- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan. 23 (UPI) — Top U.N. officials and chiefs of specialized agencies, working in secret, have for months been trying to come up with effective contingency plans for responding to possible use of chemical or biological weapons by the Iraqi regime, United Press International has learned.

Diplomatic sources say that, with the exception of Israel, most countries within the range of Iraqi missiles in the region — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan — are ill-prepared to withstand a chemical weapons attack.

They have failed to make the necessary investments in acquisition and training to protect their civilian population. Even if they scramble, it might be too late to have an effective mechanism in place, the sources say.

Senior Western and U.N. officials, speaking on condition of non-attribution, fear that if chemical or biological weapons were used, they would in all probability spread panic and terror throughout the Middle East region, and beyond.

Rudd Lubbers, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told BBC radio that a war in Iraq would be "a disaster from the humanitarian perspective."

Iraq used chemical weapons such as sarin and mustard gas in the 1980s during the war with Iran and also against its Kurdish population. Some Western military experts reckon, however, that most of its stockpiles were destroyed before U.N. inspectors were expelled by the Iraqi leader in 1998, and the Saddam regime insists that it has no stockpiles.

But Iraqi military commanders still view chemical weapons as strategically useful in a theater of war and while they did not use them in the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq might still have hidden stockpiles, which were not destroyed, or could have produced a new, smaller arsenal in the past four years, which they have never declared.

Some diplomats close to Washington reckon that despite the denials by Baghdad, and the allegations of no "smoking gun" so far by the U.N. inspectors, both London and Washington have hard intelligence that Iraq still possesses such weapons.

Officially, a senior U.N. official said they are "still hopeful diplomacy will work, and war averted."

However, it would be "totally irresponsible," UPI was told, not to make humanitarian contingencies, even for the worst possible outcome, in the event that diplomacy were to fail.

"Up to the last minute, we're hoping for a political solution," a senior official from a major U.N. humanitarian agency, who requested anonymity, told UPI.

It's extremely difficult to predict, he said, how events will play out as "there are so many variables," but he voiced concerns that the lack of funding "will be a problem."

Given the unique political sensitivities of Iraq, and the role of the United Nations as honest broker and referee in the crisis, and with its weapons inspection teams still on the ground, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has to walk a tightrope.

"The U.N. cannot be seen to be undermining efforts for a diplomatic solution or to give the impression war is inevitable," said a senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of non-attribution.

Some top U.N. officials privately say the chances of avoiding a war are getting slimmer by the day. and some estimate war could break out in the next month or so.

But others estimate it might break out by the end of March.

This, in part, they add, explains the U.N.'s hypersensitivity surrounding the preparation of all kinds of scenarios which factor into the possible use of weapons of mass destruction.

In order to try and prepare, as best as possible, for such an apocalyptic scenario, top U.N. officials and heads of specialized agencies who meet regularly in New York and are known as the "steering committee on Iraq" under the chairmanship of a U.N. deputy secretary-general, Louise Frchette, have instructed senior staff to work around the clock on the issue, the same sources said.

One of the few agencies in the U.N. family with expertise, the World Health Organization, which since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has intensified its efforts to beef up response options to the heightened threat of chemical or biological weapons in the hands of terrorist groups, has been providing advice to many interested member governments on an individual basis, senior officials said.

According to diplomatic sources familiar with the proceedings, rich Gulf states that could be on the frontline of a possible war, such as Kuwait, are acutely concerned.

Besides advising governments on how to prepare themselves, the WHO is also closely liaising with other agencies about having the capacity in place to move relevant antidote medical materials into Iraq and other areas in the region were a conflict to break out.

"Because of the potential for widespread fear and panic following a biological incident, the provision of clear and accurate information on the risk to the public is essential," says a revised WHO guide titled "Public health response to biological and chemical weapons."

"People must be told that medical evaluation and treatment are available, and how to obtain them," it adds.

The manual also points out "the immediate effect of biological or chemical weapons is the large number of casualties that they cause."

The WHO study then goes on to highlight "the potential for overwhelming medical resources and infrastructure is magnified by the fact that the psychological reaction of a civilian population to biological or chemical attack is likely to be far more serious than that caused by attack with conventional weapons."

Besides its medical expertise, the WHO has also developed with many of its partners a Global Outbreak alert and response network to detect and respond to a bioweapons attack. The network would be activated on short notice.

David Heymann and Guernaeel Rodier, of the WHO support team to the global alert network, in a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet, noted that many behind-the-scenes efforts to safeguard public health "go unnoticed and are inadequately funded — until something dramatic goes wrong."

The authors say the health agency, and many of its partners, have firmly in place the infrastructure to detect and respond to an attack.

The WHO itself has a stockpile of 500,000 smallpox vaccines, which could be broken down in a ratio of 1 to five, i.e. to deal with 2.5 million people.

Shielding civilians from chemical or biological attacks would require the acquisition of millions of masks and protective suits, and vaccines, many of which are commercially manufactured by firms — normally for armed forces personnel — in a host of countries.

Senior WHO officials declined to comment on what would be the minimum cost to protect each civilian from a chemical or biological attack.

For decades, the focus of WHO has been to organize global campaigns to eradicate deadly diseases and to enhance public health. This agency has not concentrated on matters, which until recently, fell in the domain of international security.

But in light of the new realities, the WHO and other U.N. agencies such as the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have been meeting and working closely with other specialized agencies that have military expertise such as the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The OPCW has the expertise and capabilities to make an assessment of the agent used, which would be important in order to rapidly treat victims. It also has expertise on what would be required and where to get the required materials from expert manufacturing and pharmaceutical suppliers.

Similarly, Heymann and Rodier of the WHO note the "epidemiological and laboratory techniques needed to detect, investigate, and contain a deliberate outbreak are the same as those used for natural outbreaks."

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