United Nations inspectors have yet to uncover the caches of anthrax spores and VX nerve gas that the Bush administration claims Iraq still possesses, but it is likely these weapons exist. Although an immediate concern is the possible Iraqi use of chemical and biological agents in response to a U.S.-led invasion, equally worrisome is the potential spread of these weapons and the associated know-how to other rogue states and terrorists during and after a war.
Hundreds of Iraqi scientists who participated in the development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons still live in Iraq. Without a plan for preventing the dispersal of these scientists and their deadly knowledge after the fall of Saddam Hussein, an invasion of Iraq will run a high risk of promoting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
To begin with, it is doubtful the U.S. intelligence agencies know where all of Iraq's reputed stocks of chemical and biological weapons are hidden. Historical experience is instructive: During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, many of the alleged weapons production and storage sites bombed during the air campaign were targeted in error, and several key facilities were missed. For example, Iraq's largest anthrax production plant, known as Al Hakam, was unknown to U.S. intelligence during the war and was destroyed only by United Nations inspectors in 1996.
A further complication is that in the past, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were controlled by the two security services that have Hussein's highest confidence, the Special Security Organization (headed by his son Qusay) and the Special Republican Guard. In the aftermath of a successful military invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime, members of these security services could flee to neighboring countries, taking with them stocks or seed cultures for germ weapons and perhaps even mobile production facilities. This deadly material could then be employed for political blackmail or guerrilla attacks against the occupying forces, or passed to terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda for operations against the U.S. homeland.
A related danger is the specter of "brain drain." As was the case after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Iraqi weapons scientists who find themselves unemployed and impoverished in the aftermath of an invasion could be tempted to sell their lethal expertise to the highest bidder. Several other states in the region are pursuing weapons of mass destruction and would be eager customers for Iraqi know-how.
Assuming that Iraq does possess stocks of chemical and biological weapons, the Bush administration needs a coherent and practicable action plan to address these proliferation threats. It might include the following elements:
* A promise of lenient treatment to all members of the Iraqi security services who come forward with verifiable information about the location of weapons of mass destruction, thereby facilitating their discovery and prompt destruction. Also, a substantial monetary reward for information leading directly to hidden weapons caches.
* Sealing the borders of Iraq to the extent possible and establishing a rapid interdiction force to respond to intelligence reports that rogue elements of the security services are trying to smuggle out weapons of mass destruction, relevant documents or key scientists.
* A proposal to the U.N. Security Council that U.N. inspectors be sent back to Iraq immediately after hostilities end to track down caches of prohibited weapons and secure pathogen collections and other dangerous materials. Although many states may be reluctant to authorize further inspections in the aftermath of a war, a compelling argument can be made that they would be in the interest of all U.N. member states.
* An offer to Iraqi weapons scientists of attractive employment opportunities in peaceful areas of research. A model could be the International Science and Technology Centers in Moscow and Kiev, through which the United States, the European Union and Japan have employed hundreds of former Soviet weapons scientists in peaceful research projects. Establishing such a center in postwar Iraq would also make it easier to track the movements of Iraqi weapons experts.
Only if these measures are taken would a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, rather than exacerbate it.
The writer, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, served on a U.N. biological weapons inspection team in Iraq in 1995.