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Iraq Bio Weapons Program Larger Threat Today Than in 1991

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2002 – The threat posed by Iraqi biological weapons is more serious today than U.S. forces faced in the Persian Gulf War.

"All elements of their program are more advanced despite U.N. sanctions, despite the U.N. embargo," a U.S. intelligence official said today. The official is an expert on Iraqi military capabilities and spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.

This official said Iraq has both more, and more dangerous, biological agents than it had available during the 1991 conflict.

In a 1998 report, a U.N. Special Commission established after the Gulf War to verify Iraq had destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction said Iraq had admitted to having 25 biological warheads for Scud missiles.

Iraq was also forced to report how much and what type of biological toxins they had created. They reported 19,000 liters of concentrated botulinum toxin, which as an aerosol can kill in 24 to 36 hours by paralyzing the respiratory muscles; 8,500 liters of anthrax; and 2,200 liters of aflatoxin, which can cause liver cancer years after ingestion.

The UNSCOM reported in 1998 it believed Iraq had actually made two to four times the amounts of biological agents it admitted to. It also found that Iraq was moving toward having mobile production capabilities for biological agents.

"UNSCOM found evidence that Iraq was considering moving to transportable labs in order to evade detection and had made some procurement efforts along those lines to procure trucks and other equipment," the official said.

UNSCOM inspectors left Iraq in 1998, citing lack of cooperation by the Iraqi government.

Before leaving the country, inspectors had tagged and monitored equipment that was being used for legitimate civilian purposes, but which could be used in making biological weapons.

"When UNSCOM left the country, Iraq was free to do with that equipment what they wanted," the intelligence official said.

The official said Iraq developed the capability to make "dry" biological toxins since the Gulf War. "In 1991, the bulk of their capability was (in making) wet agent," he said. "Dry agent is much more threatening because its dissemination properties are much more effective."

The official said U.S. experts believe Iraq may have some capability for producing "dusty" biological agents. Dusty agents are toxins that are ground into very fine particles then chemically bonded to another lighter substance, generally silicate. They are more lethal because the lighter chemicals allow the particles to float more easily, increasing chances they'll be inhaled, and the smaller particles mean they can be inhaled deeper into the body.

It is also possible Iraq has smallpox and plague. The official said UNSCOM believed Iraq may have retained samples of the smallpox virus from a naturally occurring outbreak in that country in the early 1970s.

While most of this evidence that Iraq poses a larger threat today is circumstantial, the official called the proverbial smoking gun "beside the point."

"Just like in a murder case," he said, "you hardly ever find the gun smoking, but you have plenty of other evidence."

While Iraq may have advanced its biological weapons program in the years since the Gulf War, this official said the threat from the country's chemical weapons program is "somewhat less."

"The fact is that a lot of chemical agent and munitions and delivery systems were destroyed in 1991," he said. However, chemical weapons still pose a serious threat from Iraq.

American intelligence experts estimate Iraq's chemical weapons stockpile is somewhere between 100 and 500 metric tons, with the bulk of the agents having been manufactured since inspectors left in 1998, the official said.

Most of Iraq's chemical weapons stockpile is mustard, which the country can produce without any foreign help. Iraq also has the capability to produce sarin, cyclosarin, and VX all nerve agents but it needs to acquire chemical precursors from outside sources.

Again in this case, the official said a "smoking gun" is beside the point. U.S. officials are sure Iraq has illegally imported the chemicals needed to make nerve agents.

"We can't say they used that to make this agent," he said. "The point is, the chemical we know they got could be used to make the nerve agent."

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Related Sites:
White House Iraq Update Web site

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