Do these Iraqi children live in the shadow of a biological weapons factory?

Busted up Iraqi missiles destroyed under the supervision of UN inspectors.

Photo by P. Sudhakaran. Both photos © UN/DPI Photo.
  Biological warfare

Just like nukes, only much cheaper
POSTED 12 MARCH 1998. we don't want to miss oprah Are you keeping up with the stories about biological weapons, the microscopic killing machines that use pathogens -- viruses, fungi or bacteria -- or toxins made by these organisms? Theoretically, bio-weapons could kill thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. Biological weapons normally reside in the shadows. But in the last month they've nearly crowded Oprah Winfrey and mad cow disease off page one.

On Feb. 18, two men were arrested in Las Vegas, charged with possessing anthrax for biological warfare. Although the charges were dropped when the samples proved more suited to vaccines than weapons, suspect Larry Wayne Harris was held for probation violations. The white supremacist had been convicted in 1995 for using fraud to obtain bubonic plague bacteria through the mail, and his probation barred him from "conducting any experiments with ... infectious diseases..."

On Feb. 25, Ken Alibek, a former official of the Soviet biological weapons program, told ABC News PrimeTime Live that the broad Russian effort to make biological weapons had continued at least until he defected in 1992. That was 20 years after the Soviet Union signed the biological weapons treaty banning such work, and 20 years after the United States destroyed its offensive biological weapons. (See "Soviet Defector Warns..." in the bibliography.)

On March 3, the U.S. military announced a crash anthrax vaccination program for its 36,000 troops in the Persian Gulf. Iraq is suspected of having converted the cattle disease into a potent biological weapon that can be spread by artillery or aircraft. For full protection, the vaccination requires six shots over 18 months.

Something to hide?
And for months, there's been the gathering standoff between Iraq and the United Nations weapons inspectors. it's a dirtyjob but somebody's gotta do it.The confrontation, which nearly led to a U.S. military strike, was fueled in large part by evidence that Saddam Hussein is still concealing a biological weapons program. Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq has been obligated to allow inspections of its weapons of mass destruction, a category that includes nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and long-range missiles.

Many observers interpret Hussein's refusal to permit free access to inspectors as meaning he has something to hide. (However, Raymond Zilinskas, a University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute expert in biological warfare, observes that during the entire brouhaha over inspections, the routine monitoring and verification of more than 200 sites, including 82 biological sites, has continued.) During repeated inspections, we've learned a lot about Iraq's ambitious nuclear, chemical and missile weapons. Yet biological weapons remain the "biggest single unknown," according to Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington.

Beginning in 1995, inspectors started unearthing documents and equipment relating to Iraq's biological warfare program. Today, these major questions remain:

bullet Were 25 missile warheads that were adapted for germ weapons destroyed, as Iraq claims? (The missiles had a range of 400 miles.) Iraq has produced no evidence of the destruction.

bullet Where are more than 125 germ bombs made for the air force?

bullet Did Iraq destroy thousands of gallons of biological agents, as it claims?

bullet What happened to agricultural sprayers that were adapted to spread bio-weapons?

  Richard Butler, the chief United Nations weapons inspector for Iraq, was not impressed with Iraq's forthrightness. On Feb. 25, he told the New York Times that Iraq's fifth "full, final and complete" account of its bio-war capability "fails to give a remotely credible account" of the project. (See "Iraq's Deadliest Arms..." in the bibliography)

Although not every observer thinks that Iraq has ready-to-use bio-weapons, many think the country could prepare some quickly. "There are probably seed cultures in a freezer somewhere," says Zilinskas, "and they have dual-use [civilian or military] equipment in biological facilities."

Zilinskas says that if the United Nations pressure was removed, Iraq could make a militarily useful biological weapon in six months.

Who invented the first biological weapon?

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The Why Files Staff includes: Terry Devitt, editor; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Susan Trebach, team leader.