U.N. Report Reveals Iraqis Stockpiled Biological Arms Officials Say It Was For Medical Use; Distribution Data Destroyed
Four years after the Persian Gulf war’s end, U.N. officials disclosed Monday that Iraq covered up evidence behind a biological weapons program to develop cholera, tuberculosis and the plague that was much larger than previously suspected.
In the 1980s, the Iraqi government imported enough material to cultivate up to 3.3 tons of bacteria, far more than it could have needed for peaceful medical purposes, U.N. Commissioner Rolf Ekeus revealed at a closed-door session.
When confronted with intelligence data in talks last week, Iraq claimed the material was long ago distributed throughout the country for medical use. But when U.N. inspectors asked for either the growth media or documentation about it, Iraq claimed both were destroyed during 1991 uprisings immediately after Operation Desert Storm.
The excuses were “lame” and “a joke,” U.N. officials said. “Their stories were the most fanciful so far,” said one leading official.
The revelation is particularly alarming because, unlike Iraq’s other weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons are most effective against civilian targets. And in the past, Iraq has shown no compunction about using equally controversial chemical weapons against civilian targets, notably during its eight-year war with Iran.
“Having missiles is no crime, and Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons is well known,” Ekeus said in an interview. “But being caught with biological weaponry is embarrassing - and very negative for the situation in the gulf.”
The biological capability is based on some 33 tons of a material known as “growth or diagnostic media,” in which various forms of germs for warfare can be grown. The media is also of concern because it was imported in 1988 and 1989, after Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran was over.
“Only a small amount of growth media is needed for diagnostic medical purposes, but Iraq imported a very large amount, in measurements of tons,” Ekeus said. “This can only coincide with the production of biological weapons.”
After talks with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Ekeus said the U.N. Commission and Iraq had agreed on “methods and procedures” to resolve the dispute. Ekeus was invited back to Iraq in late March to follow up.
In contrast, Iraq is now complying on nuclear and chemical weapons. With help from the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.N. arms inspectors believe “Iraq has no capability to produce a nuclear bomb,” Ekeus said.
And he said the U.N. Commission has destroyed 250,000 chemical warheads and units of ammunition. “Iraq no longer has militarily significant amounts of chemical weapons.” With near full compliance on nuclear and chemical weapons, Baghdad’s massive secret biological weapons effort is now the main obstacle standing in the way of lifting economic sanctions. And despite the setback on biological weapons, Ekeus is optimistic for the first time that Iraq wll be in full compliance this year, possibly even this spring.
A satisfactory report is considered the turning point after which the Security Council can consider lifting U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
As the first critical decision on sanctions approaches in April, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright is touring the world to try to hold together the rapidly deteriorating alliance that fought the war. The U.S.-led coalition is on the verge of formal rupture as Washington and its allies split over continuing sanctions against Iraq.
Three of the five permanent Security Council members - Russia, France and China - have launched their own campaign to lift sanctions. Russia and France were central members of the coalition during Operation Desert Storm.
Russia, France and others now argue that U.N. resolutions stipulate that sanctions will be lifted once Iraq satisfies U.N. inspectors that it has destroyed or turned over all weapons of mass destruction.
Although the Security Council has renewed sanctions 23 times when they have come up for periodic review, Ekeus said Iraqi compliance on the biological issue could open the way for the first positive report when his next written report is due April 10.
But the Clinton administration contends that Iraq should demonstrate its peaceful intentions and comply with other issues before sanctions are lifted. The other issues include accounting for all Kuwaitis detained, including up to 600 still missing, and returning property confiscated during the occupation.
France already announced last month that it would re-establish a diplomatic presence in Baghdad, and two French oil companies have signed deals with Iraq to go into effect the minute sanctions are lifted.Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all pivotal Gulf countries, have also recently called for easing U.N. sanctions because of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq.