about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

03 Apr 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2003


As Troops Advance, Truth About Iraq's Arsenal Looms


WASHINGTON -- U.S. forces are advancing on more areas where Iraq is suspected of holding weapons of mass destruction, bringing nearer a potential moment of truth when such stockpiles would either be discovered -- or used.

The Baghdad suburbs where the battle is unfolding are dotted with factories, laboratories and test sites that gave birth to Sadddam Hussein's missile, chemical and biological-weapons programs. Many of the scientists who manned these facilities live nearby.

U.S. Special Forces troops already have taken soil samples and other materials from a site in northeastern Iraq and sent them to the U.S. for testing. That site wasn't controlled by Iraq's government; it allegedly was used to develop chemical or biological weapons by a fundamentalist Islamic group that the U.S. has tried to link to al Qaeda. U.S. forces so far have described several captured sites as possible chemical-weapons facilities, but conclusive evidence hasn't emerge.

U.S. officials and outside experts see this as a high-risk moment for both sides. "If he [Mr. Hussein] resorts to using them, the whole political world changes," says Terrence Taylor, an expert on weapons of mass destruction for the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. "People will then believe that the U.S., Great Britain, Spain and the other coalition forces were right," he says, noting that the premise of the war was to disarm Iraq of such weapons.

U.S. commanders ordered helicopter pilots and infantry nearing the city to don more gear, including carbon-impregnated suits and rubber boots, meant to protect them if chemical or biological weapons are launched, most likely in the form of an artillery or rocket attack.

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations for the U.S. military Joint Staff, pointedly warned Iraqi commanders during a Pentagon briefing about attempting such a launch. "It's a war crime and it'll be a grave mistake for either who orders it or the people who execute it," he said.

Mr. Taylor, a former United Nations weapons inspector, says that even if the Iraqi government decides not to order their use, some commanders might exercise their authority to do it. U.N. inspectors discovered after the 1991 Gulf War that Mr. Hussein had delegated authority to at least four military units to use weapons of mass destruction if there was a serious attack on Baghdad.

William Nelson, another former U.N. weapons inspector, said U.S. forces would likely encounter stocks of chemical or biological warheads before coalition experts uncover anything new at weapons-production sites. Those sites, he says, appear to have been scrupulously cleared of evidence prior to recent visits by U.N. inspectors.

A chemical or biological attack near Baghdad, he added, risks harming more Iraqi civilians than U.S. soldiers, who have been trained and equipped to survive such attacks. U.S. M-1A1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles have filtered ventilation systems that protect the crews against contaminated air. "If they release it and the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, it's going to get their own people."

Mr. Nelson, a doctor who owns a Gaithersburg, Md., company that makes devices to detect biological weapons, worries most about an attack using VX, a long-lasting nerve agent that could require whole units to leave the battlefield and be decontaminated. Anthrax , which Iraq has admitted to producing in large quantities, is also worrisome, he says. "We could lose some people, but there are enough antibiotics on the battlefield that we'll save most of the casualties."

If chemical or biological munitions aren't recovered, the next move would be to find Iraqi scientists who know where they might be hidden. Mr. Taylor says two prime sources of this information will be Rehab Taha, a British-trained biologist believed to be a leading official in Iraq's biological-weapons program, and Maj. Gen. Hossam Amin, who was in charge of the directorate that escorted teams of visiting U.N. inspectors. Gen Amin "has to know where things are," Mr. Taylor says.

A U.S. search that turns up only small quantities of forbidden weapons, Mr. Taylor notes, might provoke charges that U.S. forces planted them. "That's an argument for making an international inspection team responsible for finding and destroying any such weapons after the war."

Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project, which tracks the sources of Iraq's weapons programs, says the search may be helped by an Iraqi "obsession" with record-keeping. "The U.N. inspectors discovered that the Iraqis documented everything, keeping multiple copies, mostly to prove to their dictator that they hadn't done anything wrong."