The Evening Standard
17 February 1998
|Can we kill his germs?
by Gerald Segal
How nasty are these weapons?
Iraq used to have and, according to Western military reports, still has, enough anthrax to kill the entire population of the world. A small amount of anthrax spore can kill tens of thousands of people and it takes between 24 hours and six weeks before symptoms appear.
Biological weapons are hundreds to thousands of times more lethal than chemical weapons but, because they must be inhaled or swallowed in order to be effective, they are harder to use effectively. Most biological agents degrade quickly, but anthrax spores can remain deadly in the soil for decades.
A missile warhead with botulinum (which kills by causing paralysis and stopping breathing) could contaminate an area of 2,300 square miles. If a terrorist released 100 kilograms of anthrax from the top of a tall building it could kill up to three million people in a crowded city like London.
What was the size of Iraq's chemical and biological arsenal?
Unscom says it has destroyed 38,537 filled and empty chemical munitions, 690 tonnes of chemical weapons agent, more than 3,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals, and 426 pieces of chemical weapons production equipment.
Unscom also says it has destroyed the entire Al Hakam custom-built biological weapons production factory complex and a variety of biological weapons production equipment and material. Iraq claimed it had failed to produce biological weapons but Unscom found four tonnes of VX nerve gas and said that Iraq had the capacity to produce the gas on an industrial scale.
Unscom also found 19,000 litres of botulinum and 8,400 litres of anthrax. Iraq later admitted filling missile warheads with these agents. After each disclosure, Iraq repeatedly claimed it was in full compliance - much as it is doing today. This is clearly a regime which has lied several times about its chemical and biological weapons capability.
Has Iraq used chemical or biological weapons?
Yes. It gassed its own Kurdish minority in Halabja in March 1988.
When Saddam was forced to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991, there was great concern that he would use his chemical weapons arsenal against allied forces. Following strong western warnings, he did not. But large quantities were found when the war was over. As a result, Iraq was forced by a UN Security Council resolution to accept a UN Special Commission on Disarmament (Unscom) with unlimited snooping powers to supervise the destruction of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
What chemical or biological weapons capability does Iraq now have?
That is what the inspectors are there to find out. The recent row with Saddam flared up when Unscom inspectors were reportedly on the verge of discovering lethal VX liquid nerve agent. Iraq ordered the United States members of the inspection teams to leave because it said they were spies.
It is believed that Iraq has 200 tonnes of VX. Unscom also believes Iraq is still hiding at least six tonnes of material necessary for growing virulent agents such as anthrax and botulinum. Various reports suggest Iraq continues to test chemical weapons and especially anthrax on Iranian and Kurdish prisoners of war.
Can air strikes destroy these weapons?
No. Not even the most ardent advocates of air strikes believe that we know where the chemical and biological weapons are stored, let alone would be confident of achieving a perfect hit.
Despite the thousands of bombing raids during the Gulf war in 1991, it was only when Unscom inspectors did the detailed and difficult snooping around the country that most of Saddam's arsenal was destroyed.
There are some sites that Unscom suspects, such as presidential palaces, but Iraq will not let the inspectors in to check. Air strikes may destroy some chemical and biological weapons factories but weapons stores are likely to be buried deep underground. Only direct strikes of high intensity stand a good chance of destroying such sites without serious risk of releasing deadly chemicals or biological agents.
If air strikes will not eliminate Saddam's chemical and biological weapons, why strike at all?
The primary purpose is to get the Unscom inspectors back in. Saddam needs to know that, unless he complies, sanctions will not be lifted and he will not be able to sell his oil.
He also needs to know that if he does not let Unscom in the suspect sites will be struck again and again. In the process, his military force will be hit and his regime undermined. The pain may make him worry that the military may kill him or his many opponents may seek the cover of allied strikes to flout his rule.
None of this will be easy, and none of this may happen quickly. That is why the western strategy is so risky.
But, because the chemical and biological weapons stakes are so high, it seems even riskier to let Saddam have his lethal arsenal.
Gerald Segal is co-author of Anticipating the Future (Simon and Schuster)
Is there a possibility of Saddam launching any sort of chemical attack on London or Washington?
There is a real theoretical possibility of him doing so, but it is no more than theoretical.
In 1991 there was talk of him threatening this sort of thing, but in the end nothing happened.
The rationale still exists for him to do it, but this time around, he is even less capable of doing it than he was then. Also, he has been watched even more carefully now than he was before and government sources show no signs of expecting anything of the sort.
If they were, they wouldn't necessarily announce it, but it would be clear they were worried from their heightened level of preparation.
Despite the reinforcements around the American embassy in London, which were due to be brought in anyway, there is no sign of a heightened level of preparation, and you don't see that sort of preparation in the US either.
If we were wanting to build up a rationale for bombing Iraq, we would be more likely to talk up the likelihood of attack, but, again, there is no sign of that.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 17 February 1998