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  Iraq's Drive for a Biological Arsenal

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 1997; Page A01


For the past two years, United Nations inspectors have crisscrossed Iraq in pursuit of 25 warheads that are filled with some of the world's deadliest germs and designed to fit atop medium-range missiles. But so far, the inspectors say, each lead has dissolved in a highly dubious tale about the warheads' fate.

The weapons, Iraqi officials have said, survived the 1991 Persian Gulf War by being hidden in railway tunnels or buried on the banks of the Tigris River to protect them from U.S. and allied bombing raids. Months later, the Iraqis said, they were transported to a desert site called Nebai and destroyed in an attempt to conceal their existence.

But the United Nations' chief biological inspector, Richard Spertzel, said he and his colleagues "are now extremely doubtful" that any of the warheads were destroyed. Iraqi military officers and biological specialists have given conflicting accounts of when the warheads were moved or destroyed, which officials knew about it, and what became of remaining parts. None of the warhead production records have been surrendered, raising questions about how many were made.

As a result, investigators suspect that the germ- or toxin-filled warheads -- which are each roughly 3 feet wide and 10 feet long -- could still be used with secretly constructed Al-Hussein missiles, which have a range of 400 miles. Launched against a major city in the right weather conditions, U.N. officials say, the 40 or so gallons of anthrax or botulinum toxin that Iraq admits were stored in 21 of these warheads before the war could kill from 100,000 to a million people.

Even if U.N. inspections resume in Iraq, as Baghdad has promised, U.N. officials have said they are a long way from uncovering the full story of Iraq's biological warfare program, an effort that began in part with germs obtained by mail from a Rockville, Md., organization and grew into what the United Nations now regards as the most alarming and elusive of all the weapons of mass destruction endeavors undertaken by Iraq.

At the top of the inspectors' agenda for Iraq is hunting down and destroying the warheads, as well as a host of other missing biological warfare products that could wreak havoc in the Middle East, such as a handful of sprayers for disseminating deadly aerosols, tons of biological media for breeding additional deadly germs, and an unknown number of steel bombs designed to hold such germs. Only 26 of the 182 munitions that Iraq admits it filled with germs have been adequately accounted for, say U.N. officials, who suspect Iraq also made more than the 182 munitions.

Australian Ambassador Richard Butler, chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, said that deadly germs are still the most mysterious and dangerous weapon in Iraq's hands because they are easier and cheaper to make than other arms and can be deployed with less difficulty. They remain, he said in an interview, the apparent "weapon . . . of choice for Iraq," important enough for the country to forgo billions of dollars in revenue it could obtain if the program were fully disclosed and the U.N Security Council lifted economic sanctions.

In a presentation to the Security Council on Wednesday, Butler and his colleagues said serious gaps remain in the commission's knowledge of the history, purpose and accomplishments of the germ warfare program. But U.N. officials said that, based on their own sleuthing and admissions by Iraq, they know already that it has deep roots and was one of the world's largest and most impressive forays into this macabre military realm.

Iraq has told the United Nations, for example, that it made enough botulinum toxin in 1989, 1990 and 1991 in theory to wipe out the Earth's population several times over, and U.N. officials said that Iraq's actual production may have been two to three times that amount. Iraq has also acknowledged making enough deadly anthrax and chlostridium perfringens to kill or maim billions of people, packing much of these germs into bombs that were secretly distributed to military commanders and deployed with military planes during the Gulf War, and then successfully hidden from inspection teams after the war.

A detailed account of the biological weapons program was obtained in interviews with more than a dozen U.N. officials, U.S. military officers, and intelligence officials, and a review of scores of documents related to the Iraqi program. The documents reveal that the covert Iraqi production effort involved at least seven facilities, and although its total staff was no more than a few hundred people, their work had broad scope.

The program included, for example, the production of 528 gallons of a potent carcinogen known as aflatoxin, which Iraqi scientists mixed experimentally with chemical agents widely used for riot control. U.N. officials have speculated that Baghdad's aim was to spray the chemical on Kurdish or other ethnic minorities, producing an untraceable spike of cancer in these groups years later.

Iraqi biologists also studied how to use bacteria and toxins to lay waste to the economies of enemy countries by destroying vital crops and animals, including a defoliant and a pox that kills camels. The country also experimented with highly novel methods of delivering disease to enemy territory, attempting at one point to equip a MiG-21 jet fighter with spray tanks and make it operable by remote control. Baghdad's ambition was to command the plane to fly over Israeli territory, begin releasing germs once it crossed the border, and eventually to crash-land it, U.N. officials said, citing private Iraqi statements.

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of the Iraqi germ program is that so much of it escaped notice by the countries considered most adept at collecting intelligence in the Middle East: Israel, the United States and Britain. Iraqi engineers, for example, were able to produce the rockets, bombs and warheads in secrecy, leaving U.S. and allied officials in the dark about whether and how such weapons might be used during the Persian Gulf War.

Although U.S. military officials were aware that Iraq had "weaponized" anthrax and botulinum toxin and took various precautions against the use of these agents, they underestimated the amount of botulinum Iraq made by at least a thousand-fold and the amount of anthrax Iraq had made by at least a factor of eight.

Only after the war did Western analysts fully understand that Iraqi scientists had acquired all of the building blocks of its germ weapons program with little difficulty from reputable suppliers in Europe and the United States.

Iraq purchased strains of anthrax and botulinum toxin from a biological supply outfit in Rockville, for example. Several fermenters used to grow the germs were supplied by well-known firms in Italy and Switzerland, which never suspected Iraq's real aim. A third firm in Germany evidently knew what the fermenter it supplied was to be used for, U.N. officials said.

Moreover, in perhaps the preeminent intelligence failure of the war, each of the three facilities where Iraq has admitted manufacturing biological and toxin weapons escaped notice before the war and survived it intact, making it possible for Iraq to continue work on germ weapons -- including the production of long-lived anthrax spores -- well after its military defeat.

U.S. and allied bombers instead attacked two facilities where Iraq had already withdrawn all its germ warfare-related equipment, a food warehouse, and some refrigerated bunkers where germ weapons may never have been stored.

Iraq claims that after the war ended, its technicians destroyed 241 items related to the germ weapon program, including all of its munitions and deadly agents. But U.N. officials remain skeptical, and say the challenge of finding and destroying Iraq's residual germ warfare capability was reinforced by a tense showdown that occurred June 12.

On that date, U.N. officials attempted a surprise inspection of a site near Baghdad's main airport that serves as the headquarters for the 2nd Battalion of Iraq's Special Republican Guard, a group charged with helping to protect President Saddam Hussein and his family. U.N. inspectors had received a tip that the unit had ferried banned germ agents in refrigerated coolers between a military training center and al-Bakr University. Members of the inspection team said they expected to find records of the transfer, and perhaps some of the germs.

When they arrived, however, soldiers at a checkpoint blocked their passage, and additional military units rushed to the scene. Iraqi officials ordered the team to leave, claiming that the area was off-limits because of its proximity to a residential villa used by Saddam Hussein.

Before they left, according to one inspector who was there, the team witnessed a series of "items being passed over a wall" from the guard headquarters into the presidential villa. The inspector said the team could not be sure what was happening, but the items were certainly "something more than logbooks" and of the right size and shape to have been coolers.

How Anthrax Kills

Biological weapons have long been known as "the poor man's atomic bomb" because they are cheaper and easier to make than nuclear arms and virtually as deadly. But a particular revulsion has always been associated with the deliberate spread of disease for military gain, partly because of the often slow and agonizing deaths most agents cause and partly because their use can readily afflict civilians and combatants alike.

Anthrax, which Iraq came to embrace as one of its two principal germ weapons, provides a horrific example. It kills over several days in which the victim first experiences fatigue and a mild fever, then makes a temporary recovery before declining precipitously when the toxins it creates vigorously assault the kidneys, liver and lungs. Victims often literally drown from fluids generated by the body's useless attempt to protect itself.

In April 1972, at British and U.S. urging, widespread revulsion at such dangers yielded an international treaty banning the development, stockpile, production or acquisition of all biological agents or toxins. Iraq signed the accord a month later, joining what became a group of 140 nations united by this pledge.

But if Baghdad's commitment was genuine, it was extremely short-lived. Iraq has admitted in a statement to the United Nations that by early 1974 it "adopted a policy to acquire biological weapons," notwithstanding the treaty; U.N. officials say the program actually began even earlier. A secret research center, known as the Al Hazen Ibn Al Hathem Institute, was established near Baghdad under a chemical corps officer reporting directly to the Iraqi president, then Ahmad Hassan Bakr, who was succeeded by Saddam Hussein in 1979.

Iraqi officials claim the center was poorly managed and inefficient, but U.N. and U.S. officials suspect that its aim was to develop germ weapons for covert use in "dirty tricks" against the regime's enemies.

Within a few years, Iraq scientists managed to mass produce wheat cover smut, a mold that Iraqi officials have told the United Nations they harvested and purified for covert use on crops in neighboring Iran, which was locked in war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Iraqi scientists have also told U.N. inspectors that they studied ways to boost the durability and lethality of germs linked to Staphylococcus entertoxin, cholera, shigella, salmonella, and botulinum toxin.

U.N. officials say Iraq has claimed that part of the impetus for the germ weapons program was to find inexpensive weapons capable of killing thousands of Iranians and sowing panic in enemy ranks.

But a wider military application for germ weapons was sketched in 1983 by one of Iraq's most eminent microbiologists, Abdul Nassir Hindawi, in a secret paper he wrote for top officials of Iraq's ruling Baath political party. Hindawi, a graduate of Mississippi State University, has acknowledged outlining how the large-scale production of such weapons could become a major military asset.

Hindawi's paper has never been surrendered to U.N. investigators, but Iraqi officials have told U.N. inspectors it had a huge impact. Within a year or so, the regime ordered the directors of Iraq's poison gas program to establish a separate complex for making germ weapons at a site known as Al Muthanna. The project was designated a "presidential priority," and exempted from usual spending and personnel constraints. "The perceived objectives were to produce a viable deterrent in answer to a possible attack by Israel using nuclear weapons," Iraq told the commission in a report two months ago.

The Source in Rockville

To obtain the germs it needed as "seed stock" for the program, Iraq turned to one of the world's preeminent repositories of biological materials, a nonprofit organization called the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). Founded in 1925 as a supply house for academic and government researchers, the ATCC is housed in a faded, two-story Rockville office building with a cramped basement that was home to some of the most deadly bacteria and viruses known.

Functioning much as librarians, the collection's employees receive several hundred donated bacterial samples from researchers each year, check them for purity, and then grow duplicates for shipment to other researchers. Included in its stocks are the pathogens that cause anthrax, botulism, plague, tularemia, tetanus, brucellosis, and typhoid, as well as nearly 15,000 other specimens, each preserved in a small glass vial and stored in a special refrigerator or a nitrogen-cooled vat.

ATCC officials said that in the 1980s, their practice was to sell so-called Class III pathogens -- those that pose substantial risk to public health or crops -- to customers who met a few rudimentary requirements. They had to send a written request on stationery from a credible institution. They had to assume written responsibility for "the receipt, handling, storage and use of the material." They had to pay a fee averaging $78. And they had to demonstrate in a brief telephone conversation that they were scientifically literate. ATCC officials typically did not ask how the germs were to be used.

Tougher restrictions are in place today, but back then the managers of the Iraqi program had little difficulty passing these tests. Their purchases between 1985 and 1989 followed a pattern common to the country's other acquisitions of sensitive Western technology. An initial order was placed for a plant pathogen that causes smut diseases. Dipping a toe into more risky water a few months later, Iraq's ministry of higher education ordered two specimens of a Class III fungus well outside the typical range of biowarfare agents.

The country's success emboldened it to take a plunge into the most sensitive end of the bacterial pool with a 1986 order for 24 pathogens, including 13 more bacteria designated Class III. That shipment, which like the others received rapid approval from the U.S. Commerce Department, included the specific strains of anthrax, chlostridium botulinum, and chlostridium perfringens that Iraq later selected for mass production as germ weapons. All were sent to the University of Baghdad, but secretly paid for by the military, according to Iraqi records turned over to the United Nations.

The anthrax strain had a British military pedigree -- which Iraq was doubtless aware of -- that illustrates how casually such germs are passed around among scientists and how easily they can be shifted from innocent to nefarious use. The head of Britain's germ warfare program had obtained it from an academic researcher and sent it to one of his aides, who eventually sold it to the Rockville repository, where it was swiftly advertised for sale.

At least three of the other strains Iraq purchased were plainly listed in the repository's catalogue as coming from the U.S. military's biological warfare program, a factor that doubtless made them of great interest to the ambitious managers of the Iraqi program. Baghdad also successfully ordered other deadly pathogens from the Pasteur Institute in Paris and tried -- but failed -- to order germs directly from Britain's military research center at Porton Down in 1988.

Given the right temperature and enough growth media, even the few drops of bacteria in these samples can grow into the basis of a national arsenal of disease. So Iraq placed orders in 1987 and 1988 with the Oxoid firm in Bedford, England, and with Fluka Chemie AG in Bouch, Switzerland, for a total of 39 tons of growth media, or enough to produce roughly 4 tons of bacteria, a single drop of which is lethal. Officials at both companies said they sent the shipments without inquiring about how the samples were to be used.

Noting that the media was shipped to Iraq in 55-, 110- and 220-pound packages instead of more typical 10-pound boxes, U.N. inspector Spertzel said the only conceivable purpose would have been to mass produce a large quantity of bacteria. At the two companies, "it certainly should have raised doubts" about what Iraq was up to, he said.

Shifting to Production

Before putting the growth media to work, Iraq carefully tested various strains of bacteria on mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, beagles, donkeys, monkeys and sheep, which scientists placed inside sealed inhalation chambers or tethered to stakes outdoors at research centers known as Muthanna and Salman Pak, according to documents supplied by Iraq to the United Nations. Germ-laden aerosols were sprayed nearby, and the animals were observed until they died. Iraqi scientists said their aim was to figure out which strains killed more swiftly and reliably.

Once this was accomplished, the program's emphasis shifted from research toward large-scale production, under the direction of two British-trained scientists: Gen. Amer Saadi, who obtained a masters in chemistry from Oxford University, and Rihab Taha, who had a doctorate in microbiology from East Anglia University. Overall supervision was conducted by the director of Iraq's Military-Industrial Corp., Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel and Ahmed Murthada, a British-trained engineer in charge of procurement.

To brew the germs, Iraq needed large fermenters -- of the type used in brewing beer or making other yeast-based products -- and ideally, a set of spray dryers, which could be used to turn germ-laden liquid slurries that require refrigeration into dried spores that could be stored indefinitely at room temperature. Few restrictions existed at that time on the sale of such machines, which have many legitimate uses.

Iraq installed fermenters it had purchased overseas at three sites to make the germs, including a vaccine factory located on the outskirts of Baghdad, an agricultural research institute west of the city, and a facility in the Iraqi desert known as the Hakam Single Cell Protein Production Plant, ostensibly a factory for making chicken feed.

It was at the Hakam site, according to Iraq's eventual admission to the United Nations in July 1995, that scientists made the bulk of Iraq's anthrax and botulinum toxin. It also produced 90 gallons of chlostridium perfringens, which cause gas gangrene, a potentially fatal series of lesions -- all without attracting any foreign notice.

"The site looked like normal industrial sheds, with nothing from the air that would identify it," one U.N. official said. He added that, according to Iraq, the site lacked sophisticated air filtration equipment; also, no precautions were taken to safeguard workers by giving them vaccinations or masks.

Hussein Kamel's company meanwhile air-freighted two spray dryers into the country from Denmark in 1989, telling the manufacturer (the Niro Atomizer Co.) that the equipment was for Iraq's civilian nuclear reactor program. What happened to the dryers after they arrived in Iraq is largely a mystery. Iraq admits that one was installed at Hakam in 1992 for what it claims was a benign use. The other was found this year at a warehouse in a northern Iraqi town, but it was disassembled and cleaned before inspectors could take any biological samples.

Iraq told the U.N. commission a year ago that it tested various munitions to hold its deadly germs beginning in 1989 but only began production in August 1990, shortly after its invasion of Kuwait provoked an angry U.S. and allied reaction.

Within four months, according to Iraq's account, engineers had filled 100 bombs with botulinum toxin, 50 with anthrax and seven with aflatoxin. It also filled 16 missile warheads with botulinum toxin, five with anthrax, and four with aflatoxin, and field-tested both artillery shells and battlefield rockets with an anthrax simulant. Iraq has also acknowledged modifying some aerial pesticide sprayers to spray germ aerosols -- which it said it cannot find -- and bought equipment from a German company for what U.N. officials said was a plan to spray germs from drone aircraft.

The bombs were given to Iraqi Air Force commanders at bases in eastern and western Iraq, who were advised to use them in the event that a nuclear attack on Baghdad disrupted all communications, Iraqi officials told the United Nations.

At the outset of the Persian Gulf War, U.S. military officials knew that Iraq had a germ warfare capability, and had a small number of U.S. soldiers in the region vaccinated against anthrax and botulinum. But they were unaware of its extent and did not know how Iraq might unleash its germs. A Defense Intelligence Agency report in December 1990 expressed worry, for example, that Iraq might plant the germs in water or food, or spray them from trucks, planes, helicopters, drones or ships.

"Not even the most alarmed people thought Iraq was as advanced as they in fact were, that they had weaponized systems which were ready for use immediately," a senior U.S. defense official said. "What it all adds up to is a program that was . . . very successfully hidden from the world's intelligence community."

Photo Album Discoveries

Since the Gulf War, Iraq has assured U.N. inspectors that its germ and toxin production was plagued by technical glitches, which caused long periods of idleness. But the commission suspects the work proceeded more smoothly and involved the use of undeclared, biological growth media that Iraq purchased.

If the commission's estimates are correct, the country's stockpile of anthrax was three times greater than it has admitted so far, and its stock of botulinum toxin was at least double what was admitted. If the agents were carefully handled or preserved in the spray dryers, they would still be lethal today.

When U.N. inspectors first visited the Hakam site in 1991, they accepted Iraq's claim that its function was benign and only took photographs. But the commission grew suspicious by late 1994, largely due to its acquisition of the bills of sale for Iraq's biological growth media purchases. When Baghdad tried to explain away the records by claiming the growth media was inadvertently destroyed during food riots in towns where it was stored at various hospitals, U.N. suspicions grew.

In 1994, a team of inspectors returned to Hakam to install remote cameras, but the commission did not order the Iraqis to halt activities there until 1995. Later that year, after the August 1995 defection to Amman, Jordan, of Hussein Kamel, Iraqi officials escorted Rolf Ekeus, the commission's first chairman, to a chicken farm outside Baghdad that they claimed Kamel had owned.

There, perched on a box inside a shed, was a bright red photo album containing color pictures of petri dishes, fermenters, freeze dryers, munitions and dead animals, including donkeys and monkeys covered with lesions. The photos were all neatly mounted, as if it were a briefing book meant to be shown to visiting Iraqi officials. It was the first concrete evidence obtained by the United Nations that the Iraqi program had such a broad scope.

After Iraq gave the commission a 639-page report on the history of its germ warfare program this September labeled "full, final and complete," the inspectors convened a panel of international experts to review it. They concluded that while Baghdad has sought to "underplay and trivialize" the program, ample evidence exists that it "suffered only minor hiccups over its 20-year life."

Spertzel, a veteran of the U.S. Army's former germ weapons program, said that besides continuing to search for the missing munitions and aerosol sprayers, the commission is eager to see pivotal documents outlining why and how key decisions were made in the program, what input the military provided, and how successful it was.

U.N. officials said for example that they are particularly uncertain about the scope of Iraq's work with ricin, a deadly toxin derived from castor beans. Iraq initially denied its ricin work was related to any military effort, then claimed it was solely defensive in nature, and finally admitted packing the toxin into a handful of 155mm artillery shells.

But inspectors suspect that Iraqi scientists made more of the toxin than they have admitted, and in April they decided to interview a British-trained biology professor at Baghdad University, Shakir Akidi, who had been linked to such work. As they arrived at the site, an unidentified man was rushing out of Shakir's building with a stack of papers under his arm, which he claimed were owned by his wife.

The man turned out to be Shakir and the papers he was carrying included evidence that the government had harvested castor beans round-the-clock in late 1990, after the U.S. Desert Shield military buildup got under way. "That means they could have a stockpile of extra ricin still hidden away," Spertzel said.

The ricin discrepancies were to have been discussed with Iraqi leaders during an inspection scheduled for Nov. 11, but the commission canceled the meeting after Iraq declared that it would no longer allow any Americans to be included in U.N. inspections.

Hussein Kamel, one of the key figures in the program, was killed by Iraqi security agents after he returned to Baghdad in February 1996. But Amer Saadi remains a senior government minister and Rihab Taha, who is married to Iraq's oil minister, received an award from Saddam Hussein last January for scientific achievement.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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