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Last Updated

17 Nov 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2002.


Inspectors to Scour Iraq for Mobile Weapons Labs

Western analysts believe a nondescript fleet of trucks could be evasive -- and lethal if bombed.

By Paul Richter and Greg Miller, Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- As U.S. forces weigh storming across the Iraqi border in the coming months, their ability to handle the armored columns of an aging army they crushed 11 years ago is not much in doubt. Far less certain is their ability to deal with another threat: a shadowy fleet of nondescript trucks crisscrossing Iraq that Western intelligence believes is carrying biological weapons.

Rumbling along Iraq's highways or threading their way through crowded city streets, these mobile weapons labs may look like ice cream trucks, motor homes or 18-wheeler tractor trailer trucks, officials and experts say. But their cargo is believed to be germ agents such as anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin that theoretically could kill hundreds of thousands in an attack.

Dubbed "Winnebagos of death," the anonymous vehicles are hard to locate, even with sophisticated sensors. Military officials are sharply divided about how to handle them, even if they can be found, with some arguing that bombing the mobile labs risks a catastrophic release of germ agents.

Finding such labs will be one of the toughest challenges facing United Nations weapons inspectors as they return to Iraq after a four-year absence and try to track down any biological, as well as chemical or nuclear, weapons that President Saddam Hussein's regime might have stockpiled.

If the labs evade detection, U.S. intelligence analysts fear, the officers or scientists who operate them might try to use germ agents in a desperate counterattack or spirit the materials away to sell to terrorists or foreign governments.

If such materials fall into the hands of a group such as Al Qaeda, that would turn the military campaign into what "could be the greatest proliferation disaster in history," said Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council official and coauthor of "The Age of Sacred Terror."

Those entrusted with the labs are "loyal servants of the regime," Benjamin said. They would be unlikely to carry out terror attacks on their own initiative, he said, but their fears about a bleak future under an American-installed regime could give them incentive to sell the material.

"There's nothing to prevent any one of them from pulling off by the side of the road and having the most lethal pathogens loaded into a cooler or rucksack, and disappearing," Benjamin said.

A senior U.S. intelligence official compared the task of finding the labs to the frustrating search last month for a white truck that was believed to hold a sniper who terrorized the Washington area.

"Look how many white vans were stopped here in D.C. looking for a sniper," he said. "There are a lot of trucks [in Iraq], a lot of trailers.... I think it's going to be real hard to find them." While the labs are "not our No. 1 problem," the official added, they are a threat "that needs to be considered, and weighs heavily on our commanders' minds."

The mobile labs are the latest troubling aspect of the unconventional weapons program that Hussein launched about 30 years ago and worked doggedly to conceal from the U.N. weapons inspectors who were sent to disarm the country after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Denial Is Doubted

Iraq has acknowledged that it developed quantities of several pathogens that could kill hundreds of thousands in an attack. The regime insists it has destroyed all of its supplies -- an assertion the U.S. flatly rejects. In fact, some U.S. officials and outside experts believe Iraq has augmented its deadly arsenal with smallpox.

While Hussein didn't use chemical or biological weapons in the Gulf War, officials believe he would be more likely to do so if he believed his regime was collapsing.

Iraqi officials are suspected of having hidden caches of biological and chemical weapons materials in hundreds of sites across their country, which is only slightly larger than California. U.N. inspectors are expected to have trouble unearthing them.

Even tougher to find would be mobile labs, which the Iraqis are believed to have begun operating in 1996, after U.N. weapons inspectors found and destroyed two large biological weapon production facilities. The British and German governments, and the CIA and Pentagon have all asserted the existence of the mobile labs in separate reports this year.

Iraqi defectors have told U.N. and American officials that the regime decided it was much safer to pack laboratory equipment into vehicles that could operate while parked at weapons plants but could shift location regularly to elude detection.

Defectors report that "Saddam has taken the entire Iraqi program on the road," Kenneth M. Pollack, former director of Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, wrote in his recent book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."

"Baghdad has a number of BW [biological weapons] labs that can move around the country as needed, leaving no trace and having no signature that Western intelligence can detect," he wrote.

Richard Spertzel, former head of the United Nations bioweapons inspection program, said inspectors used to joke ruefully that the only way to find all the fixed labs would be to search every structure in the country.

"And the mobile labs makes it that much tougher," he said. "You'd have to check every van in Iraq."

Spertzel said that from his four years of experience in Iraq he believes most of the people in the germ weapons program were forced into their jobs and would be eager to leave them behind. But in truth, no one knows how those in the program will react -- either to inspections or to an American-led attack.

U.S. officials acknowledge that they do not know precisely how many labs there are, and what they look like, though they have pictures of what they take to be labs housed in 18-wheel tractor trailers. Some experts believe the Iraqis may use several types of vehicles to throw off the pursuers.

"We know they're there," the intelligence official said. "We don't know 100% what's in them."

Customizing Vehicles

Some experts speculate that the Iraqis have built functioning labs by installing fermenters, spray dryers, centrifuges and supporting gear in two or three 18-wheelers with refrigeration capacity.

Spertzel said smaller vehicles, such as Winnebagos, could produce enough germ material for terrorist attacks but probably not enough for the larger-scale military use. Officials say they do not believe these labs contain biological materials that have been "weaponized" -- loaded into bombs, warheads or aircraft spraying devices for battlefield use. But they note that that this final step might be quickly done.

"You have to assume the worst," one intelligence official said, adding that such possibilities are "one reason the Department of Defense is looking at vaccinations for all its forces."

U.S. officials say they believe their best hope of finding the labs lies in finding defectors early in a war who will point them out. Bush administration officials have tried to encourage cooperation by warning that Iraqis who take part in chemical or biological attacks would be charged with war crimes, while those who cooperate would receive humane treatment.

Yet Iraqis officials may have given limited information about the program to small groups so that few people know where all the labs are. Once the vehicles are on the road, their whereabouts may be known only to their crews.

U.S. Air Force officials say their unmanned aircraft, the Predator, can track down the suspected mobile labs because of the detailed images and 40-hour uninterrupted video surveillance it offers. Satellites and E-8C Joint STARS surveillance planes, which are used to track moving tanks and other vehicles, also might be helpful.

But their usefulness is limited if the U.S. military doesn't have additional information to distinguish these trucks from others on the road and if the vehicles are camouflaged by the heavy traffic around Baghdad, a city of 5 million.

Though the Predator is good, heavy traffic in an urban setting "would be problematic," said Michael Vickers, a former Army Special Forces officer who is an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington. Vickers recalled that during the Gulf War, U.S. forces were notably unsuccessful in trying to track motor homes that they believed were carrying Hussein and his commanders around.

Some analysts suggested that the U.S. military might resort to setting up roadblocks or creating "no-drive" zones in areas where they believe the trucks might be circulating. But Benjamin, the former NSC official, said the limits of military manpower for such tasks might become an issue.

Even if mobile labs are found, officials face the tough decision of how to destroy any dangerous material they carry. While the easiest course might be to blow it up, that could prove disastrous if it includes a biological agent in a form, such as freeze-dried particles, that could survive an explosion and be carried off by the wind, an official said.

"Without knowing what's in it, you'd be ill-advised to just bomb it," the official said. "If you drop a 500-pound bomb on a truck, even if it's a 'smart' bomb, you may be releasing some real bad stuff on a community."

He said the best approach would be to intercept the vehicle and carefully destroy the materials. But the official acknowledged that there are conflicting views on how to handle such a situation.

The military typically uses powerful incendiary bombs to vaporize such material at high temperature, said Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. weapons inspector who is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. It is not clear whether Iraq has the sophistication to produce anthrax in a dried form, Tucker said. But if they can, a bomb attack "could be extremely dangerous."

Military planners agonized over a similar problem during the Gulf War, when they were faced with the question of whether chemical weapons sites should be attacked. The debate came to a head when satellite imagery showed a disturbing collection of pyramid-style mounds of earth in the desert surrounding Baghdad.

We had reason to suspect they were loaded with chemical and biological agents," said a top Gulf War planner who has since left the military. "The question was: Do we blow them up or not? Some argued that if we blew them up you'd kill the whole population of Baghdad. Others said if the [explosion] is hot enough you'll burn everything and there's no problem."

Ultimately, Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now secretary of State, ordered strikes on the mounds with some of the largest munitions available, 1,000-pound bombs. It appeared that no one died from the bombings. But the political sensitivity of the issue became apparent in the mid-1990s, when veterans groups began to argue that release of chemicals might have caused the mysterious "Gulf War syndrome" that afflicted some who served in the conflict.