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Last Updated

02 Dec 2002

Source: Scripps Howard News Service, December 2, 2002.

Meet Dr. Germ: She built Iraq's deadly stockpiles

By LISA HOFFMAN, Scripps Howard News Service

Meet "Dr. Germ," the woman many consider the mother of all Iraqi biological weapons.

She is Rihab Taha, an unassuming British-trained scientist who has been identified by United Nations arms inspectors as the driving force behind Iraq's development of a weapons stockpile that, at least in the past, contained gallons of some of the most lethal germ agents known to mankind.

U.N. investigators gave her the menacing moniker during the 1990s round of inspections for Iraq's banned weapons of mass destruction. And Taha - who burst into tears and threw chairs the last time she was questioned by U.N. personnel - is likely high on the list of individuals the newly arrived crew of inspectors wants to interview again.

"She has a unique knowledge of all (Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's bio-weapons) secrets," Jane's Intelligence Digest wrote recently.

During her bio-weapon career, the plain-looking and normally mild-mannered Taha has overseen the production of at least 130,000 gallons of anthrax and botulinum toxin - germs so deadly that a drop of either could kill a person.

In earlier inspections, U.N. personnel found videotapes of the hideous deaths of mice, monkeys, beagles and donkeys exposed to the toxins under her watch, and came to suspect, though they never found proof, that the killer germs were tested on humans as well.

Now 46 and the mother of an 8-year-old girl, Taha was not long out of the Ph.D. program at Britain's University of East Anglia when, in 1985, Iraq began a full-scale biological weapons program.

According to former inspectors, Iraqi defectors and bioweapon analysts, Taha's expertise was in tobacco diseases but she was tapped to be a scientist at the newly opened al-Muthanna weapons research center north of Baghdad.

Although considered an uninspired student with no particular management skills, Taha rose to run a 150-person bio-weapon operation at the infamous Salman Pak facility, which inspectors once dubbed germ-warfare central.

There and at the super-secret al-Hakam weapons complex scientists concocted not only oceans of anthrax and botulism, but also experimented with the extremely deadly toxin ricin, gas gangrene that causes skin to melt, aflatoxins that cause liver cancer, hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, camel pox and various antibiotic-resistant agents, according to Great Britain's joint intelligence committee dossier on Iraq's deadly weapons program.

Taha reportedly cemented her status as the bio-weapon maven when in 1994 she married Iraqi Gen. Amer Rashid, Saddam's top weapons expert. The two met in 1993 in New York during talks on U.N. inspections. Shortly after their tryst, Rashid, who is also Iraq's oil minister, divorced his wife for Taha.

When weapons inspections began after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Taha insisted to U.N. investigators that the al-Hakam facility was simply a chicken feed processing complex, and that whatever bioweapons Iraq might have once had were destroyed during the war. When pressed by inspectors, the normally soft-spoken, introverted woman would scream, cry and, at least once, hurl chairs.

"It took the U.N. teams four years to expose that lie and discover that al-Hakam was the key to Iraq's biowar program," Jane's Intelligence Review reported.

Finally, in 1995, Taha grudgingly acknowledged Iraq indeed had an active germ-weapon program. The confession came after one of Saddam's sons-in-law defected and spilled the beans about Taha and her operation.

Once outed, Taha became openly proud of her bio-weapon empire. She told former U.N. inspector David Huxsoll that it was patriotism and fears of Israel and its weapons programs that drove her.

Still, the inspectors never got a full accounting from her, or anyone else in the Iraqi government, of what became of 2,200 gallons of anthrax and 500 gallons of botulinum toxin Iraq is believed to have squirreled away.

That is one of the primary questions facing the inspectors who returned to Iraq last week after a four-year absence.

"I imagine they will want to talk with her again," former U.N. inspector chief Richard Butler said.