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Last Updated

27 Mar 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2003


The Russian Strain


Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was decidely testy yesterday, saying that his country's firms have not violated sanctions on Iraq. "There is no evidence confirming violations by Russian firms of existing sanctions," he stated, before aiming sharp words at the U.S. He has reason to be so defensive. Russia's involvement in the arming of Iraq goes beyond supplying radar-jamming systems and the personnel to maintain them. Moscow has supported Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction and connived with Baghdad in hiding its role as a main supplier of the materials and know-how to weaponize anthrax , botulism and smallpox.

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Russian support for Iraq is not new. Gary Milhollin and Kelly Motz's July 2001 article in Commentary notes that inspectors found a 300-page file detailing a 1995 deal for Russian aircraft. The agreement not only included military craft that the embargo banned, but engines and guidance systems for remote-controlled drones, which could deliver gas or germ-warfare agents.

In 1999 Russia agreed to sell Saddam Hussein $100 million worth of military hardware. The deal involved Ahmed Murtada Ahmed Khalil, the transport and communications minister, who ran the biological weapons program at the Salman Pak facility outside Baghdad, and who knew exactly what Iraq would need in order to rebuild its WMD program after the Gulf War. Under his tenure, Russian involvement in the development of Iraq's WMD program has increased. Iraq's Scud-C or al-Hussein missiles were acquired from high-level military officials and Russian arms dealers. The al-Hussein was retrofitted to deliver chemical and biological weapons with Russian technology. In 1998, the U.N. Special Commission was prevented from verifying Iraqi claims that it had destroyed the al-Hussein warheads. At that time, Russia joined with France and Germany in taking up Iraq's campaign to weaken the inspection authority and opposed the Clinton administration's decision to bomb Iraq back into compliance. To this day, inspectors believe that Iraq retains a stock of chemical munitions, including chemical/biological al-Hussein ballistic missile warheads, 2,000 aerial bombs, 15,000-25,000 rockets, and 15,000 artillery shells. Iraq may also retain bio-weapon sprayers for its Mirage F-1s.

Russia appears to be helping Iraq build a better biological and chemical weapons program. Richard Spertzel, the former head of Unscom's biological weapons inspectors, points to negotiations in 1995 between Russia and Iraq for the supply of fermentation equipment, including a 5,000-liter fermentation vessel. He notes that the vessel that Moscow agreed to sell Iraq for use in making single-cell animal protein was 10 times larger than the largest vessel Iraq has admitted using to brew germs. Documents he uncovered call for an agreement between leaders of Iraq's weapons programs and Russian experts for the "design, construction and operation of the plant." The agreement -- which Russia maintains was for the purchase of equipment to manufacture animal feed -- includes the names of the director of Iraq's botulinum toxin program, the chief engineer for the Al Hakam chemical weapons plant, and prominent members of Iraq's military industrial commission. Iraq publicly admitted producing anthrax and botulinum toxin at Al Hakam. Though Russia flatly denied involvement, it refused to allow Mr. Spertzel to interview Russians to determine whether the equipment was actually delivered. Though inspectors decommissioned Al Hakam in 1996, Mr. Spertzel believes that the Russian equipment was delivered and stored elsewhere.

Key Unscom scientists were Russians who had been deeply involved in the Soviet bioweapons program. Tariq Aziz worked with Premier Yevgeny Primakov to pack inspection teams with Russians picked by Moscow. The manipulation paid off. Mr. Spertzel recalls the Russians were "constantly giving the Iraqis the benefit of doubt. They said, 'no way could Al Hakam be a dual-use facility.'" Yet Mr. Spertzel is "100% convinced that Iraq has weaponized smallpox," and that the Russians on the inspection team were "paranoid" about his efforts to uncover smallpox production. They had reason to be, since it is likely that Russia supplied the original virus. The CIA determined that in the 1990s, a Russian scientist, Nelja N. Maltseva, had brought the strain -- named the Aralsk strain after a 1971 smallpox outbreak in the town of Aralsk, at the northern end of the Aral Sea -- to Iraq. The Soviets hushed up the 1971 outbreak; and their successors in Moscow now deny that Maltseva handed any virus over to the Iraqis.

In 2002, Alan Zelicofff, an adviser to inspection teams and a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who has run a hepatitis C monitoring program with Russian epidemiology units, uncovered a Soviet-era secret report about the Aralsk outbreak. When forced to admit its occurrence, Dr. Zelicoff's Russian counterparts claimed it was a natural outbreak triggered by the "garden variety" smallpox virus. But after interviews with victims and an analysis of the outbreak's timing and trajectory, Dr. Zelicoff determined that it was caused by "a new and lethal strain of smallpox that traveled at least 20 miles from a secret biological weapons testing site on an island in the Aral Sea to infect people downwind on a ship." Of the six adults who were exposed to the strain, five contracted smallpox despite being immunized. Dr. Zelicoff and others believe that the strain is more communicable, and might be vaccine-resistant. He asked colleagues in Russia to help him locate the strain last summer and to determine if the current smallpox vaccine can protect people from infection. They replied curtly that no such strain existed, a stance they maintain to this day.

Other countries have -- through carelessness or complicity -- provided Iraq with the materials and equipment needed to build up its biological and chemical weapons program. But none have done more to rebuild Saddam's arsenal, and none have been more aggressive in helping hide the truth, than Russia. If these weapons are deployed against our troops, or wind up in terrorist hands, Vladimir Putin might find that he never gets asked to the Bush ranch again.

Mr. Goldberg is a writer specializing in bioterrorism and medical innovation.