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Last Updated

10 May 2003

Source: United Press International, May 8, 2003

Syria helped U.S. catch 'Mrs. Anthrax'

By Richard Sale, UPI Intelligence Correspondent

Syrian intelligence, in a good-faith effort to boost cooperation with the United States in the war on terror, provided intelligence that resulted in U.S. forces taking custody of one of Iraq's top biological weapons scientists, administration officials said.

U.S.-educated Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, popularly called "Mrs. Anthrax" and the only woman included in a U.S. list of 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials, was taken into custody Monday by U.S. forces in Baghdad, after Syrian authorities revealed her location to U.S. officials, serving U.S. intelligence officials said.

The capture comes in the wake of a visit last Saturday to Damascus by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as part of a new and more aggressive phase of diplomacy in the Middle East, these sources said.

Powell's visit followed severe criticism of Syria by the United States during the war on Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Damascus of supplying military equipment to Saddam Hussein's regime, of granting fleeing members of the Iraqi government refuge, and of possessing proscribed weapons of mass destruction. Although Syria denied the charges, there was some speculation in Washington that Syria might be next U.S. target in the Middle East after Iraq.

Cooperation with Washington on Ammash may temper some of that criticism.

A U.S. intelligence official told United Press International that Ammash was living "in a secret location in Syria, the location of which I can't disclose."

He went on: "As a gift to Powell, as a gesture of good will, Syria's top leadership instructed Syrian intelligence to exfiltrate Mrs. Anthrax from Syria into Baghdad, after which her whereabouts were disclosed to U.S. officials. Her arrest was the result of this operation."

The official also played down news reports that Ammash surrendered to the United States following negotiations.

He said he knew nothing of a "negotiated surrender," and said if there was "any dealing" it was done "probably to obtain documents relevant to Iraqi WMD programs."

One reason for the sudden help may be an effort by Syria to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are on Washington's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

A State Department official said Powell, in meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad, asked that Damascus close local offices of Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Following the meetings, Powell said Syria had complied.

But U.S. intelligence sources disputed this account. One former senior CIA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Syria has always said these offices were for information purposes only, adding, "The operational stuff is always done in Lebanon."

An administration official confirmed this and added that to avoid "looking submissive to U.S. pressure," the Assad government told the three groups, before Powell's arrival, "to lie low and not give any press conferences."

"That isn't the same as being closed," the official said.

State Department officials said Ammash was born in Baghdad in 1953, her father was a former defense minister, vice president, and early member of Saddam's Baath Party leadership.

These same sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Saddam ordered his execution in 1983.

Ammash is believed to have been a key player in bolstering Baghdad's biological weapons programs since 1991, U.S. government officials said.

She was trained by Nassir al-Hindawi, who U.N. inspectors describe as the father of Iraq's biological weapons program.

She served as president of Iraqi's Microbiology Society and was dean at the University of Baghdad, they said.

Syria is expected to provide more intelligence that will lead to additional arrest of wanted Iraqis, U.S. government officials said.