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'Dr. Germ': One of the World's Most Dangerous Women : Weapons: Rihab Rashid Taha masterminded Iraq's deadly germ-warfare program. And for years, she helped hide it.

November 07, 1995|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For four years, Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha would turn on the tears and even throw small tantrums in sessions with U.N. investigators in Baghdad. No, no, no, she would protest, Iraq never, ever developed biological weapons. Earlier this year, she stormed out of one session weeping.

"It was a role she played rather well," recalled one U.N. scientist. "But we knew she was lying."

And recently, Taha finally had to come clean. With no sign of remorse, she coldly admitted to the same U.N. officials that Iraq had developed one of the most original, wide-ranging and deadly programs in the history of germ warfare.

Not until the recent defection of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Majid, son-in-law of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and head of all weapons of mass destruction, was Taha ordered by her government to tell the truth--or at least more of it.

Only after that did Iraq admit that it had also worked on viruses that make eyes bleed, cause children to die from diarrhea and spread camel pox--heretofore unknown forms of germ warfare. And U.N. investigators think there are more surprises to come.

Even conservative estimates contend that Iraq's recently revealed array of bacteria, viruses and toxins could have killed tens of millions of people; the amounts of agents could theoretically have killed billions. The only limits were the delivery systems.

Not surprisingly, Taha is considered by Western intelligence agencies to be one of the most dangerous women in the world.

For the Arab world, she also reflects progress of a sort. Taha is one of a growing number of Arab women, particularly those in largely secular societies such as Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, who have a shot at top positions.

Nicknamed "Dr. Germ" by Westerners and Iraqis alike, Taha was the front woman for a biological warfare program ordered personally by Hussein.

Of medium height with slightly graying black hair that she wears long and pulled back, she was the mastermind behind the development of anthrax and botulinum bacteria that Iraq prepared for use against Israel, Iran and the U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991. Her contributions represented the most successful side of a multifaceted research program--about which she was intensely pleased, U.N. and U.S. officials say.

"There's no question that she [supported] the program," said a leading U.N. scientist. "She had no hesitation about presenting herself as the brains behind it. She's a proud Iraqi and especially proud of what she was able to accomplish for Iraq. I don't think she had a qualm in the world about it."

*

Taha deceived with equal accomplishment, say those who dealt with her. Through more than four years of dealing with the United Nations, she told its experts that Iraq's biological weapons program was purely defensive. Only 10 people had been involved in writing six research papers over a four-year period, she said.

The program, launched in 1985, instead had up to 150 scientists and senior technicians working on offensive programs, Western officials say. By 1988, Iraq had sufficient toxic agents to begin large-scale production of offensive weapons. And on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Iraq had assembled almost 200 bombs and artillery warheads full of diseases and poisons.

Taha admitted the timetable and an offensive capability to U.N. Commissioner Rolf Ekeus in July. But even that was far from the whole story.

Taha also tried to dupe the press. Last spring, she escorted 25 foreign journalists through a high-tech chicken and bio-pesticide plant at Al Hakam, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. It was designed only to increase production to feed 20 million Iraqis in their fifth year of economic sanctions, she claimed. "Our country now needs fat chicken and lots of eggs, so we are trying to do just that here," she said. "This project is for purely civilian use."

But Al Hakam has also been a headquarters for the development of both anthrax and botulinum--two of the deadliest aspects of a multifaceted program, and Taha's own specialties.

Anthrax is a hardy organism, more deadly than any chemical agent, that multiplies within the body and kills within one to five days after being dispersed into the air by artillery shells or bombs. A lethal dose fits on a needle tip. Iraq produced dozens of gallons--at least--according to the U.N. team.

Under Taha's tutelage, Iraq also produced thousands of gallons of botulinum, which produces toxins including those in food poisoning that usually kill within 12 to 24 hours. A millionth of an ounce is enough to kill. Much of it was stored at Al Hakam.

The facility was so secret that, unlike two other installations for biological and chemical warfare, it was not detected by U.S. intelligence. While the other two were seriously damaged during the gulf war, it escaped bombardment.

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