United Nations officials disclosed Monday that Iraq has covered up evidence of a biological weapons program--much larger than previously suspected--that sought to develop cholera, tuberculosis and the plague.
In the 1980s, Baghdad imported enough material to cultivate up to 3.3 tons of bacteria, far more than it could have needed for peaceful medical purposes, U.N. Commissioner Rolf Ekeus revealed at a closed-door session with officials of the world body.
When confronted with intelligence data during talks last week, Baghdad claimed that the material had been distributed throughout Iraq for medical use long ago. But when U.N. inspectors asked for either the media in which biological agents would be grown or documentation about them, Iraqi officials said both were destroyed in uprisings in 1991, after the end of the Persian Gulf War.
The excuses were "lame" and "a joke," U.N. officials said. "Their stories were the most fanciful so far," one leading official said.
The revelation is particularly alarming because biological weapons are most effective against civilian, not military, targets. And Iraq has shown no compunction about using equally controversial chemical weapons against civilian targets, notably during its eight-year war with Iran.
Ekeus said in an interview that "being caught with biological weaponry is embarrassing--and very negative for the situation in the Gulf."
The U.N. assessment of Iraq's biological capability is based on the Iraqis having 33 tons of a material known as "growth or diagnostic media," in which germs for warfare can be grown. The media are also of concern because they were imported in 1988 and 1989, after Iraq's war with Iran.
"Only a small amount of growth media is needed for diagnostic medical purposes, but Iraq imported a very large amount, in measurements of tons," Ekeus said. "This can only coincide with the production of biological weapons."
After talks with Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, Ekeus said, the U.N. commission overseeing the destruction of Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction and Iraq had agreed on "methods and procedures" to resolve the dispute. Ekeus was invited back to Iraq in late March for further discussions.
Iraq is now complying on nuclear and chemical weapons. With help from the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.N. arms inspectors believe that "Iraq has no capability to produce a nuclear bomb," Ekeus said.
And the U.N. commission has destroyed 250,000 chemical warheads and units of ammunition. "Iraq no longer has militarily significant amounts of chemical weapons," Ekeus added.
With near-full compliance on nuclear and chemical weapons, Baghdad's massive secret biological weapons effort is now the main obstacle standing in the way of lifting economic sanctions. And despite the setback on biological weapons, Ekeus is optimistic for the first time that Baghdad will be in full compliance this year, possibly even this spring.
A satisfactory report is considered the turning point after which the U.N. Security Council can consider lifting sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
As the first critical decision on sanctions approaches in April, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is touring the world to try to hold together the rapidly deteriorating alliance that fought the war. The U.S.-led coalition is on the verge of formal rupture as Washington and its allies split over continuing sanctions against Iraq.
Three of the five permanent Security Council members--Russia, France and China--have launched their own campaigns for lifting sanctions. Russia and France were central members of the coalition during the Gulf War.
Moscow, Paris and others now argue that U.N. resolutions say sanctions will be lifted once Baghdad satisfies U.N. inspectors that it has destroyed or turned over all weapons of mass destruction.
Although the Security Council has renewed sanctions 23 times when they have come up for periodic review, Ekeus said that Iraqi compliance on the biological weapons issue could open the way for the first positive report when his next written assessment is due April 10.
But the Clinton Administration contends that Iraq should demonstrate its peaceful intent and comply with other issues before sanctions are lifted. The other issues include accounting for all Kuwaitis detained before and during the war and returning property confiscated during Baghdad's six-month occupation of Kuwait.
France announced last month that it would re-establish a diplomatic presence in Baghdad, and two French oil companies have signed deals with Iraq that will take effect when sanctions are lifted.
Russia has resisted U.S. pressure on grounds that sanctions prevent Iraq from paying back billions of dollars it owes for arms purchases--money Moscow needs for its troubled economy. Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all pivotal Persian Gulf states, have also called recently for easing U.N. sanctions because of the deteriorating situation for the Iraqi population.
Albright said in Prague on Monday that the Administration is prepared to veto any measure that would ease sanctions. But in an attempt to avoid having to use the veto, Albright is now touring Kuwait, Britain, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Italy, Honduras, Oman, Qatar and other nations.
In Kuwait last week, Albright said that her mission was "to assure not only Kuwait but the countries in the region that the United States is determined not to have Iraq be a threat to the region, since it seems to be our responsibility whenever there is a problem to answer the call."
At the White House on Monday, Press Secretary Mike McCurry added: "Any modification of the sanctions regime that ameliorates the pressure that (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein must feel is not at this time warranted."
Iraq fired back Monday when Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan charged that the U.S. initiative showed the Administration is "bankrupt and isolated" from the world community and is "begging (other countries) to realize its avarice and hegemony."
In comments published by the state-run press Monday, Hussein called sanctions "a weapon in the hands of the impotent. Iraq's huge natural resources and real wealth are sufficient to make the embargo something of the past."