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Iraq: Experts Say Biological And Chemical Threats Uncertain (Part 2)

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington and London say time is rapidly running out for Baghdad to cooperate with United Nations arms inspectors or face U.S.-led military action. But many other countries, including France, Russia, and Germany, say the inspectors deserve more time to do their work and that there is no urgency to disarming Iraq by force. The dispute over time largely comes from different perceptions of how immediate a threat Iraq's suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction programs pose to global security. In a two-part series, RFE/RL asks arms experts to assess the degrees of danger Baghdad's weapons programs pose. Part 2 looks at biological and chemical weapons.

Prague, 30 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Many arms experts believe Iraq's biological- and chemical-weapons programs constitute Baghdad's greatest threat to the security of its enemies. But just how immediate and broad a threat the programs represent is the subject of intense international discussion.

Washington and London contend the threat is urgent and extends worldwide due to the possibility that Baghdad could provide chemical or biological agents to global terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Many other countries see the threat as far less urgent, arguing that the Iraqi government has sought to develop the weapons for its own military use against domestic rebellions or neighboring states.

Our correspondent asked Jean Pascal Zanders, an arms-control expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden to describe Iraq's biological- and chemical-weapons programs and the dangers they pose.

Zanders said Iraq's biological-weapons effort is the most worrisome of all Baghdad's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs because it is the one arms inspectors know the least about. He said that Iraq in the past has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide its biological-weapons activities from United Nations inspectors. And it has had considerable success doing so because many of the activities take place in small production facilities that are hard to spot.

In one measure of Iraq's success, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix reported to the Security Council this week that Baghdad appears to have kept hidden sufficient growth medium to produce 5,000 liters of concentrated anthrax.

At the same time, arms inspectors say Iraq has yet to prove it destroyed, as Baghdad has claimed, some 8,500 liters of anthrax it admits to having made prior to the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq has also never proved its claim to have destroyed some 20,000 liters of another lethal biological agent, botulinum toxin, and 10 liters of ricin. Many arms experts believe the amounts Baghdad admits it once made are, in fact, only part of much larger stocks that it produced.

But Zanders said that, although Baghdad has large amounts of growth media for biological agents, and likely large stocks of the agents themselves, these elements alone are not enough to produce usable military weapons. He said that delivery systems must also be perfected. "[The Iraqis] had been looking at a variety of delivery systems, including aerial spray tanks, even missile warheads. To what extent they were successful with these weapons, I have no idea. But it would have been extremely difficult for them during the 1990s to have conducted field tests to establish these parameters [for reliably disseminating the agent against a target]," Zanders said. "The quality of the dissemination will determine the number of casualties you are going to have, because if you don't get the right particle size, people will not inhale it, [they] will not get it into the lungs, so they are not going to develop the anthrax [infection]. So, it might be used as a terrorizing weapon. But whether it would be extremely effective from any military point of view, some questions can be raised about that."

Zanders also said that any use of biological agents as a military weapon would have to be tested in the field, making them visible to foreign intelligence agencies or to inspectors. Field tests would also have to involve training of troops to familiarize them with the use of the agents and how to protect themselves against them. "These dissemination technologies must be tested, and especially open-air tests are things that would be detected by the various capabilities of the intelligence services of the big powers. [And] you still need to train the soldiers in the use of such agents to optimize their military utility," Zanders said.

Iraq has no known experience using biological agents in the field, but it does have such experience with chemical weapons. Baghdad made liberal use of mustard gas against Iranian troops during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war and gassed Iraqi Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq in 1988. Some investigators of the gassing of the Iraqi Kurds believe Baghdad may also have used biological and radiological agents at the same time.

Blix said during this week's address to the UN Security Council that Iraq has yet to account for some 6,500 aircraft bombs believed to contain mustard gas that it did not use during the Iraq-Iran war. Mustard gas stores well over time without losing its efficacy.

Blix also said that Iraq may have made more progress than previously suspected in developing stabilizing agents to increase the shelf life of other lethal chemicals, such as the nerve agent VX. In the past, perfecting stabilizing agents was a major problem for Iraq's chemical- and biological-weapons development efforts, raising doubts as to how effective the large stocks it produced before the Gulf War remain today.

Zanders described Iraq's past problems with stabilizers this way, citing its experiences with another nerve agent, sarin: "If we go back to the late 1990s, sarin was one of the agents that was notoriously unstable in the way Iraq produced it. It also had quite a few impurities. Purity might have ranged anywhere between 60 and 80 percent or so, which is low in comparison to what the U.S. and the Soviets achieved [in developing sarin as a battlefield nerve agent]. One of the problems of the impurities is that it degrades the agent very quickly, so I would imagine that much of that would have deteriorated."

Zanders said inspectors are now trying to determine if Iraq used its substantial stocks of precursor chemicals to restart production of chemical and biological weapons during the four years inspectors were banned form the country.

He personally suspects that the Iraqis may not have engaged in large-scale production but concentrated on laboratory work to try to solve problems with stabilizers instead. "Production leaves a relatively large footprint if one is thinking of militarily significant quantities. What I think they might have been doing on their various chemical and biological agents is laboratory research into finding ways of improving production methods and stabilizing the agents. I wouldn't be surprised if such would be the finding of the UNMOVIC inspectors."

The uncertainties regarding the degree of Iraq's success in weaponizing biological and chemical agents -- other than mustard gas -- for battlefield use give support to arguments that Iraq can be disarmed safely through a lengthy inspection-and-monitoring process.

Supporters of an extended inspection process argue that Hussein's regime pursues weapons of mass destruction for its own security ends but, because of problems delivering them, probably has no immediate way to use them against a neighboring state.

Some arms experts, like Zanders, also doubt that Hussein would trust second parties, like Al-Qaeda, with weapons that could equally be turned against him or, if used against the United States, traced to him. "If Iraq is pursuing such weapons, it is primarily because the leadership perceives that it needs these weapons for its survival. Giving it to terrorists, which one cannot control after the agent has been delivered, is probably not something that the Iraqi leadership would consider. Secondly, the possibility of identifying Iraq as the source of the anthrax would create just the same kind of retaliation from the United States and other countries as its actual use on the battlefields might do," Zanders said.

But such arguments get no hearing from U.S. officials, who maintain Iraq might indeed provide chemical and biological agents to terrorist groups outside his control. Fears of the use of such agents for terrorist attacks are heightened by memories of a Japanese cult's sarin attack on the Tokyo metro system. That attack killed 12 people and injured about 5,500.

The amount of time given to the UN arms inspectors in Iraq may depend ultimately upon Washington's success in convincing other states that there is an Iraq-terrorist connection or, failing that, upon Washington's readiness to strike Iraq without broad international support.

U.S. President George W. Bush this week again accused Iraq of having links to terrorists and said he is prepared to use the "full force" of the U.S. military against the regime of Saddam Hussein if necessary.

Speaking in the annual State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress, Bush said evidence from intelligence and other sources shows that the Iraqi regime supports terrorists, including members of the Al-Qaeda network.

He gave no further details but said Secretary of State Colin Powell will go to the Security Council on 5 February to present new evidence against Iraq to the international community.

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