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What Saddam's got

Much of his chemical and biological weaponry remains unaccounted for, and he's working on nukes

What Saddam's got

By Josh Tyrangiel

When Iraq accepted the terms of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire, it agreed to "destroy, or render harmless," all its weapons of mass destruction. The last U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, after obstruction by officials there rendered their work pointless. It is generally agreed that Saddam Hussein has not been behaving himself in their absence. The U.N. has collected reams of color satellite photos showing an unmistakable boom in reconstruction of Iraqi sites, some of which were weapons facilities in the past. "You can see hundreds of new roofs in these photos," says Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who heads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which is preparing to conduct future inspections in the event Saddam consents to them. "But you don't know what's under them." U.S. intelligence officials beg to differ. Says one: "The Iraqis have been putting themselves in a position to rejuvenate their weapons-of-mass-destruction programs."



No one has a precise answer. The International Atomic Energy Agency dismantled 40 nuclear-research facilities before the U.N. inspectors left Iraq, including three uranium-enrichment sites. Prior to the inspections, Saddam's stealthiness had been so effective that none of the 40 were known to the outside world. Clearly, Iraq was on its way to becoming a nuclear power. Without ground inspections, those who track Iraq's nuclear development have had to rely on interviews with recent defectors and surveys of suppliers Baghdad has contacted seeking parts. Both suggest that Iraq's nuclear program is back in full swing. "Iraq's known nuclear scientists are gravitating to the country's five nuclear research sites," says Charles Duelfer, who was the second-ranking official on the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on Iraq until it was disbanded in 1999. "That doesn't appear to be coincidental."

Experts including Duelfer and Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believe Saddam has the sophisticated triggers, weapon housings and everything else he needs to build a nuclear device--except for a sufficient supply of weapons-grade enriched uranium. Intelligence indicates that he is angling to obtain some on the international black market, but it's not something that your friendly neighborhood arms smuggler can lay hands on right away. So Saddam also is working to enrich his own uranium. That's a major technological challenge, but Iraq is expected to succeed within three to six years, at its current rate of progress.


Intelligence about Iraq's capabilities on these fronts is firmer and no less frightening. "We destroyed a lot of chemical weapons," says Duelfer of the U.N. inspection team. "They had a facility that was going night and day, like some weird James Bond movie." Inspectors discovered and disposed of 38,500 chemical munitions (such as shells, warheads, bombs), 690 tons of chemical weapons agents, 3,000 tons of precursor chemicals and 426 pieces of chemical production equipment. But Iraq never accounted for all the 100,000 chemical weapons it produced for use in the Iran-Iraq war, and there are fears that thousands of them, filled with either deadly VX or mustard gas, could be squirreled away.

CIA Director George Tenet told Congress in February, "Baghdad is expanding its civilian chemical industry in ways that could be diverted quickly to chemical weapons production." Procedurally there is not much difference between making pesticides and making chemical weapons. According to former UNSCOM chief Richard Butler, Iraq takes advantage of the similarities and eludes sanctions by using Jordanian front companies to import lathes and machine tools, which, once inside Iraq, are easily adapted to the production of chemical weapons. The Iraqis consistently deny violating the sanctions or the cease-fire deal.

Prior to the Gulf War, according to the Iraqi government, Baghdad produced 8,400 liters of anthrax, 19,000 liters of botulinum and 2,000 liters each of aflatoxin and clostridium. A single gram of anthrax--roughly 1/30 oz.--contains 1 trillion spores, or enough for 100 million fatal doses if properly dispersed. "In terms of where it went," says Duelfer of the Iraqi bio cache, "we could never nail it all down." Even if inspectors had found all the materials before they left the country, Iraq has almost certainly made more in the past three years. Thanks to Rihab Taha, a British-educated Iraqi biochemist, nicknamed Dr. Germ by the U.N. inspectors, Saddam still has the best biological expertise in the region.

Chemical and biological agents can wipe out entire populations, but first they must be placed in an effective delivery system, such as a bomb or warhead fitted with an aerosol diffuser that will spread its plagues or poisons before the weapon explodes. Iraq is believed to be working to perfect such delivery systems. All but about a dozen of Iraq's Soviet-made Scud missiles were accounted for and dismantled after the Gulf War, but last year Iraq began testing a new line of short-range ballistic missiles, which could potentially be loaded with viruses or gases and hit targets as far away as 93 miles. An internal report from the Iraqi National Congress, the chief Iraqi opposition group, says that during a televised procession at Baghdad's military parade ground last year, new missiles were displayed, including ones that appeared to violate the U.N. ban on long-range missiles that is meant to prevent Iraq from threatening Europe. A chemical weapons unit marched with the missiles that day. As it passed Saddam's reviewing stand, he became noticeably excited, firing several shots into the air. Perhaps the rest of the world should consider those fair warning.




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