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Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Knew

Consider Iraq, with its commitment to biological weapons. Might such a nation wish to strike anonymously by spreading an economically devastating disease?

April 22, 2001|CHARLES DUELFER | Charles Duelfer is a guest scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy chairman of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq

WASHINGTON — Could the United States be at war and not know it? The current outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom makes one wonder. Not about Britain's plight specifically: There's nothing to suggest that the epidemic there is an act of war. But consider how quickly and easily it has spread. Then consider a regime like Iraq's, which has demonstrated a commitment to developing biological weapons. Might such a nation find it advantageous to strike anonymously and biologically by spreading an economically devastating disease or a slow-acting toxin?

This is not an abstract question. The Iraqi regime insists that the economic sanctions imposed on it are nothing less than a genocidal attack by the United States and the United Kingdom. The regime has said it is still bravely fighting the Persian Gulf War, and that it will respond to the plight of the Palestinians. It is easy to dismiss these statements as pure bluster.

But let's remember that Iraq developed significant weapons capabilities and has a track record of using them. Iraq acknowledged using 101,000 chemical munitions in its war with Iran. The regime employed chemical weapons and possibly biological ones against Iraqi Kurds in the north. Iraq acknowledges that it conducted extensive research and produced a range of biological weapons and agents. Among the agents known to have been loaded into warheads are aflatoxin, a fungal toxin that can cause liver cancer, and wheat-cover smut, which destroys grain crops. Neither of these is a traditional weapon. Neither causes immediate death or the incapacitation of an enemy army. Their ultimate devastating effects are long term and difficult to trace, which could make them particularly appealing to a rogue nation wishing to avoid retaliation.

As a U.N. weapons inspector, I and others on the inspection team sent to Baghdad tried repeatedly to get the regime to explain its intentions for biological weapons. In September 1995, during a late night meeting with Iraqi ministers and generals, the Iraqis provided me with long explanations and a few presidential documents that raised more questions than they answered. Our experts tried to determine the ultimate fate of these programs, but were stonewalled. Still, we know that Iraqi researchers considered combining agents in various ways to either enhance effects or conceal intent. We know they looked into mixing tear gas with aflatoxin. Iraq has not explained why it conducted such experiments.

However, if a regime wished to conceal a biological attack, what better way than this? Victims would suffer the short-term effects of inhaling tear gas and would assume that this was the totality of the attack: Subsequent cancers would not be linked to the prior event. And if a slow-developing disease can't be linked to the event that triggered it, how can a country prevent such attacks? How can it respond?

Science may be able to address part of this problem. Subtle differences in varieties of biological agents can be analyzed and traced to certain regions. Other effects may have signatures that can be observed in victims. Christine Gosden, a professor of medical genetics at the University of Liverpool, has been conducting a program of research and humanitarian assistance in the northern regions of Iraq, where the population and environment may have been subjected to biological weapons, in addition to chemical ones.

The long-term genetic, health and environmental effects of these attacks are significant. Gosden's early work is beginning to suggest that it may be possible to trace discernible genetic effects back to the specific agents that caused them. The evidence suggests that Saddam Hussein's army used more than simply nerve agent and mustard gas against the Kurds. This kind of analysis could be invaluable in confirming and tracing chemical and biological attacks.

But it still won't be easy. Let's suppose that Midwestern farmers suddenly experience a damaging blight of wheat-cover smut. This might be an attack from Mother Nature. But it might also be a more sinister attack, one from Iraq or some other nation with a beef against the United States, the last superpower. Today, it would not be easy to say which.

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