The Deadly Consequences
Of Bombing Iraq
By Judith Perera

LONDON, Feb 13 (IPS) - Iraq's biological weapons programme remains the focus of suspicion and conjecture with U.N. inspectors convinced that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein still has a huge secret arsenal of these deadly agents.
But with the massed forces of the U.S. military and their British partners gathering in the Gulf, ready to strike Iraq, experts warn that air bombing suspect facilities, could result in the release of lethal agents, rather than their destruction.
''The result of any bombing would depend on the circumstances,'' says Dr Julian Perry-Robinson of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University in southern England. ''A little bit of anthrax, for example, can go a very long way, as the 1979 accident at Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union proved.''
In 1979 in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), 96 people became ill and 64 died following an outbreak of anthrax. Soviet officials originally blamed contaminated meat, but later admitted that it was caused by an explosion and aerosol leak from a nearby biological weapons facility.
The amount released was no more than a few milligrams. Yet people died up to four kilometres down wind, and animals some 80 kilometres away died after grazing on vegetation where the anthrax spores landed.
For two years, U.N. inspectors in Iraq have been looking for 25 warheads that are filled with highly toxic biological weapons, including over 150 litres of anthrax and botulinum toxin.
Iraqi officials have admitted that the warheads the 1991 Gulf War hidden in railway tunnels or buried on the banks of the Tigris River. But they say that later, the warheads were taken to a desert site in Iraq called Nebai, and destroyed.
The U.N.'s chief biological inspector, Richard Spertzel, says he is ''extremely doubtful'' that any of the warheads were destroyed because of the many conflicting accounts given by Iraqi military officers and biological specialists.
The warheads, each about one metre by three metres, could be mounted on secretly constructed al-Hussein 'Scud'-type missiles, which have a range of 600 kilometres. These warheads could kill up to a million people if launched in the right circumstances.
In total Iraq says it had filled 182 different munitions with biological agents. Only 26 of these have been adequately accounted for, according to U.N. officials, who suspect that there were, in any case, more than the 182 munitions.
Of the 157 bombs that Iraq admits having filled, three were recovered intact and parts have been found for 23 more. The rest are unaccounted for.
Iraq has acknowledged making 11,800 litres of botulinum toxin, enough to destroy the world's population several times over. But U.N. officials believe production may have been two to three times more than this.
Iraq has also admitted making over 8,500 litres of anthrax, which would kill billions, as well as 340 litres of clostridium perfringens, which cause gas gangrene. Then there is the work on ricin, a toxin made from castor beans.
Iraq initially denied developing it as a weapon but finally admitted packing the toxin into some 155 mm artillery shells. But, again, inspectors suspect that Iraqi scientists made more of the toxin than they admitted.
Last April inspectors tried to interview Shakir Akidi, a British- trained biology professor at Baghdad University who was known to have worked on ricin.
However, as they arrived for the meeting, a man rushed from the building carrying a sheaf of papers which he said belonged to his wife. In the event, the man was identified as Shakir and the papers showed that the government had been gathering castor beans round-the-clock in late 1990, during the build up to the Gulf war.
''That means they could have a stockpile of extra ricin still hidden away,'' says Spertzel. Iraq has also developed aflatoxin as a weapon. This produces a form of food poisoning and in the long- term can cause liver cancer.
It was only well after the war that the West began to understand the full extent of Iraq's biological programme. And although some of the major facilities have been identified and destroyed, inspectors are aware that there may be others still operating.
Biological weapons can be made on such a small scale that Iraq could even have a mobile unit fitted into the back of a lorry, points out Perry-Robinson.
In the event of military action against Iraq, any of these facilities could be damaged or destroyed, either deliberately or inadvertently. And in this case there would always be a risk that some biological agent could escape, although it would need to be sprayed as an aerosol to do so, explains Perry-Robinson.
''If Iraq has a stockpile of anthrax and if it were hit in a military attack a substantial quantity of spores would probably be released,'' says Dr Alastair Hay, head of chemical pathology at Leeds University in northern England.
''It is unlikely that if a facility were hit, everything would be destroyed in the ensuing blaze.'' This has clearly occurred to the U.S. military who are now developing weapons which would ensure that any blaze would be extremely hot and last for several seconds, say sources close to the United Nations.
The U.S. is also considering weapons would produce radiation ''which would be very bad for germs'', the sources add. But anthrax, at least, is very stable and very persistent. It can remain active in the soil for decades, points out Hay.
British experiments with anthrax in World War II left the Scottish island of Gruinard contaminated for almost 50 years. And even then it was only cleaned up by removing all of the topsoil.
''Saddam Hussein's programme has clearly got to be stopped,'' says Hay, ''But I honestly feel that bombing will be effective because we don't know where things are.
''And in any case, will bombing guarantee us access to the sites in Iraq which we need to investigate and monitor?'' The chances are, he warns, that bombing could create more problems than it solved.
''Anthrax,'' warns Perry-Robinson, ''is really very scary indeed.''

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