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Last Updated

28 Dec 2002

Source: Newsday, December 27, 2002

Experts Warn of Iraq's Improved Weapons

By MATT KELLEY, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON -- Biological weapons are among the few capabilities Iraq has improved since being defeated by a U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, government officials say.

Working under the noses of U.N. inspectors from 1991 to 1998, President Saddam Hussein's government probably developed mobile germ warfare labs and processes to create dried bacteria for deadlier and longer-lasting weapons, U.S. officials and former weapons inspectors say.

Pentagon officials say Iraq's biological arsenal could do the most damage, physical and psychological, if it were used to retaliate immediately against a U.S. invasion rather than in later stages of battle.

Although U.S. troops are being vaccinated against anthrax and smallpox and have protective gear, a biological attack cannot be detected until after exposure. Even if a biological attack did not kill U.S. troops, it could kill many civilians and create a logistical mess that would slow an American advance and strain the military's medical capabilities.

"The most frightening thing is Iraq's biological program," said David Kay, a former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations. "Even in my inspection days, it was the program we knew the least about."

What inspectors eventually learned was disturbing. After the 1995 defection of Saddam's son-in-law, who ran the germ weapons program, Iraq acknowledged brewing thousands of gallons of deadly germs and toxins and loading some of them in bombs, missile warheads and rockets.

The weapons included anthrax, the germ that killed seven people in last year's U.S. mail attacks; botulinum toxin, nature's most deadly poison; Clostridium perfringens, a flesh-eating bacterium that causes gas gangrene; and aflatoxin, a fungal poison that causes liver cancer.

In late 1998, frustrated by Iraq's refusal to cooperate, the inspectors withdrew shortly before the United States and Britain began "Operation Desert Fox," a bombing campaign to compel compliance by Iraq. Saddam refused to let the inspectors return.

Iraq claimed it destroyed all its biological weapons. U.N. inspectors concluded in 1999 that probably was a lie, because Saddam's scientists could have made thousands of gallons of biological weapons without declaring them. U.S. officials say Iraq's latest weapons declaration does not clear up discrepancies.

"Before the inspectors were forced to leave Iraq, they concluded that Iraq could have produced 26,000 liters of anthrax. That is three times the amount Iraq had declared," Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently. "Yet the Iraqi declaration is silent on this stockpile, which alone would be enough to kill several million people."

The omissions, U.S. officials and former inspectors say, are strong evidence that Iraq has retained at least some of its biological arsenal.

Iraq's development of anthrax-drying technology makes that arsenal even more dangerous than it was during the Gulf War. Its earlier biological weapons efforts relied on a liquid slurry of anthrax, which let the spores clump together and made it difficult to get the fine aerosol needed to get the germs into people's lungs.

U.N. inspectors in the late 1990s found Iraq had drying machines that could be used to make a powdered form of anthrax.

The Iraqis claimed they were making a biological pesticide from a worm-killing bacteria known as BT, said former inspector Jonathan Tucker. But they were making particles so small they would float through the air, not settle onto crops like a biopesticide should, Tucker said. Inspectors believed Iraq was using BT, a relative of the anthrax germ, as a testing stand-in for anthrax, Tucker said.

Evidence also suggested that Iraq was experimenting with drying anthrax in combination with bentonite, a compound that would help the anthrax particles stay aloft. Iraq also has imported hundreds of tons of fumed silicon dioxide, another substance that would give anthrax an aerosol quality.

Dried anthrax is easier to disperse as a weapon, easier to get into a target's lungs and lasts longer in storage, Tucker and another former U.N. inspector, Richard Spertzel, said. Particles small enough could penetrate even the U.S. military's protective gear.

"Quite clearly, Iraq knew exactly what needed to be done," Spertzel said. "Their contract with the spray dryer company showed they knew what to go for and how to do it."

Although U.S. troops are inoculated against anthrax, a high enough concentration of anthrax spores still could make them sick, Tucker said.

"If you're exposed to a massive dose, it could overwhelm a vaccination," said Tucker, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Iraq has missiles that could carry biological weapons to Israel, Kuwait or U.S. troop concentrations within Iraq, Pentagon officials say.

Iraq also has experimented with turning small jet airplanes into remote-controlled drones. U.S. officials fear those drones could be fitted with spray tanks to deliver biological weapons.

"Iraq developed these drones because I think they realized their air force wouldn't be flying long if there was a war," Tucker said.