Biological fears hang over Iraqi equation

February 13, 1998

Military bugs, illegal guns: Huw Richards on the threats they pose.

MISSING, but feared still extant - 25 ballistic missiles and 166 spray bombs armed with biological agents designed to spread anthrax and botulism.

Iraq claims to have destroyed its biological warfare capacity, but Simon Whitby, research assistant in peace studies at Bradford University, who is writing a doctoral thesis examining the biological programmes of Iraq and the United States, says: "It looks as though they have something to hide. The figures given to the United Nations investigating commission do not add up." The Iraqis are also known to have developed biological weapons aimed at destroying an enemy's crops.

The US halted its offensive biological weapons programme in 1969. Mr Whitby and Paul Rogers, also of Bradford's peace studies department,say in a recent article that America stopped its programme "not because biological warfare was likely to be ineffective, but because of a concern that the relatively intermediate level of technology required could lead to the development of potentially devastating weapons systems".

Biological weaponry was subsequently brought under international law by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which now needs strengthening,Whitby and Rogers say.

They argue that although not as immediately devastating as some weapons, anti-crop weapons can be just as destructive as nuclear or chemical attacks in the medium or long term. Mr Whitby says they could lead to famine on the scale of the Irish potato blight of 1846-51, which killed about a million people, devastated much of the country and led to mass emigration.

The relatively intermediate technology involved means that a biological capability is easier to attain than a nuclear or chemical one. Of Iraq's ability to develop biological capacity, Whitby and Rogers say: "This alone is a powerful stimulus to other states to follow a similar path." Iran, Libya and Syria are also thought to have a biological capability. The comprehensive information on biological warfare that South Africa supplied to the UN appears to confirm the belief that it had a programme.

The Iraqi anti-crop programme was aimed at the Iranian wheat crop, which is concentrated in a region near the border with Iraq. Field tests left large amounts of contaminated grain in Iraq.

The US programme developed pathogens aimed at the Chinese rice crop, Ukranian wheat and the rye and wheat crops of Central and Eastern Europe. Cuba has accused the US of using biological agents to attack its citrus products, but a UN investigation did not support this.

Of worries that anti-crop arms may be used soon, Mr Whitby says: "They are economic weapons, which take effect in the long term, so will not figure in anything that happens in the Gulf in the next few weeks," he says.*

Research papers can be found on the THES Internet site: http//ww.thesis.co.uk.

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