifications and clever engineers,'' you can do ``almost anything'' with standard chemical equipment.

``I don't see any way we can control it,'' he adds.

Mr. Leifer, who now works with another small trading company on the outskirts of Hamburg, leads the way into a small room lined with brightly colored catalogs. He gets one and flips to a page showing ``butterfly valves'' - a part used in a variety of chemical and water treatment processes and one of the items WET sold Iraq.

``You buy these things like you buy a car.... If you don't buy it in one place,'' says the lanky businessman, ``you can buy it in another.''

Marx, the firm's lawyer, found out firsthand how tough it is to control chemical equipment once it leaves a supplier's hands. He says he went to Baghdad in February to talk to the Iraqis about WET's unfinished business deals, and took the opportunity to ask what happened to the goods that WET had shipped.

``Their answer was quite simple,'' Marx says. ``It's none of your business what we do with our materials.'' A sweet deal gone sour WHILE WET may be typical of the small trading companies that did business with Baghdad, the trail from Samarra also leads to at least one American multinational corporation: Phillips Petroleum Company, based in Bartlesville, Okla.

The company owns a small chemical plant in the Belgian industrial town of Tessenderlo. The Monitor learned of at least three separate orders placed with Phillips for thiodiglycol (TDG). The chemical is used in textile printing, photo developing solutions, and ink for ball-point pens. It's also one step away from mustard gas.

Phillips shipped 500 metric tons of TDG to Iraq in 1983. But the company refused a second, equally massive order a year later - after reports of Iraq's use of mustard gas began to surface in the West. Phillips officials repeatedly stress that they had no idea the chemical would be used for warfare, and still have no proof that it was.

``We were just making chemicals for agriculture; it was a normal business,'' says Jos Dessers, a spokesman for Phillips in Tessenderlo.

To underline his point, he snaps up a recent copy of ``Chemical Marketing Reporter,'' a trade publication, and flips to a full-page advertisement for TDG. The ad, placed by a division of Morton Thiokol Inc., touts the chemical as ``a versatile product'' and lists commercial uses. (See reprint of ad, Page B7.)

``There's nothing wrong with the chemical itself,'' Mr. Dessers says. ``But if we had any idea our product might be used by Iraq for mustard gas, we wouldn't have delivered.''

Dessers quickly adds that there is no evidence that the Phillips shipment was diverted to the military.

When the order was placed in 1983, no export license was needed in Belgium to ship TDG or virtually any other chemical useful for making chemical arms. Since then, TDG has been put on control lists in most Western countries, including Belgium. No reason to be suspicious STILL, even though there were no legal restrictions on the sale at the time, some critics say the size of the order was larger than usual for routine chemical processes.

``Of course, we know you can make mustard gas from TDG,'' Dessers says. But, he adds, there was no reason to be suspicious of the deal at the time.

Phillips did fill a third order for TDG in 1985, though not for Iraq. The 5-metric-ton sale was to the Spanish firm Cades, which distributes chemicals to textile manufacturers. A Cades spokesman says the chemicals were destroyed in Spain because they did not match the company's specifications. Phillips also says the materials were destroyed.

Late in 1986, however, Etienne Knoops, Belgium's then-minister of foreign trade, said on the floor of Parliament that he believed the chemical had actually reached Iraq. Clearly, the transactions rankled the Belgian government. Exporting TDG from Belgium now requires a special license. The government also took the unusual step of banning production of TDG on the Phillips property in Tessenderlo.

Even a large corporation like Phillips, with a reputation to protect, can be dragged into controversy when its products pass through other hands.

The TDG sale by Phillips, for instance, was orchestrated by the Dutch trading firm KBS Holland BV, which had a long history of dealings with Baghdad. The trader not only negotiated the deal, but also arranged to have the chemicals picked up at the gate of the Phillips factory and transported to Iraq.

Officials at KBS would not speak to the Monitor about the case, other than to say that the firm had turned all information over to the Dutch government.

A Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman confirms that the firm cooperated with authorities to stop further shipments, after officials contacted KBS in mid-1984 to say they feared the chemicals might be destined for weapons production. Potassium fluoride at JFK EUROPE appears to have been the favorite market for Iraq's chemical purchases, Western intelligence officials say. The customary route was by sea, then overland from docks in Turkey. But, they say, Iraq did not hesitate to turn to other suppliers outside Europe when the need arose.

On at least one occasion, US authorities seized an airfreight shipment of a chemical bound for Iraq from the US - a chemical that can be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. In March 1984, US Customs officials impounded 74 drums containing 1,100 pounds of potassium fluoride at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Potassium fluoride has some industrial uses, but it's also a compound used to make sarin, a nerve agent.

The chemical drums, discovered in the cargo area of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, were to be shipped to the ``Ministry of Pesticides'' in Baghdad. They were held until the US formally outlawed the shipment of potassium fluoride and four other chemicals to Iran and Iraq.

The shipper of the chemicals was not identified at the time. But a US government official told the Monitor that the shipment came from the Al Haddad Brothers Trading Company, in Nashville. The president of the company is Sahib Al Haddad, an Iraqi by birth. In a phone interview, he denied the chemical was for use in weapons.

That was one of the few times when authorities stopped a questionable transaction before it was completed. Often, the details of transactions surface after the fact - if ever.

Government officials admit they have only made shopping for chemical weapons more time-consuming and expensive, but not impossible.

``We've forced buyers who used to come directly to Europe to find second-, third-, or fourth-country suppliers,'' a spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry says. But ``they [the importers] now look for countries that haven't proclaimed controls'' or where regulations are loosely applied.

Says an Australian diplomat based in Western Europe who is familiar with the problem, ``If you don't get industrial cooperation, it's impossible to control this trade.''

There is one piece of powerful evidence that shows the difficulty in proving that dual-use exports are anything but normal commercial transactions. It is the list of Western companies that have been prosecuted for violating chemical export laws.

The list contains exactly one name: Melchemie Holland BV.

In 1985, Dutch officials raided the offices of Melchemie, a small trading firm in the industrial center of Arnhem. Investigators reportedly found documents that detailed sales to Iraq of a variety of chemicals, including phosphorus oxychloride, a precursor of the nerve agent tabun. The Dutch government forbids its export.

Melchemie was fined 100,000 Dutch guilders ($50,000) in 1986, and threatened with a one-year shutdown if caught doing such deals again. Melchemie officials declined to be interviewed. The human cost IN all, Iraq spent years and millions of dollars to obtain its chemical weapons.

Iranian soldiers were the first to feel the effects. The first reported use against them was in November 1983, when troops were hit with blistering waves of mustard gas. A UN report captured in clinical detail what happened to one of the victims:

``Sourab Noroozy, age 24, exposed [in March 1984] at Majnoon.... crepitation [a grating, crackling sound] due to gas in the chest wall, probably resulting from gas gangrene.... The patient died that night.''

The use against Iran continued, repeatedly, throughout the Gulf war. Casualties mounted into the thousands.

In March 1988, Iraq used chemical weapons against civilians - its own citizens. Iranian troops occupied the Iraqi border town of Halabja; Iraq suspected the residents were collaborating with them. Many of the townspeople were Kurds, who have resisted Iraq's rule. Iraqi Air Force bombings began the night of March 17.

Prof. Aubin Heyndrickx, head of the toxicology department at the State University of Ghent, Belgium, detailed what he found in Halabja after the attacks:

``We arrived in a completely devastated and dead city, where there was no life anymore.... One of my assistants ... said there were at least 3,800 dead and many thousand [poisoned]....''

This September, Iraqi chemical bombs struck again, hitting a number of villages in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, according to US intelligence sources. About 60,000 Kurds streamed into refugee camps in southern Turkey.

One was Akram Mayi, a guerrilla. When the chemical bombs dropped, he said, they killed not only guerrillas, but also women, children, and animals. Some people fled to rivers. Others doused their turbans in water and tried to breathe through them. Others simply dropped and died.

``We had no way to get away, no ambulances, no anything,'' Mr. Mayi said.

Kurdish sources assert that at least 5,000 people died.

In the end, was the use of chemical weapons a factor in ending the Gulf war? The psychological impact BEYOND the injuries and death they brought, the chemical bombs also took a powerful psychological toll on Iranian forces.

Largely unprotected, they were vulnerable and knew it.

There were reports of Iranian fighters in panicked retreat at the mere sight of Iraqi bombers or battlefield smoke.

``The terror was great,'' recalls an Iranian who says he fought along the southern border.

Even if Iran had obtained protective gear, says a Western military expert, ``in 115- or 120-degree heat, you're not going to put [it] on because in that heat, you would die anyway'' from an elevated body temperature.

In the end, the fear generated by chemical weapons may have been a more powerful factor in ending the war than the actual chemical casualties. Iranian fighters were demoralized; that could have contributed to the government's eventual agreement to a cease-fire.

A Western military analyst based in the Mideast questions whether Iraq even needed to use chemical weapons to win the war.

There's no evidence, he says, that it used them against Iranian human-wave attacks. When Iraq did use chemical weapons, it was haphazard, he adds.

``They dropped chemicals on themselves, as well as on the enemy,'' he says. ``My impression is Iraq really didn't need them.'' Iraq willing to risk isolation IRAQ has not paid much of a diplomatic price for its actions. For one thing, restricted press coverage of the war on both sides meant there were few independent confirmations of chemical weapons use.

There were also persistent reports, some buttressed by US intelligence, that Iran used chemical weapons as well. This caused some countries to refrain from criticizing Iraq. But some European diplomats dispute the claim that Iran used chemicals, saying it's based on a reading of the evidence that is prejudiced against Iran.

Iraq was irritated but unmoved by a number of UN resolutions, dating from 1984, that condemned the use of chemical weapons in the Gulf war. Earlier this year, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz admitted that his country had used chemical weapons against Iran, but repeated charges that Iran had used them as well.

For years, the US State Department issued pro forma denunciations of poison gas use in the Gulf war, preferring to express its concern through diplomatic channels.

The US went public with strong condemnations of Iraq this fall, only after evidence became overwhelming that Iraq was continuing to use chemical weapons against its own Kurdish population.

The State Department has, however, repeatedly opposed economic sanctions against Iraq. The US Congress almost imposed sanctions this fall after Iraqi Kurds began fleeing into Turkey. But Congress backed away at the last minute.

``I'm outraged,'' a US official says, ``that we haven't shown more outrage.''

The reaction from other countries has been similarly muted. Many nations have avoided direct criticism of Iraq's chemical use. And none have enacted sanctions.

Some diplomats say Iran's support for international terrorism and hostage-taking, coupled with its fiery brand of Islamic fundamentalism, made Iran an unsympathetic victim. In the end, Iraq's decision to use chemical weapons was a calculated one.

``They [the Iraqis] were willing to take the opprobrium, the diplomatic isolation,'' a Western diplomat in Baghdad says. ``They made the calculation that as soon as peace broke out, businessmen would run to invest in their country.... They were right.'' Now, watch the Iranians WESTERN analysts agree that Iran is one of the two or three key countries to watch now for a chemical weapons buildup. It already has a limited production capability, according to US intelligence, and it has reportedly supplied Libya with some chemical warfare materials.

``It's safe to assume,'' a well-placed US official says, ``that Iran will now set about eliminating the gap in chemical warfare capability that was so plain during the war with Iraq.''

In the sleepy village of Inden-Pier, West Germany, near Cologne, there is a small specialty metals firm owned by Martin and Engelbert Quast.

The company, Quast GmbH & Co., supplies special corrosion-resistant alloy parts to chemical factories. In fact, it was one of the suppliers to Karl Kolb in its dealing with Iraq.

Business is still brisk at Mr. Quast's firm, as West German trading companies continue to attract export orders for chemical plants and equipment.

``At the moment,'' Engelbert Quast says, ``there's a great deal of business between [West] Germany and Iran.''

The government of Iran turned down numerous applications for a Monitor reporter to visit Tehran to discuss the use of chemical weapons.

``We don't deny the capability'' to produce chemical weapons, says Hassan Mashadi, an Iranian representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

``We deny that during the course of the war we have used them.''

But, he adds, ``when the very existence of people is jeopardized, and no one cares, people will buy arms. They will cut out bread and butter if they have to, but they will do it.''

``In this kind of a situation,'' he concludes, ``talking about disarmament is meaningless.''

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