World

Saddam's secret arsenal

The weapons range from anthrax and botulism to sarin and plague

BARRY CAME November 24 1997
World

Saddam's secret arsenal

The weapons range from anthrax and botulism to sarin and plague

BARRY CAME November 24 1997

Saddam's secret arsenal

The weapons range from anthrax and botulism to sarin and plague

BARRY CAME

WILLIAM LOWTHER

World

They are stealthy killers, with names as frightful as the death they deal. Some date from earlier, more grue-some times—mustard gas and smallpox, anthrax and botulism, even plague. Others are fully contemporary, high-tech, sci-fi nerve agents called binary VX and sarin that swiftly paralyze, almost always fatally. A few are commonplace, as familiar as chicken pox and conjunctivitis. But they can all be lethal. And they are all part of the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein’s regime seems to have been secretly amassing in Iraq, a witches’ brew of toxins, germs and viruses that was primarily responsible for pushing the entire region to the brink of armed conflict.

It is, to be sure, not the only factor behind the latest attempt by Iraq’s mustachioed strongman to defy his old nemesis, the United States. Saddam clearly chose his moment well, provoking a confrontation as President Bill Clinton suffered a major setback in Congress (page 94). It also came at precisely the right time for Saddam to woo his Arab neighbors as well as sow dissent between Washington and its allies, particularly the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. With two U.S. aircraft carrier task forces assembling just off Iraq’s southern borders in the Persian Gulf, the Iraqi leader stood to benefit simply because of the sympathy that an American attack could generate.

All the same, Saddam does appear to be hiding something. That was the message last week when he decided to scuttle the work of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission on Iraq, by expelling six American inspectors; the UN promptly withdrew the rest. Since the Gulf War ended in 1991, the UN mission has been trying to dismantle the country’s clandestine stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. “I think we were probably getting too close for comfort,” says Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who currently heads UNSCOM. “The fact is, especially when it comes to biological weapons, what we are looking into is a black hole.”

Despite the dogged efforts over the last 6 lh years of UNSCOM’s 105 weapons inspectors, experts say Iraq has managed through sub-

terfuge and obstruction to hang onto parts of an extensive arms manufacturing industry that once included more than 100 chemical weapons factories, approximately the same number of biological warfare facilities and about 20 nuclear sites. Much of that industry is now in shambles. But significant portions remain. “As far as chemical weapons are concerned,” says analyst Seth Carus of the Washington-based National Defense University, “there are still major gaps in our knowledge.” Captured records indicate that Iraq filled 75 Scud missile warheads with nerve agents during the Gulf War. The United Nations has so far been able to account for 30, leaving the possibility that as many as 45 of these warheads are still hidden somewhere in Iraq. Many may contain sarin, the nerve agent Saddam’s regime deployed against Kurdish villagers in northern Iraq in 1989, or, even worse, a form of VX, a nerve agent with a similar paralyzing effect but said to be 10 times as lethal.

More ominous are the biological weapons that intelligence experts say Saddam possesses, a foul reservoir that includes botulinum toxin, ricin toxin, aflatoxin and anthrax as well as several viral diseases. It is known that Iraq manufactured large quantities of all of these agents before the Gulf War. Iraqi authorities later claimed they had destroyed everything. No proof has ever been advanced, however, which prompted UNSCOM to report last October that Iraq’s biological warfare capacity remained an area of investigation “unredeemed by progress or any approximation of known facts.”

What Saddam sorely lacks at the moment are delivery systems, primarily missiles, for his weapons. UNSCOM has been largely successful in destroying most of Iraq’s long-range missiles. But U.S. military and intelligence officials believe that Iraq still has 25 medium-range Scud missiles and 16 al-Hussein long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in Saudi Arabia or Israel. And there are telltale signs that the Iraqis are surreptitiously engaged in rebuilding their missile capability. Six months ago, UN weapons inspectors uncovered evidence suggesting that the Baghdad regime was trying to buy guidance systems from dismantled Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Similarly, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence recently delivered a report to a U.S. congressional committee about a merchant ship that was detained in Saudi Arabia and found to be “transporting illegal chemicals from China to the Middle East, intended for the production of missile fuel in Iraq.” Robert Shaw, a consultant on Iraqi affairs frequently called on by the U.S. Senate foreign affairs committee, told Maclean’s: “They want missile fuel because, despite all of their denials, they are still holding medium-range missiles.” For the moment, Saddam’s nuclear capacity is minimal. UN inspectors are confident that they have found and destroyed advanced equipment for enriching uranium to be used in nuclear warheads. But the scientists—some 7,500 nuclear physicists and workers— who developed the plans in the first place are still in Iraq and their detailed research papers have never been found. Gary Milhollin, a Washington-based private analyst of weapons proliferation, believes that while Saddam’s production capability has been “put on hold,” his research efforts have continued apace. ‘We have to assume,” claims Milhollin, “that his scientists have progressed in understanding how to make better weapons of mass destruction.” U.S. intelligence sources echo that view. They believe, in fact, that once sanctions on Iraq are lifted, Saddam would be able to buy enough material from rogue elements in the former Soviet bloc to produce at least one nuclear warhead in two to five years.

Despite the clear threat, U.S. President Bill Clinton finds himself in an awkward position. The coalition that waged the Gulf War has, with the exception of Britain, Kuwait and—privately—Saudi Arabia, vanished. In the Middle East, Washington’s Arab allies remain angered by what they perceive to be a clear double standard as the United States seems willing to react vigorously against Saddam’s aggressive moves but lamely when Israel impedes the progress towards peace with the Palestinians. What is more, there is broad dissatisfaction with the U.S.-UN policy of sanctions that inflict suffering on the Iraqi people without having any discernible effect on the Iraqi leader’s hold on power.

Other countries are almost as much of a problem for Washington. France and Russia, both members of the UN Security Council, are eager to see some return to stability in Iraq. That is in no small part due to the fact that Iraq owes both countries billions of dollars—debts it will never be able to repay until the oil starts to flow freely again. Neither France nor Russia views an armed attack on Iraq as facilitating that development. Matters have not been helped by the United States’ current vociferous opposition to a joint Franco-Russian gas deal with Iran. Even worse, the U.S. Congress chose a particularly inappropriate moment to refuse to pay the nearly $1 billion in arrears Washington owes the United Nations.

Faced with such decidedly shaky relations, Washington last week played for time, launching a major diplomatic effort to repair some bridges even as U.S. military might assembled on Saddam’s doorstep. President Clinton sent the aircraft carrier George Washington from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, where it will join the carrier Nimitz sometime later this week. Once the George Washington is on station, there will be a total of 20 U.S. warships, 300 aircraft, 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles and close to 30,000 American sailors, soldiers and airmen in the region. As of late last week, only Britain chose to join the effort, sending the aircraft carrier Invincible and a squadron of Harrier jets from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean. Canada offered nothing more than cautious moral support. Both Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in Hanoi for the Francophonie summit, and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, in Beirut, called on Saddam to “honor his obligations.”

Despite the rattling of the American sabre, U.S. officials late last week stressed that military action was not immediately contemplated. “There is no deadline, no countdown,” U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen cautioned. ‘We’re not looking to bomb anyone back into the Stone Age.” Perhaps not. But there is certainly enough firepower in place to do it.

With WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington