- 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
- ''Anthrax,'' warns Perry-Robinson, ''is
really very scary indeed.''