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Iraq and Biological Warfare Agents

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2003 – With weapons of mass destruction, what you don't know can kill you.

Iraq has persistently lied, delayed and deceived U.N. inspectors who are in the country to ensure it is ridding itself of chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities. One of the biggest problems is just what is the size and scope of the Iraqi biological weapons program?

When the first inspectors were in Iraq from 1992 to 1998, it took until 1995 to learn Iraq had an offensive biological weapons program. That only came to light because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected. Hussein Kamal had been in charge of the Iraqi biological warfare program since 1988. He told inspectors about the program and where to look.

He detailed a large research and development effort looking at a range of biological weapons from anthrax to ricin to possibly smallpox. He also detailed a number of industrial plants around Iraq where large-scale production occurred. Finally, he revealed the extent of the Iraqi program to "weaponize" these materials and research into other dispersion methods.

Inspectors located some of this infrastructure. But Saddam Hussein continued to hide and lie and deceive the inspectors up until he kicked them out in 1998. When the inspectors left, Iraq had declared 8,500 liters of anthrax. Inspectors believed the Iraqi government actually had 15,000 to 24,000 liters. The Iraqis declared they had 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin, the inspectors maintained they actually had 26,000. According to U.N. officials, Iraq has yet to prove even these declared amounts of biological agents have been destroyed.

Biological warfare is nothing new. Roman histories talk about the Legion hurling dead bodies into cities under siege. In ancient times too, warring parties often dumped manure and corpses into wells and other water sources.

Other reports talk about government agents giving American Indians blankets infected with smallpox. These stories may be apocryphal since just casual contact with Europeans may have been enough to spread the disease.

In many ways, biological weapons are perfect for terrorists and rogue states. First, they terrify people -- the angst over the anthrax attack in October 2001 proved that.

Second, they can be made in any reasonably well-equipped laboratory.

Third, it is often difficult to ascertain the origin of an attack or even when it started.

Fourth, it is easy to hide. Biological agents can be made in "dual-use" facilities or in mobile labs.

Finally, the weapons can kill thousands upon thousands of people. An exercise conducted in 2001 showed that smallpox introduced to America by suicide-carriers could infect up to a million people within six months. Smallpox typically has a death rate of 40 percent among the unvaccinated.

Biological warfare does not have to be aimed primarily at humans, either. The Iraqi effort looked at foot and mouth disease, wheat-cover smut and camel pox. The uproar over foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain in 2002 shows the damage such an attack could provoke. Wheat-cover smut destroys wheat the basic food of much of the West.

Camel pox may be the most disturbing Iraqi biological weapon research project. Humans cannot catch the disease, but it is closely related to smallpox, and some experts believe that Iraqi scientists may have genetically engineered a lethal form of the disease that vaccinations would not hinder.

Iraq experimented with and produced and weaponized three types of anthrax: pulmonary, cutaneous and intestinal.

Iraqi scientists also experimented with a more exotic agent called aflatoxin. This agent causes liver cancer and acts very slowly.

The Iraqis also experimented with:

Botulinum toxin: The Iraqis weaponized this agent, which kills about 80 percent of those infected within three days. It attacks the respiratory system.

Cholera: This age-old disease kills via dehydration and diarrhea. It is treatable.

Gas gangrene: This disease causes acute lung distress, leaking blood vessels and a breakdown of red blood cells. While it can be fatal, it is easily treated with antibiotics.

Mycotoxins: These attack the cells of bone marrow, skin and the gastrointestinal tract and block blood clotting.

Ricin: This highly lethal agent is derived from the castor bean. It produces flu-like symptoms at first, then a cardiovascular failure.

Shigella: This bacteria causes shigellosis, a highly communicable disease marked by bloody stools, diarrhea, fever and sometimes a rash. It is generally not fatal.

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