Saddam's Secret Weapons

Brinkmanship between the U.S. and Iraq raises the question: what happens to the alleged chemical and biological weapons in the case of a direct hit?

By Tim Trevan and Out There News | 1998-03-01 12:00:00

THE MOST recent phase of the off-again, on-again conflict between the United States and Iraq opened when Saddam Hussein announced that certain "presidential" sites would be out of bounds for the U. N. inspectors who have been looking for chemical and biological weapons. How serious are the dangers presented by Iraq's alleged production of these weapons?

Peace Magazine discovered some of the background to this controversy in an interview with Tim Trevan, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Affairs. For four years, Trevan served as a senior adviser to Rolf Ekeus, the director of the United Nations Monitoring team. He examines the scenarios facing U.S. and other policy makers deciding what to do about Iraq. Out There News asked Trevan about the danger of bombing chemical or biological weapons dumps, and releasing clouds of noxious gases.

TREVAN: The allies don't know where the weapons of mass destruction are. Otherwise the weapons inspectors would have gone there, found them, and destroyed them. So if they don't know where they are, any such bombing that might actually hit them would be purely accidental.

Now in the past, Iraq has stored these things in very remote areas in military sites with very high security but remote from population. So if there were release, it would probably be into a fairly unpopulated environment.

Also, both chemical and biological weapons are very delicate. They tend to be either large organo-phosphates for the chemical weapons or they are complex proteins or living organisms for the biological weapons. Both types of weapon are susceptible to heat and to sheer forces. So an explosion with its heat and sheer forces would probably kill pretty much all the biological agents and would probably destroy a large part of the chemical agent as well. I don't want to underplay the possibility. There is a chance of accidentally hitting a stockpile of chemical or biological weapons. I think that possibility is very low, and if there is an actual hit, there may be contamination but it's not going to be disastrous.

And actually, unless UNSCOM has evidence that they have not shown the Security Council or made public, we don't know whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not. What we do know is that Iraq hasn't accounted for certain things and that when Iraq has not accounted for things in the past it is because they have been hiding them.

What hasn't been accounted for is a small number of missiles. Certainly two of the 819 Scud missiles imported from the former Soviet Union are unaccounted for, and there could be some indigenously reverse engineered weapons unaccounted for too. So Iraq potentially has long range missiles.

We know that Iraq hasn't accounted for a very large quantity of chemicals that are the precursors for making the nerve agent VX, so potentially Iraq either has the chemicals to make VX or has made VX and is storing it.

And third, we know that Iraq has not accounted for a large quantity of complex growth media. The growth media that they did import, they used to make anthrax. Again, that either means that Iraq has that growth media in the country or potentially has anthrax made and stored in the country.

If you put the worst case scenario together, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, and has the means to deliver them by a long range missile, capable of hitting Israel, capable of hitting Iran, capable of hitting Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or Qatar.

However, if they did attack Israel with a missile loaded with chemical or biological weapons, I think they know that the response would be nuclear. If Saddam Hussein attacks the Allied forces with biological or chemical weapons, it vindicates the Western military action against him and it brings down the total wrath of the international community and will result in a war to remove him from power. So I see the chance of his using chemical or biological weapons as being very low. I think it's unlikely that he would use his missiles with high explosives either. So that leaves him with the ability to retaliate either through his land forces or through terrorism.

OUT THERE NEWS: What about the whole question of monitoring chemical and biological weapons?

TREVAN: Biological weapons are potentially even more devastating than nuclear weapons because of the potential for the disease to propagate itself in a biological way and spread out of control. In terms of monitoring the industries, many of the precursors used for making nerve gases are the same precursors for making insecticides. And much of the equipment used for making insecticides can be used for making nerve gases.

In the biological area, it's probably even more complicated because unlike the chemical area where there's a clear formula that if you start off with two of this and one of that, you'll end up with two of the other, in the biological area what you start off with is complex growth media plus a small amount of seed culture. And that seed culture is then grown almost geometrically. So in a very short time you end up with a huge amount of biological warfare agent because of this exponential growth.

Also in the biological area, you use things like fermenters to grow the bugs. These could just be adapted from making beer or yogurt. You have an enormous problem with dual purpose materials and equipment - things that have a legitimate use but could also be used for making weapons of mass destruction.

What you have to do then, for an inspection regime, is to identify the critical points in the production process where either the piece of equipment is single use or the technology involved in high-tech and either needs to be imported or will be found in only a few places.

What we do know is that Iraq hasn't accounted for certain things and that when Iraq has not accounted for things in the past it is because they have been hiding them.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998, page 19. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Tim Trevan here
Search for other articles by Out There News here

Peace Magazine homepage