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WMD Profiles: Biological

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Iraq's Biological Weapon Program

This is a brief history of Iraq's attempt to build germ weapons. It begins with a chronology that emphasizes individual facilities and germs, although many important details were never revealed to the UN inspectors who were on the ground in Iraq until the end of 1998. It is their findings on which the history primarily relies. A second set of inspections in Iraq was carried out from September 2002 to March 2003, but answered few of the many remaining questions about Iraq's biological weapon program. After the chronology, a second section discusses Iraq's interest in anthrax in more detail. The third section is a primer on the effects of the germs and viruses Iraq was working on.

Iraq managed to produce anthrax, aflatoxin, botulinum toxin, gas gangrene, ricin, and wheat smut, and was also known to be working on cholera, mycotoxins, shigellosis, and viruses (including camelpox, infectious hemorrhaghic conjunctivitis and rotavirus) as well as genetic engineering. There are suspicions that Iraq was also working on smallpox.

Iraq denied that it ever had an offensive BW program until the defection of Hussein Kamal, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law and head of the WMD program in Iraq, in 1995. Even then, Iraq continued to hide as much information, equipment and material from UN inspectors as it could. Thus, many aspects of Iraq's biological weapon program remain unknown. These unknowns include the total amount of germ agent Iraq produced and the status of Iraq's unaccounted for stocks of biological growth media, agents, production equipment and handbooks, as well as munitions and warheads. Furthermore, inspectors say that Iraq became self-sufficient, meaning it no longer needed imports to fuel its BW program. The uncertainties that surround this program made it all the more threatening in the absence of inspections and monitoring.

The chronology below shows that Iraq's germ weapon program began at a single site - the Al-Hazen Institute - in the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s, Iraq had several more dedicated sites (Al Salman, Al Muthanna, the Technical Research Center at Al Salman, and Al Hakam among them) and had broadened the scope of its research to include just about every major weaponizable germ and many viruses. In the late 1980s, Iraq began field tests, although new germs and new sites were still being added. Iraq had also weaponized germ agents before the first Gulf war, and some weapons had even been deployed. Little of this activity was discovered by the UN inspectors until 1995.

 

I. Chronology of Germ Weapons in Iraq

According to the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) , Iraq's biological weapon program ran from 1973 until at least 1991. Iraq claimed that the program began with the establishment of the Al-Hazen Institute as a dedicated BW facility. From 1974 to 1978, the Institute studied several germs - botulinum toxin, anthrax spores, Shigella, and cholera - as well as viruses. The Institute was closed on 16 January 1979 because of fraud by its Chairman (Major Ghazan Ibrahim) and some senior staff.

Before the apparent "resurrection" of the program in 1985, some biological weapon work continued at Al-Salman, where Iraq constructed buildings and an animal house. Iraq also began research into wheat smut at Al-Salman in 1984 and continued throughout the 1980s. The smut research was initially a civilian study, but after 1987 offensive weapon research began.

General Nizar Attar, the Director of Al-Muthanna Establishment, formally requested the addition of BW research to the responsibilities of Muthanna, and his request appears to have been granted in 1983. Work seems to have started substantively in 1985, when Dr. Rihab Taha, a senior Iraqi biologist, was transferred from the University of Baghdad to Al-Muthanna. General Attar told UN inspectors in 1995 that a plan had been formulated in 1986 to achieve weaponization within 5 years (which actually happened), though Iraq still claimed it had no plans for the large-scale production, weaponization and storage of biological agents. Iraq claimed that research and development at Al-Muthanna was restricted to botulinum toxin and anthrax spores, but UNSCOM determined Al-Muthanna also received Clostridium perfringens (gas gangrene) on 10 November 1986.

In 1987, Iraq transferred the bulk of its biological weapon work to Al-Salman's Technical Research Center in order to maintain the program's secrecy. After the move Al-Muthanna continued to collaborate on both laboratory and field experiments. Al Salman pushed forward with work on anthrax spores and botulinum toxin, including research into pilot scale production and storage. In April 1988, Al Salman, like Muthanna before it, began research on gas gangrene. UN inspectors also found that Iraq expanded the program at Al-Salman to include mycotoxins in 1987/88 and viruses and genetic engineering in 1990. The virus studies at Al Salman focused on camelpox, infectious hemorrhagic conjunctivitis and rotavirus.

To actually produce biological agents, Iraq established a factory at Al Hakam in 1988. At first, Iraq claimed that Al Hakam only produced pesticides for plants and food for animals, but in 1995 Iraq admitted that Al Hakam had produced 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 8,500 liters of anthrax, and had experimented with gases that produced gangrene. The facility reportedly produced hundreds of liters of gas gangrene before the first Gulf war.

Iraq began field testing in late 1987 or early 1988. Iraq never revealed the extent of this testing, and it disavowed some tests it previously acknowledged to inspectors. But Iraq did admit that Al Hakam had conducted biological weapon tests. These were done in addition to Al Hakam's research, development, and industrial-scale production activities.

Between 1988 and 1990, Iraq began research into additional biological agents. Iraq claimed it began aflatoxin research in 1988, but it did not present a coherent account of the initiation of this work. Iraq declared that actual aflatoxin production began only in 1990 and took place at Al Safa'ah (also called Al-Fudhaliyah). Inspectors believed Iraq also began research into ricin in 1988, but the origin and extent of this program are unclear as well.

In 1990, the Daura Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine facility was taken over by Iraq's Technical Research Center for the biological warfare program, according to Iraq's 1995 disclosure to the inspectors. Iraq admited that large-scale production of botulinum toxin took place at Daura. Inspectors determined that Daura also researched the viral agents camelpox, enterovirus 70, rotavirus, and hemorrhagic conjunctivitis. Iraq further declared that it initiated a genetic engineering research and development program for biological warfare purposes at the facility. Daura was also known as Al Manal during the time of biological weapon production, according to Iraq.

By 1989-1990, both Al Hakam and Daura (Al Manal) were producing botulinum toxin on an industrial scale. By September 1990, Iraq had also achieved industrial-scale production of anthrax -- at Al Hakam and possibly at Al Manal. The activities undertaken in 1989 and 1990, which included field testing of aerial bombs, rockets and other munitions, the expansion of research and agent production, and the acquisition of additional facilities (Al Manal), have never been fully understood, and the inspectors were unable to draw conclusions about the full extent and scope of Iraq's program.

Destruction of an Iraqi fermenter

AP Photo, New York Times, 12-20-98

Iraq admitted that it weaponized biological agents between December 1990 and January 1991. The types of munitions under development for use with biological weapons included Al Hussein missile warheads, R-400 aerial bombs, aircraft drop tanks, pilotless aircraft, helicopter-borne spraying systems ("The Zubaidy Device"), 122 mm rockets, LD-250 aerial bombs, and fragmentation weapons.

Iraq also admitted that it deployed germ weapons between January and July 1991, but the numbers and location of weapons deployed remain uncertain due to inconsistent Iraqi accounts. Because Iraq falsely stated that the BW program was obliterated in July 1991, observers of Iraq believed Iraq never gave a credible account of the program. It remained the least understood part of Iraq's WMD effort in the run up to the second Gulf War.

Fueled by this uncertainty, there were reports of additional categories of biological weapons in Iraq's arsenal. According to the New York Times, a secret U.S. intelligence assessment completed in late 1998 concluded that Iraq may have been concealing the smallpox virus. The assessment was said to be based on evidence that Iraq had recently manufactured smallpox vaccine. Inspectors had also reportedly found a freeze-drier labeled "smallpox" at a maintenance shop at Iraq's Kimadia site in the mid-1990s.

 

II. Iraq, Anthrax and Terrorism

When assessing the potential links among Iraq, anthrax and terrorism, it is important to untangle the knowns from the unknowns. UN inspectors were certain that Iraq did not account for all the biological agents that it made before the first Gulf War, and that it produced anthrax on an industrial-scale. Iraq also filled actual warheads with anthrax. In addition, Iraq admitted it filled R-400 bombs and developed drop tanks to deliver anthrax, as well as developed and tested the so-called "Zubaidy" device for helicopter dissemination. Finally, Dr. Rihab Taha, a senior Iraqi biologist, told inspectors that one goal of the Iraqi genetic engineering team was to develop a strain of anthrax that was resistant to antibiotic treatment. In sum, Iraq had the capability to manufacture weapon-grade anthrax.

Worrisome unknowns include the whereabouts of enough unaccounted for growth media to produce three to four times the amount of anthrax Iraq admitted having made, the whereabouts of the warheads Iraq admitted to having filled with anthrax, and the whereabouts of much of the equipment Iraq used to make germ weapons. As already noted, the status of Iraq's drop tank project, its program to make helicopter-borne spraying equipment, and its drying program were also a mystery. Thus, some observers concluded that Iraq's biological weapon capability still existed and was an active threat prior to the second Gulf War.

Less clear is exactly how Iraq made and processed its anthrax. The New York Times reported that Iraq first processed anthrax into a "wet slurry" that was loaded into bombs and warheads. UNSCOM inspectors were monitoring Iraq's "ability to isolate micro-organisms from fermenter slurry . . . and to create particles of a size appropriate for biological warfare," among other biological capabilities, until December 1998. The New York Times also reported that Iraq initially had trouble drying anthrax for dissemination as an aerosol (despite buying special nozzles to outfit crop dusters), but that Iraq learned to make high-grade dried anthrax thereafter. Dr. Richard Spertzel, former head of biological inspections in Iraq, confirmed that Iraq tested crop dusters to spread anthrax before the first Gulf war but had trouble getting them to work. In particular, there was a problem with nozzle design.

Dr. Spertzel also confirmed that Iraq had made progress in drying anthrax; he said that instead of grinding anthrax into a fine powder, Iraq used a dryer and chemical additives. According to Dr. Spertzel, the Iraqi technique was a novel one-step process that involved drying spores in the presence of aluminum-based clays or silica powders. He said inspectors destroyed one of two industrial dryers that Baghdad used in its static-free experiments, but had not managed to destroy or remove the other, which could have remained available for use. Thus, Iraq had learned how to dry its anthrax and how to get it to a size that would allow it to be an effective weapon.

US scientists determined that the anthrax in the letters received in the United States in the fall of 2001 came from the Ames strain, which was discovered in Iowa in 1980. The Ames strain is not the strain Iraq was known to be developing. According to Dr. Spertzel, Iraq was turned down when it tried to buy it. What Iraq is known to have procured was the Vollum strain, and it is reported to have also bought the Sterne strain and the A-3 strain from France's Institut Pasteur. However, the Ames strain is widely available, and Iraq had many procurement sources around the world.

Less well known is what happened at a series of meetings reported (and disputed) between al Qaeda and Iraqi agents. No proof of an Iraqi connection to terrorism on U.S. soil has ever emerged.

In 2001, two Iraqi defectors described a terrorist training camp at Salman Pak that operated during the 1990s.  At the training camp, students practiced taking over a Boeing 707 - the same type of plane used in the terrorist attacks on America. Charles Duelfer, in his capacity as Deputy Director of UNSCOM, confirmed that during inspection visits to Salman Pak, he had seen the 707 exactly where the defectors claimed it was. He said the Iraqis reported that the camp and plane were used for counter-terrorist training, but that inspectors "automatically took out the word 'counter'." Before the first Gulf war, Salman Pak was among Iraq's premier biological weapon sites.

 

III. The power of germs and viruses - A Primer

Iraq conducted research into many different germs and viruses. Below, some of their characteristics and effects are summarized.

Germs:

  • Aflatoxin: Iraqi scientists studied how to produce liver cancer using aflatoxin. Aflatoxin has no direct military value, as its cancerous effects take years to develop. Iraq produced more than 2000 liters of aflatoxin, and admitted putting it into missile warheads and R-400 bombs.

  • Anthrax spores: One gram of dried anthrax spores has been estimated to contain about 10 million lethal doses. The US Army estimates that a person inhaling 8,000 spores (weighing about .08 millionths of a gram) would be likely to die in less than a week. However, as the attacks on the United States made clear, far fewer spores can cause death in some victims. It is apparent that age and other factors may increase susceptibility. Anthrax spores enter the lungs when inhaled, then move to the lymph nodes of the chest. Bacteria then move through the bloodstream to damage the body's tissues - resulting in uncontrollable bleeding. A person infected with inhalation anthrax would experience the gradual onset of flu-like symptoms, followed in 2-3 days by the sudden onset of severe respiratory distress. Death usually follows within 24-36 hours. Pulmonary anthrax infections are not contagious. If not treated until symptoms appear, pulmonary anthrax is almost always fatal. A less severe form of anthrax attacks its victims through the skin, producing lesions, followed by achiness, fever, and nausea. This "cutaneous" anthrax is treatable with antibiotics and is only fatal to about 20% of untreated victims. Anthrax can also be ingested through contaminated food, resulting in death in 25 to 60 percent of its victims. Iraq declared that it produced 8445 liters of anthrax, and inspectors determined that at least three times this much could have been produced with the equipment and growth media Iraq had at its disposal.

  • Botulinum toxin: Botulinum toxin is the most poisonous substance known - the average man would only have to inhale about 70 billionths of a gram for it to be fatal. Eighty percent of victims die within 1-3 days of being infected. However, the toxin decomposes quickly when exposed to sun, air or heat, which limits its effectiveness. Botulinum toxin attacks the central nervous system and blocks neurotransmission. A person with botulism would exhibit weakness, dizziness and disinterest within the first few days after exposure, followed by trouble with motor functions affecting vision and swallowing. Next, the extremities and respiratory muscles would become progressively weaker. Abrupt respiratory failure is usually the cause of death. Iraq made almost 20,000 liters of botulinum toxin, much of which was placed into munitions and missile warheads.

  • Cholera: Cholera is passed naturally via contaminated food and water, and as a weapon would most likely be used to poison water supplies. It causes diarrhea, which could cause death from dehydration if not treated. However, cholera is not usually fatal - only debilitating and disruptive. Iraq studied cholera at the Al Hazen Institute, but little is known about production or weaponization.

  • Clostridium perfringens (gas gangrene): The Clostridium perfringens bacterium can cause gas gangrene, which in turn causes toxic gases to form in the body's tissues. The result can be acute lung distress, leaking blood vessels, the breakdown of the red blood cells or platelets (which enable the blood to clot to stop bleeding), and liver damage. Inspectors believed Iraq could have produced some 5,000 liters of clostridium perfringens, though it declared it had made far less.

  • Mycotoxins: Trichothecene mycotoxins are a family of poisonous compounds made from a mold that grows on wheat, millet and barley. Mycotoxins can be absorbed by the skin, inhaled or ingested. These toxins attack the cells of bone marrow, skin, and the G-I tract. They also block blood clotting. It takes only about 35 milligrams in aerosol form to kill an average man, but mycotoxins are considered only moderately lethal. Iraq provided no documentation on its work, so inspectors never determined how much may have been produced.

  • Ricin: Ricin is a plant toxin derived from castor beans. It blocks cellular protein synthesis and is lethal when about 10 millionths of a gram are inhaled. Ricin causes flu-like symptoms at first, then causes the body to go into shock and cardiovascular collapse, and finally results in quick, extreme lung failure. Ricin is highly lethal. Iraq declared it had made only 10 liters of ricin and used it all in field trials, though this claim was not verified.

  • Shigella: This bacterium primarily causes diarrhea, but in rare cases it can also cause the development of a rash, then lead to generalized sepsis and death. It is not usually fatal. Inspectors know Iraq studied shigella at the Al Hazen Institute, but determined little else in terms of production or weaponization.

  • Wheat-cover smut: Wheat-cover smut causes a growth on the stem which is fatal to the wheat plant. It is an agricultural or economic biological weapon. Iraq admitted producing wheat smut, but declared the amounts were "not quantifiable" and had all been destroyed.

 

Viruses:

  • Camelpox: Camelpox causes fever and skin rash in camels but rarely infects humans. It is a virus closely related to smallpox; thus, Iraq may have been studying camelpox in order to learn more about using smallpox as a biological weapon. Iraq conducted preliminary studies on camelpox beginning in 1990 but is not known to have advanced farther.

  • Enterovirus 70: Enteroviruses are common human viruses that can cause flu, colds, or pneumonia. While not fatal, they might weaken an enemy's military forces or disrupt its population and medical care facilities. Iraq conducted research on Enterovirus 70 at the Daura site.

  • Infectious hemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus: This virus attacks the victim's eyes, causing a loss of sight and in some cases bleeding. Iraq conducted preliminary studies on infectious hemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus beginning in 1990 but is not known to have advanced farther.

  • Rotavirus: This virus causes diarrhea, which could theoretically cause death from dehydration if not treated. However, rotavirus is more likely to simply debilitate its victims. Iraq conducted preliminary studies on rotavirus beginning in 1990 but is not known to have advanced farther.

  • Smallpox: The virus can be inhaled or absorbed by the skin. Its initial symptoms are like a severe flu, then a rash appears. Smallpox kills about a third of unvaccinated victims, but the vaccine is highly effective. The virus can be stored over long periods of time if it is freeze-dried, and it is easy to produce, making it a good candidate for biological warfare. In addition, countries like the United States are susceptible, as all natural occurrences of smallpox were eradicated by 1980, making regular vaccinations unnecessary. Iraq was reported in late 1998 to be suspected of concealing the smallpox virus, but this ws not confirmed.

 

Genetic engineering:

Genetic engineering uses basic knowledge of DNA molecules to manipulate genetic characteristics. A US government study concluded that genetic engineering is unlikely to produce "supergerms" that are significantly more lethal than existing germ agents, but also concluded that such engineering might enhance weaponization by creating strains that are more stable during dissemination and less susceptible to standard treatments. Iraq admitted it had a genetic engineering research program, one purpose of which was producing an antibiotic-resistant strain of anthrax, but any advances Iraq made are not known.

 

Iraq's BW Effort

Germ or Virus Effects Lethality Amount produced Weaponization efforts
Aflatoxin Liver cancer Long-term only More than 2,000 liters Loaded into missile warheads and R-400 bombs
Anthrax - inhalation (pulmonary) Gradual onset of flu-like symptoms, followed in 2-3 days by severe respiratory distress; uncontrollable bleeding Death usually within 24-36 hours; if not treated until symptoms appear, almost always fatal Iraq declared 8445 liters; inspectors determined that at least three times this much could have been made Loaded into missile warheads and R-400 bombs; developed drop tanks, and the "Zubaidy Device" for helicopter dissemination
Anthrax - cutaneous Lesions, achiness, fever, and nausea Treatable with antibiotics; only fatal to about 20% of untreated victims - -
Anthrax - intestinal Nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea 25-60% of those infected will die - -
Botulinum toxin Weakness, dizziness and disinterest, trouble with motor functions affecting vision and swallowing; extremities and respiratory muscles become progressively weaker; abrupt respiratory failure 80% of victims die within 1-3 days Almost 20,000 liters Loaded into missile warheads and R-400 bombs
Cholera Diarrhea, dehydration Limited lethality Unknown Unknown
Clostridium perfringens (gas gangrene) Acute lung distress, leaking blood vessels, breakdown of the red blood cells or platelets (which enable the blood to clot), and liver damage Can be fatal, though early antibiotic treatment is effective if done before toxins accumulate in the body Up to 5,000 liters possible, though far less declared by Iraq Iraq declared none was weaponized
Mycotoxins Attack the cells of bone marrow, skin, and the G-I tract, block blood clotting Only about 35 milligrams (aerosol) kills an average man, but considered only moderately lethal Unknown Unknown
Ricin Flu-like symptoms, then shock and cardiovascular collapse, and finally quick, extreme lung failure Highly lethal - only about 10 millionths of a gram need to be inhaled 10 liters declared by Iraq None - all used in field trials, according to Iraq
Shigella Diarrhea; in rare cases a rash, generalized sepsis and death Not usually fatal Unknown Unknown
Wheat-cover smut No effect to humans Fatal to the wheat plant Iraq declared amounts made were "Not quantifiable" Unknown
         
Camelpox Fever and skin rash in camels Rarely infects humans Unknown Unknown
Enterovirus 70 Flu, colds, or pneumonia Not fatal Unknown Unknown
Infectious hemorrhagic conjuncitivitis Attacks the eyes, causing a loss of sight and in some cases bleeding Not fatal Unknown Unknown
Rotavirus Diarrhea, dehydration Limited lethality Unknown Unknown
Smallpox Flu-like symptoms, then a rash Kills about 1/3 of unvaccinated victims, but the vaccine is highly effective Unknown Unknown
         
Genetic Engineering Can create strains that are more stable during dissemination and less susceptible to standard treatments NA NA One goal was to make an antibiotic-resistant strain of anthrax

 


 

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