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Last Updated

12 Apr 2003

Source: Washington Times, April 12, 2003

Arms scientists said to have fled to Syria

By Rowan Scarborough, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Some of Iraq's top weapons scientists already have fled their country and are in Syria, from where they may seek political safety in France, administration sources said yesterday.

The officials said among those believed to have made it to Syria are Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash and Rihab Taha, both top scientists in Iraq's biological-weapons program. The administration sources said there are intelligence reports that one, or both, made it to Damascus.

Mrs. Taha is a British-trained microbiologist, who led Iraq's drive to cultivate and weaponize deadly anthrax. Nicknamed "Dr. Germ," she is believed to hold vast knowledge concerning all of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's development of weapons of mass destruction.

Mrs. Ammash has been nicknamed "Mrs. Anthrax" by Western reporters. She has been photographed at Saddam's Cabinet meetings, and at a meeting with his son, Qusai, who ran most of Iraq's military and security organizations.

The two women are notable not only for their expertise in weaponizing germs, but also because they both attained senior positions among the male-dominated Ba'ath Party.

Mrs. Ammash's picture and name were listed yesterday by the U.S. Central Command as one of 55 most-wanted Iraqis for possible war-crimes charges. Mrs. Taha was not listed, although she is wanted for questioning.

They are of great potential value to American weapons inspectors who want leads on where Saddam has hidden his weapons of mass destruction.

One administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there are intelligence reports that Iraqi weapons scientists are seeking safety in France. Paris aided Saddam's nuclear-weapons program, helped build Baghdad's air-defense network and vehemently opposed the ongoing war that toppled the dictator.

U.S. officials declined to put a number on how many Iraqi weapons scientists have entered Syria, but estimated it is fewer than 10 at this point.

Allied forces set up checkpoints early in the war at crucial highway intersections. But military officials say it is impossible to stop every car and search it.

There have been two days of intense firefights between U.S. troops and Iraqi forces in the town of Qa'im, which lies just 20 miles from the Syrian border and is a key juncture in the escape route from Baghdad to Damascus.

During the inspection regime by the United Nations that ended before the war started March 19, inspectors failed to gain unfettered access to any Iraqi weapons scientists except one biological-warfare researcher.

Reports that Iraqi scientists have left Baghdad for Syria comes as the U.S. Central Command announced yesterday a most-wanted list of 55 Ba'ath Party leaders. The "wanted posters" came in the form of a deck of cards this one with 55 cards, each showing a picture of an Iraqi fugitive. Saddam, who may have been killed in a Monday air strike, is the ace of spades.

The current government in Syria, like Saddam's regime, was founded as a hard-line dictatorship. Since the war started, Syria has purportedly come to Baghdad's aid in several ways, including shipping night-vision military equipment and allowing suicidal non-Iraqi Arabs to travel through Syria to Iraq to attack the allies.

Now, Syria is providing a haven to Iraqi Ba'athists, including some weapons experts. The exodus began with the family members of Saddam's regime. But as Army soldiers and the Marines got closer to Baghdad last week, regime figures started showing up in Syria.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has warned Syria several times publicly to stop helping Saddam's defeated regime and did so again yesterday.

"They have allowed people to come out of that country into their country and either stay or transit. None of these things are helpful," he said.

Mrs. Taha is married to Iraq's oil minister, Lt. Gen. Amir Rashid Mohammed Ubaydi. During the U.N. inspections regime of the 1990s, inspectors interviewed Mrs. Taha frequently. A loyal Ba'athist, she often responded angrily, and in one instance threw furniture.

Gen. Ubaydi is on the most-wanted list of 55.

Mrs. Taha ran Iraq's supersecret biological-warfare program at a research lab in the town of Hakam beginning in the mid-1980s.

Many senior Iraqi ministers, generals and Ba'ath Party members suddenly disappeared on Monday from Baghdad two days before the city fell to the U.S.-led coalition. The vanishing act came hours after a U.S. Air Force B-1B dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on a building in Baghdad suspected of holding Saddam, his sons, Uday and Qusai, and other officials.

The target was a safe house for the Iraqi Intelligence Service in the western Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad, behind the popular al Saa restaurant.

"There were two places. One was a restaurant, and one was a house nearby," Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday. "And the question is, who was in what, if anybody? And the answer is, do we have ground truth there? And the answer is no."

The four satellite-guided bombs destroyed a row of buildings, and left a deep crater.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said U.S. forces will eventually examine the bombing site located in the Ba'ath Party stronghold. But for now, occupying troops have more important missions.

"I think our priorities now would not be to be digging in rubble," said Gen. Myers.

The CIA received human intelligence that Saddam went into the building and did not come out before the bombs destroyed it.