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Saddam's Toxins, Iraq's "Other" Weapon

(Winter 1995-96) Documents provided by Iraq show that Saddam Hussein's scientists produced more types and far larger amounts of toxic weapons than U.N. officials had suspected. They reveal that Iraq prepared missile warheads and bombs to deliver these weapons and test-fired at least one of those deadly missiles.

U.N. officials say that the most disturbing of these revelations is the advances Iraq made in the use of genetic engineering to create deadly toxins.

Toxins are poisonous substances produced by living organisms. They occur in nature in minute amounts. Recent advances in biotechnology, gene splicing and chemical synthesis allowed Iraq to mass produce these substances.

In arms talks, toxins are grouped with chemical and biological weapons. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention outlaws the development, production and stockpiling of toxins. They are prohibited under the terms of the current Chemical Weapons Convention. Despite this association they are neither chemical nor biological arms. They are in a class by themselves and are even more deadly than their better known lethal cousins.

Chemical weapons, such as nerve gas, are made by mixing two or more inert chemicals. They are effective for a short time. Biological weapons are living organisms that spread, mutate and reinfect the target and others.

Chemical and biological weapons are meant to attack large bodies of troops, cities or entire regions. Toxins can be used that way or used in small, hard-to-detect amounts to attack one person. A toxin is the "perfect" weapon for an assassin, saboteur or terrorist. It acts extremely quickly.

As military weapons, toxins are more stable and act much faster than chemical or biological arms. Most of those weapons are designed to incapacitate their victims or bring death hours or days later. Unlike biological weapons, which need to incubate within the host for hours or days, toxins act almost immediately. They are also desirable because they are inanimate and are incapable of multiplying.

Most toxins that affect humans are produced by bacteria, fungi, higher plants and some animals. The level of toxicity is much greater than that found in most chemical warfare agents. Until recently, toxins were not thought to be practical for battlefield use because they were so hard to produce.

To get a single gram of deadly saxitoxin or shellfish toxin, scientists have to harvest several tons of sea creatures (butter clams and mussels, respectively). Fungal mycotoxins produced by certain types of grass and wheat require an immense amount of material to yield enough for a single weapon. Advances in genetic engineering have changed all that.

Iraqi scientists identified toxin-producing genes and transferred them to other organisms to make even more harmful toxins. Among these weapons was a fungal mycotoxin even more deadly than that found naturally in grass and wheat.

The process Iraq used is no more complicated than making beer. Distillation, fermentation and bottling plants are ideal for making toxic weapons.

Toxins are not secret weapons; there is a great deal of literature on toxins. Cultures to grow them in are sold openly to research laboratories worldwide. They are routinely sent freeze-dried, by mail.

Except for very restricted pharmaceutical purposes such processes are outlawed by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Iraq ignored the convention and mass produced many toxins.

An Australian military biochemist assigned to the U.N. Special Commission, Rod Barton, says clostridium botulinum is a deadly strain of food poisoning whose bacteria produce the most poisonous substance ever discovered. A single microgram will cause death by paralysis in the largest and healthiest human. Barton says Iraq made enough of it to kill 15 billion people.

The U.N. knew that Iraq produced thousands of tons of chemical weapons. Most were thought to have been destroyed under U.N. supervision at a site near Muthana. But documents show that many weapons, including the warheads developed for Scud missiles, may still exist. Some were loaded onto vessels that the Iraqis sank in the Gulf.

The U.N. knew that Iraq produced biological weapons, such as anthrax, and that it developed botulinum toxins. The Iraqis claimed they had destroyed what they had produced, allegedly as a safety precaution lest a bombing raid accidently unleash them on the Iraqi population. The latest information is that Iraq produced far more in terms of amounts and varieties of weapons than it admitted and that it kept 500,000 liters of the cultures and agents to make more weapons.

Saddam's scientists developed enogh toxins and germs to kill four times the number of every living creature on the planet. They put these toxins and germs in specially designed warheads for medium-ranged missiles.

The documents show, U.N. Special Commission Chairman Ekeus reports, that 50 bombs were filled with bacterium and biological agents. Another 100 were loaded with botulinum. About 50 missile warheads were prepared. Some were filled with aflatoxin, a cancerous mycotoxin produced by molds found in animal feed meal.

The U.N. suspected that Iraq was working on these weapons, Ekeus says, but it greatly underestimated "the enormous force and dynamism of the program."

Other biological and toxic weapons the Iraqis researched cause lethal diarrhea in children, make the eyes bleed and produce hemorrhagic conjunctivitis. All of the weapons were tested on monkeys, rabbits and other animals. U.N. authorities have procured videotaped evidence of these tests, which one official says are "pretty horrific" and "sickening" to watch. Rumors persist that Iraq tested these weapons on human prisoners.
Eric Geiser

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