Tuesday, March 29, 2005

An Iraqi scientist has told U.S. interrogators that her team destroyed Iraq’s stock of anthrax in 1991 by dumping it practically at the gates of one of Saddam’s main palaces, but never told U.N. inspectors for fear of angering the dictator.

Rihab Rashid Taha’s decision in 2003 to remain silent stoked suspicions of those who contended Iraq still harbored biological weapons, contributing to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq two years ago this month.

“Whether those involved understood the significance and disastrous consequences of their actions is unclear,” the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group says of Mrs. Taha and colleagues in its final report on the search for Iraq weapons. “These efforts demonstrate the problems that existed on both sides in establishing the truth.”

The anthrax mystery had bedeviled U.N. inspectors since the 1990s, when Iraqis said that they had made 2,191 gallons of the bacterial substance before the 1991 Gulf War.

Anthrax is considered highly suited for biowarfare because its spores are easily produced, durable and deadly when inhaled.

The Iraqis said they destroyed all of the anthrax in mid-1991 at their bioweapons center at Hakam, 50 miles southwest of Baghdad.

The U.N. specialists, who scoured Iraq for banned arms from 1991 to 1998 and again in 2002 and 2003, confirmed anthrax had been dumped at Hakam. But they also found indications that Iraq had produced an additional, undeclared 1,800 gallons of anthrax.

In early 2003, chief inspector Hans Blix put the seeming discrepancy high on his list of Iraq’s “unresolved disarmament issues,” complaining that Iraqis must be withholding information. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell dwelled on an anthrax threat in his February 2003 speech seeking U.N. Security Council authority for war.

But the mystery of the missing anthrax appears to have been resolved in a little-noted section of the Iraq Survey Group report, a 350,000-word document issued Oct. 6.

The British-educated Mrs. Taha, who ran the Hakam complex in the 1980s, told interrogators her staff carted off anthrax from Hakam in April 1991 and stored it in a bungalow near the presidential palace at Radwaniyah, 20 miles west of Baghdad, the U.S. teams report.

Later that year, the crew dumped the chemically deactivated anthrax on grounds surrounded by a Special Republican Guard barracks near the palace, the report says.

Australian microbiologist Rod Barton, who took part in Iraq Survey Group interrogations, said in a recent Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview that the disposal was carried out in July 1991, when Iraqi orders were issued to destroy all bioweapons agents immediately.

Then, through the years, Mrs. Taha and other Iraqi officials denied the “missing” anthrax ever existed.

“The members of the program were too fearful to tell the regime that they had dumped deactivated anthrax within sight of one of the principal presidential palaces,” the Iraq Survey Group says.

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