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.
U.S. officials suspect Al Hakam was used for some form of germ warfare storage or research long past the gulf war--after which Iraq now contends all biological weapons were destroyed. The Clinton Administration claims Al Hakam still may have a role.
It can now produce bio-pesticides far beyond anything Iraq needs or could use. With minimal alterations, it could be producing biological weapons within days. The seven-square-mile complex is surrounded by a high-security fence, and antiaircraft emplacements are perched on the roof--unusual precautions for a feed processing plant, U.S. and U.N. officials say.
During the tour, Taha even conceded: “This is the problem with all biological facilities. Their purposes can be changed.”
More recently, a U.N. official said: “They would argue that they’re moving this facility to peaceful purposes. But as we’ve learned, one person’s peace can be another person’s problem.”
U.N. inspectors learned only recently that Taha, now in her mid-40s, is married to Gen. Amer Rashid, who was a deputy to Majid, the defector. Last month, Rashid took over Majid’s role as director general of the Military Industrialization Corp., the secretive agency that oversees Iraq’s conventional- and unconventional-weapons programs. He is also minister of oil.
Rashid has refused to acknowledge that he had a role in Iraq’s effort to develop weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missiles. But U.S. and U.N. officials believe he has a long and nefarious involvement.
The marriage, which Taha and Rashid did not advertise even at home, would make the pair among the world’s most dangerous couples. Rashid is also still married to his first wife, by whom he has a 6-year-old son, U.S. officials say.
Taha received her early training in Iraq, but she also got a boost from the West. After undergraduate work at the University of Baghdad, she went on to do her doctorate in biology at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, U.S. and U.N. officials say.
By Arab standards, Iraqi women fare comparatively well. For every 10 men in professional or technical jobs, there are eight women. And for every 10 men in both high school and advanced schooling, there are at least six women, according to the 1995 U.N. Human Development Report.
But the Iraqi president may have used Taha’s sex--and lingering stereotypes--as part of the cover for his germ program. “He may have thought no one would believe a woman would be willing to do something so deadly,” said a U.S. official.
U.N. scientists say Taha is obviously good at her job, although they say they are not “overwhelmed” by her scientific capability. In detailed discussions about research methods and statistics, they say, she often fell short.
“But she’s forceful and, as four years of deception proved, she’s definitely persistent,” said the senior scientist. “Whatever her capabilities, she’s clearly a person who can get things done.”