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5 minute read
Douglas Waller

For four years Saddam Hussein has tried to hide his program to build weapons of mass destruction from the U.N. As long as Iraq is suspected of violating the U.N. weapons proscriptions, it will suffer from a crushing economic embargo, so every tactic is worth a try. When lies haven’t worked, Saddam has revealed information, but only those facts that he knew U.N. inspectors would eventually discover on their own. Pentagon officials have come to call the ploy “cheat and retreat.” Last week, in a major retreat, Baghdad confessed that it could have made the 1991 Persian Gulf War far more horrific than had been imagined.

In thousands of documents turned over to the U.N., Iraq admitted that as the U.S. mobilized forces to invade Kuwait in November 1990, it had begun filling 191 bombs and Scud missile warheads with deadly biological agents such as anthrax and botulinum toxin. The bombs would have been mounted on missiles, planes or drone aircraft and dropped on enemy troops, fewer than half of whom had received the appropriate germ-warfare vaccinations. Twenty-five Scuds outfitted with biological weapons were aimed at cities in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

There was more. One Iraqi report stated that shortly before invading Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam ordered a crash program to have a nuclear weapon built by April 1991. American bombing halted the program in January 1991–only three months before Saddam’s deadline.

One possible reason Saddam never used his biological weapons is that Washington sent him veiled threats indicating the U.S. and Israel would retaliate with nuclear arms if he did. Deploying the weapons effectively would in any case have been difficult. Still, Administration experts say they were capable of causing thousands of casualties. “It would have been awful,” says Matthew Meselson, a germ-warfare expert at Harvard University. For example, botulinum toxin kills by interfering with the nervous system and ultimately paralyzing the respiratory muscles. The Pentagon estimated that just one Scud missile warhead filled with the toxin could contaminate 1,430 sq. mi.

Baghdad has rushed to confess because Hussein Kamel al-Majid, Saddam’s son-in-law and the senior general in charge of his nuclear and biological weapons programs, defected to Jordan on Aug. 8. Saddam knew he couldn’t keep Hussein Kamel quiet, so he decided to try to make points with the U.N. by producing a flood of information on the weapons program. The day after Hussein Kamel defected, the chairman of the U.N. special commission on Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, received a letter from Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz summoning him to Baghdad for “new and important revelations.”

Ekeus met with Aziz, and then, on Aug. 20, as he was heading to a Baghdad airport, his Iraqi escorts suddenly diverted his car to a farm purportedly owned by Hussein Kamel. Ekeus was presented with 150 metal trunks and boxes crammed with documents that the Iraqis claimed the general had hidden from the government in his chicken house. American officials laughed at the notion that Hussein Kamel ever kept any records secret from Saddam. The steel cases, Ekeus said, “had not a speck of dust on them,” a clear clue that they’d been quickly planted.

Ekeus announced that the documents, which are being inventoried at a U.N. center in Baghdad, contained “radically new valuable data.” Iraq had previously insisted that its biological weapons program was only a low-level research effort and that all agents manufactured had been destroyed before the war started. Now it admits that there were five secret facilities producing a large stockpile of anthrax and botulinum toxin as well as three other types of poisons. Iraq claims the agents were destroyed after the war.

U.N. and American intelligence officials believe the new documents may confirm their worst suspicions of the Iraqi weapons program. For example, before the Kuwait invasion, the CIA concluded in a secret report that Iraq could cobble together at least one crude nuclear device and detonate it in the western Iraqi desert in a demonstration explosion “to shake the teeth of Saddam’s Arab neighbors,” as a former senior agency official puts it. Before the latest revelations were made, U.N. officials believed that Baghdad had produced more than a ton of anthrax and botulinum toxin, a small portion of which they suspect has not yet been destroyed.

U.N. diplomats suggest that Iraq has only until the end of the year to push for sanctions relief. After that comes the U.S. presidential election season, during which they believe Clinton would never lift the embargo for fear of appearing soft. So the regime is promising “100%” cooperation with the U.N. , according to Ekeus. But the Iraqis have been playing cheat and retreat skillfully for years, and even if Hussein Kamel’s defection makes it much harder, they will still no doubt find some ways to continue the game.

–With reporting by Stewart Stogel/New York, with other bureaus

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