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A Big Threat

LAST WEEK THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, released its dossier, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Net Assessment." The report reviews what is known about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs -- past, present and future. The evidence is, at times, scant and sketchy -- and this has led both those who support and those who oppose a war on Iraq to claim the report as proof of their position. And although the institute purposely avoids commenting on whether Saddam Hussein's arsenal is a reason to go to war, one thing it makes abundantly clear is that Iraq is determined to keep its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs alive.

Colonel Terence Taylor, one of the principal authors of the study, left the British Ministry of Defense in 1992, after serving in the Gulf War. He was appointed United Nations commissioner on the Special Commission on Iraq (United Nations Special Commission), and it was his job to oversee the weapons inspections that were part of the cease-fire agreement ending the 1991 war. The inspections ended in a standoff in 1998. By then, Taylor was at IISS. His last assignment for the U.N. was as a chief inspector in Iraq in 1997. He resigned then, believing the inspections had become fruitless. The Weekly's GREG GOLDIN interviewed Taylor by telephone in Washington, D.C.

L.A. WEEKLY: Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction and, if so, are they a direct threat to the United States?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Yes, and to U.S. interests. I don't think that they can deliver a missile onto the continental United States. But we are talking about a government, a regime -- a tyranny, in effect -- in Iraq, which has substantial nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs which can destabilize the region. We've got a regime whose strategic objectives are unchanged, which is intent on advancing nuclear weapons and other weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, and looking for the chance to expand them and build them up for regional domination and to challenge the West and, of course, Israel, and to be a leader of the Arab world. Do we want this brutal tyranny to be running that part of the world? No. We don't wait until he's got nuclear weapons which are actually a real threat. Some people argue, "Well, he's never used them, so what's the point?" That's not what he's up there for. He's a rational person. He's using them for leverage, regional dominance.

 

What specifically do we know about Iraq's nuclear-weapons program?

Certainly, Iraq has a nuclear-weapons program. From all the evidence we've marshaled together, we've concluded that it's unlikely -- not impossible -- that Iraq has been able to produce over the past 10 years sufficient highly enriched uranium to make usable nuclear weapons. If these weapons-of-mass-destruction programs continue, if we don't stop the Iraqis now, they could have them at some time in the future -- that is to say, usable nuclear weapons.

 

Scott Ritter, another former UNSCOM official, has been widely quoted, most recently from Baghdad, saying that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, by 1998 "Iraq had no nuclear-weapons capability, none whatsoever, zero."

If Scott Ritter is talking about Iraq having no facilities for enrichment of uranium -- which is the key to bomb making -- that is correct. Their uranium-enrichment plants for uranium 235 were largely dismantled after the Gulf War, and with the inspectors there, it was very difficult for them to set up a system again. We had environmental monitoring going on, so it would be very hard for them to do that. But there was no way to know -- and we never knew -- any detail about bomb components. All the other bits of the bomb -- the firing circuits, explosive lenses, timing devices and all this other stuff -- we know for sure they were doing. They wouldn't spend 20 years on a nuclear-weapons program without manufacturing the components. We're convinced they went ahead with that. When I was on the commission, we always worried about that because we knew we could never find it.

 

So Iraq could be much further along than Ritter asserts?

We just don't know what's been happening since 1998. We think it's unlikely that by now they would have set up any substantial uranium 235 enrichment facilities. But they still have all the capability. They have very good designers, engineers and scientists. They can make all the bomb components. All they need is that fissile material, the U-235. If they get their hands on enriched uranium, maybe from outside Iraq, already made by somebody else, then it would only take them a few months to put a bomb together that would work. That would be alarming. That is the pessimistic, worst-case scenario.

 

 

Where would the uranium come from?

I don't know. This material has a market. I'm not saying it would come from Pakistan, almost certainly not from India, but I wouldn't rule out North Korea. And I wouldn't rule out private enterprise. That's where I'd be most worried. The Russian government certainly would be making every effort for it not to come from their sources, but there is no guarantee that it'll work. The weapons-grade material is not easy to get. It's very difficult, but not absolutely impossible. And what have they been doing over the past years? Probably finding out how to do that. Knowing the Iraqi procurement system, knowing their determination, it worries me a great deal.

 

Does Iraq have a credible delivery system for nukes?

Delivery is one of their shortcomings, and the Iraqis are less well off than they were before the Gulf War, by a considerable amount. We say they probably have the components to build up to 12 Al Hussein­type missiles. These are not missiles standing there, ready to light, and there you go. They're not ready to use now, but they could be put together. With a 600-kilometer range, that would get to Tel Aviv, to Riyadh. There are also other ways they can deliver a nuclear device. It could be by aircraft. Or by some unusual means -- a truck turns up â in a city somewhere, a ship -- and the phone rings, saying, "Please do what we want because sitting in New York Harbor is one of these things." What do you do then? They can't do that right now, I believe, but we don't wait for that to happen.

 

What do you believe are the facts on the chemical and biological weapons Iraq has at its disposal?

We don't know the precise quantity, of course. On chemical weapons, our net assessment is that Iraq has probably retained a few hundred tons of mustard gas and precursors, and also a few hundred for precursors of sarin and cyclosarin (nerve agents), and perhaps similar amounts of VX from pre-1991 stocks. Now, a few hundred tons is quite a lot. Iraq is capable of resuming chemical-weapons production at short notice, in a matter of months, using existing civilian facilities. It could have produced hundreds of tons of agents, mustard and nerve agents, since 1998, and we don't know.

As for biological weapons, Iraq has probably retained substantial growth media -- that's the stuff for growing the bugs -- and perhaps thousands of liters of anthrax from pre-1991 stocks. We do not know what their production runs were, but this is stuff you can keep. You don't have to pull anthrax off the shelf, as in spoiled supermarket goods with pull dates. That's why it's popular -- meaning it's featured in every biological-weapons program I've known because it's stable and lasts a long time.

And, again, the regime is capable of resuming biological-weapons production at short notice, within weeks. It could have produced thousands of liters of anthrax, for all we know, botulinum toxins and other agents since 1998.

Smallpox, I'm not convinced that they have that. They probably did some work on it. It's very difficult to work with, difficult to weaponize. I think that there is evidence that they did look at various kinds of poxes, including camel pox; these are of the same genetic heritage, and so they were obviously looking at these kinds of viral agents, but I think it was more of a research program, and hardly got to development, in my view. At least I've seen no evidence of it.

The most worrying thing is the biological-weapons program, about which we know the least. These are easier to deliver than the large quantities of chemical weapons. Biological agents could be delivered by short-range munitions, including artillery shells and rockets. They already have the warheads to hurl the anthrax and botulinum toxin. As for the chemical weapons, unless Iraq has advanced beyond the impact fusing and warhead design of its 1990-era warheads, its ability to effectively disseminate these agents on ballistic missiles is questionable, since so much agent would be destroyed on impact.

 

Scott Ritter also says any talk of Iraq having these capabilities is "absurd" and "all rhetoric," because the nerve gases and toxins your report refers to are old and useless for making weapons.

Come on, he's not an expert in chemical and biological weapons. I don't know how he says these things. That is absolute rubbish. Mustard agents are very stable, keep for a long time, decades and decades. Anthrax keeps for hundreds of years if you store it right. Certain agents, maybe the VX, they've had problems with stability, but the answer to that is, particularly on biological-weapons facilities, you do your production run nearer the time you think you might want to use it, or you have the weapons ready. So, you have it all worked out where you're going to do it, how to do it, you get all the technological details, you do test runs, and then when you think you might need it, you do the production run and you do the filling. So you don't need to keep a lot of stuff stored. It would be useful; they're not going to throw away the mustard agent they have, clearly.

 

Your report concludes with this comment: "This Strategic Dossier does not attempt to make a case, either way, as to whether Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction arsenal is a casus belli per se. Wait and the threat will grow; strike and the threat may be used." This would seem to say, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."

That's what Hussein would love us to think. And try to put us off, which means we should act sooner, rather than later. The obvious military conclusion is, you don't wait until they advance their programs further and make them more dangerous. You get on with it, and do it quicker -- that's my conclusion from that -- if you think military action is the way to go.

Is it?

I think we just can't let the situation drift any more. It's becoming increasingly hard to keep support for sanctions. I think we've got six months to deal with this, or whatever unity there is -- it's pretty sort of thin already -- will totally fall apart, and we'll end up with a regime in Baghdad with nuclear weapons in two years' time.

 

What do you think of French President Jacques Chirac's proposal that the U.N. Security Council should first give Iraq a chance to let inspectors return and only if Iraq doesn't comply fully with inspection should military action be considered?

In principle I don't have a problem with what Chirac is saying, and I suspect it will gain some currency on this side of the Atlantic. There are dangers lurking in it -- but it's worth a shot. As long as we stand together when it doesn't work. And no strings. Zero strings. Otherwise, we are in serious trouble. We'll have a nuclear-armed Iraq, able to dominate the region. More advanced biological- or chemical-weapons programs, and maybe even advanced missile programs. And we'd have to deal with Iraq differently than the way we deal with it now. Whereas, I think if there is a really credible threat of the use of substantial military force against Iraq, it will force a recalculation in Baghdad among Saddam Hussein's colleagues. You need that dynamic to make policy changes in Baghdad.


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