Mess hall outbreak poisons Iraq police

By The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Authorities arrested the head of the mess hall where at least 350 Iraqi policemen suffered food poisoning, and a military spokesman said Monday that it was likely the poisoning was intentional.

Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi, a senior spokesman for the Iraqi military, denied that anyone had died after Sunday’s evening meal breaking the daily Ramadan fast.

On Sunday night, an official in the Environment Ministry, Jassim al-Atwan, said 11 policemen had died. Wasit provincial Gov. Hamad al-Latif said “hundreds of soldiers were poisoned” at the police base in Numaniyah, but nobody had died.

Al-Moussawi put the number of poisoned policemen at 350 to 400, but said only four victims were hospitalized.

He said investigators were pursuing two theories – the first that spoiled food was used in the meal, perhaps as part of a corruption scheme by the contractors or officers at the base to skim off funds for the food. But al-Moussawi said that possibility was “less likely.”

The stronger possibility, he said, is that it was “intentional sabotage.”

Al-Latif said the base’s food and water are supplied by an Australian contractor working through Iraqi subcontractors. He did not identify the Australian company. The food is prepared elsewhere and brought to the base.

Al-Moussawi said the contractors, workers at the location where the food is prepared and others were under investigation, but would not say how many had been detained.

Sunni insurgents fighting the police and military have not been known to use poison as a weapon. The afflicted policemen, however, are predominantly Shiites.