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Playing with fire.

It is now official: Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The preemptive strike against his despotic regime was without foundation. However, the threat of chemical and biological warfare it seems, will not go away. Now, Iraq's insurgents are experimenting with similar deadly materials to the ones Saddam was accused of hoarding.

THE TRIAL OF NINE ALLEGED followers of Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, the Jordanian Palestinian who has become the bete noire of US-led forces in Iraq, on charges of plotting chemical bomb attacks against Jordan in April 2004, is underway in Amman. Authorities in the Hashemite kingdom say the bombs could have killed up to 80,000 people, mostly from a poisonous toxic cloud created by the explosions.

While that projected death toll, nearly 30 times greater than the carnage of 11 September 2001, has been greeted in many quarters with some scepticism and considered highly inflated for propaganda purposes, the intention by the Islamic militants appears to have been to cause as many casualties as possible and to decapitate the Jordanian government in what would have been the world's first such attack on that scale.

According to televised confessions by several of the suspects, including their alleged leader, the group planned to use three trucks packed with explosives and 20 tons of toxic chemicals to attack the Dairat Al Mukhabarat, the General intelligence Department (GID), in Amman, the prime minister's office and the US embassy.

The trial of the nine suspects, along with Zarqawi and four others still at large, opened on 15 December and underlined the threat of terrorist attacks with chemically-enhanced bombs or deadly nerve agents about which western intelligence agencies have been warning for some time. The danger was recently reinforced by a little-noticed US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report that said insurgent networks across Iraq were increasingly seeking to acquire and deploy toxic nerve gases, blister agents and germ weapons against coalition forces. One group, the report said, had recruited two Iraqi scientists and worked over seven months, largely unsuccessfully, to develop crude chemical and biological weapons before it was uncovered in June 2004.

The exhaustive 960-page report released in October 2004 was the work of Charles Duelfer, the CIA's chief weapons investigator in Iraq and a former deputy chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) that hunted down Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) between 1992 and 1998. In November 2004, US forces reported after storming the rebel-held city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, they had found crude chemical laboratories, including caches of poisons and documents on training and research on chemical weapons. Among the materials in one lab, the army said, were potassium cyanide and hydrochloric acid, both of which can be used to produce poison gas; sulphuric acid, a possible component of chemical weapons and explosives; and various agricultural fertilisers.

There has been only a handful of insurgent attacks involving chemical weapons, mostly roadside bombs using chemical-filled artillery shells from Iraq's pre-1991 stocks. None of these have caused casualties. US forces have recovered 53 decaying chemical shells or rockets that had apparently been looted from unguarded ammunition depots or other sites occupied by Saddam's military before the March 2003 invasion. The disclosure in October that 380 tons of high explosives had disappeared from the former nuclear programme facility at Al Qaqaa, south of Baghdad, gives some idea of how the Iraqi insurgents have been able to equip themselves. The missing explosives are only a minute fraction of some 250,000 tons of munitions from the vast Saddam-era stockpiles, unsecured by occupation forces, that remain unaccounted for.

Duelfer said in his report that the Iraq Survey Group, the largely CIA unit tasked with tracking down Saddam's WMD programmes following the invasion, stumbled across the insurgent chemical and biological warfare (CBW) operation in March 2004 after US troops raided a laboratory in Baghdad. They discovered an Iraqi chemist who had produced small quantities of ricin, made from castor beans and one of the deadliest known toxins. Western intelligence services have frequently linked Zarqawi and the Kurdish-based fundamentalist Ansar Al Islam organisation he has worked with, to efforts to produce and deploy ricin, which is comparatively easy to make and to conceal.

Duelfer said the insurgent group involved in that operation was named the Al Abud network, after the lab where the chemist was captured. It had begun working on CBW in December 2003 when fighters of Jaish-vMohammed (Mohammed's Army, largely made up of Saddam's intelligence and military personnel) based in Fallujah recruited "an inexperienced Baghdad chemist" to help them produce tabun, a lethal nerve agent. According to the CIA report, captured Jaish operatives told interrogators from Duelfer's group that they planned to fill mortar shells and other munitions to use against the occupation forces. The chemist was not able to produce tabun, but the rebels filled nine mortar rounds with another poisonous mixture he concocted. Duelfer's team deemed those shells useless as CBW weapons because the explosions, on impact, would incinerate the poison.

The Al Abud network switched to working on mustard gas in early 2004, but again failed to produce a deployable weapon. The group hired another young chemist--"a profit-seeking mercenary" rather than a supporter of the insurgency--who had his own lab. Again, their efforts to produce mustard gas failed, but when the two chemists were put together they produced ricin cake, which can be converted into ricin poison. Duelfer's team concluded that the chemists could produce ricin in small quantities, but were "not capable of facilitating a mass-casualty ricin attack".

Duelfer noted that the insurgents' efforts to produce rudimentary CBW capabilities caused great alarm in the coalition because the group had been able to recruit scientists and to fund their efforts. If the Al Abud network had not been rolled up, he maintained, "the consequences ... could have been devastating to coalition forces". The leaders and financiers of the network "remain at large and alleged chemical munitions remain unaccounted for".

The report concluded that the Al Abud group "was not the only group planning or attempting to produce CBW agents" and cautioned that the "availability of chemicals and materials dispersed throughout the country, and intellectual capital from the former WMD programmes increases the future threat to coalition forces".

In testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in October--vastly amplified in the CIA report--Duelfer cited evidence that some former Iraqi chemical weapons experts may now be allied with the insurgents. Although action by coalition forces may have reduced that threat, "it points to the problem that the dangerous expertise developed by the previous regime could be transferred to other hands".

Last October it was reported that US intelligence had intercepted offers of employment by Dan to several Iraqi weapons scientists. Mahdi Obeidi, who headed Saddam's uranium enrichment programme, has said that two of his former deputies have disappeared. Saddam employed hundreds of scientists on his WMD programmes, and went to great lengths to keep them loyal--jailing, torturing or killing those who opposed him. Since the fall of the Baathist regime, many of those scientists have been out of work or been forced to scrape a living in menial employment. The US has made token efforts to find suitable employment for these people, but it has proved to be woefully inadequate and many of these scientists could be lured to work for the well-funded insurgent groups.

In June 2003, the US under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, warned Congress: "The biggest threat that we now face from Iraq's defunct WMD programme is ... that other rogue states or terrorist organisations will hire and offer refuge to these WMD experts."

That may explain why, in September, Zarqawi's organisation demanded the release of women prisoners detained by the occupation forces in exchange for the lives of American and British hostages he held. According to US officials, the only women being held were two "high-value" detainees--Rihab Rashid Taba, a British-educated microbiologist known as "Dr. Germ" who headed Saddam's biological weapons programme in the late 1980s; and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, nicknamed "Mrs. Anthrax", a leading biotech researcher suspected of coordinating Saddam's biological weapons programme and a political figure who was close to the Iraqi dictator. The interim Iraqi government refused to release either of them.
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Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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