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Biological Weapons Program: History

Iraq's biological weapons program embraced a comprehensive range of agents and munitions. Agents under Iraq's biological weapons program included lethal agents, e.g. anthrax, botulinum toxin and ricin, and incapacitating agents, e.g. aflatoxin, mycotoxins, haemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus and rotavirus. The scope of biological warfare agents worked on by Iraq encompassed both anti-personnel and anti-plant weapons. The program covered a whole variety of biological weapons delivery means, from tactical weapons (e.g. 122 mm rockets and artillery shells), to strategic weapons (e.g. aerial bombs and Al Hussein warheads filled with anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin) and "economic" weapons, e.g. wheat cover smut. Given the Iraqi claim that only five years had elapsed since its declared inception in 1985, the achievements of Iraq's biological weapons program were remarkable.

The achievements included the production and actual weaponization of large quantities of bacterial agents and aflatoxin and research on a variety of other biological weapons agents. A special dedicated facility, Al Hakam, for biological weapons research and development as well as large- scale production was under construction, with most essential elements completed at the time of the Gulf war and production and storage capabilities operational. A number of other facilities and establishments in Iraq provided active support for the biological weapons program. The program appears to have a degree of balance suggesting a high level of management and planning that envisioned the inclusion of all aspects of a biological weapons program, from research to weaponization. It is also reasonable to assume that, given that biological weapons were considered as strategic weapons and were actually deployed, detailed thought must have been given to the doctrine of operational use for these weapons of mass destruction.

It appears that, until August 1990, the biological weapons program had been developing at a steady pace, continuing to expand and diversify. In August 1990, a "crash" program was launched and the imperatives of production and weaponization took over.

Iraq stated that, in 1974, the Government had adopted a policy to acquire biological weapons. In 1975, a research and development biological weapons program was established under the Al Hazen Ibn Al Haytham Institute at a site located in Al Salman. The work was poorly directed. Coupled with a lack of appropriate facilities and equipment, it was said the Institute achieved little and it closed in 1978;

The failure of the Al Hazen Institute was claimed to be a severe setback for the program and the following years are alleged to be devoid of any biological weapons-related activity. In the early period of the Iran/Iraq war (perhaps in 1982 or 1983), a prominent Iraqi microbiologist wrote a report expressing his concerns on scientific developments relating to biological warfare agents and suggesting that research in this subject be commenced in Iraq. It is still uncertain whether this report was followed up, but in 1985 the Muthanna State Establishment, Iraq's main facility for chemical weapons research and development, production and weaponization, recommended the commencement of a biological weapons program. In May or June 1985, Muthanna sought and obtained endorsement from the Ministry of Defence for this program. It was anticipated that the biological weapons research would be productionoriented and thus, in addition to laboratory-scale equipment, a pilot plant in the form of one 150-litre fermenter was purchased by Muthanna. Throughout 1985, personnel were recruited by Muthanna and by the end of the year, a staff of 10 was working on biological weapons research.

Initial work at Muthanna was said to focus on literature studies, until April 1986, when bacterial strains were received from overseas. Research then concentrated on the characterization of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Clostridium botulinum (botulinum toxin) to establish pathogenicity, growth and sporulation conditions, and their storage parameters. (Anthrax is an acute bacterial disease of animals and humans that can be incurred by ingestion or inhalation of the bacterial spores or through skin lesions. Untreated, it is able to produce a fatal infection. Botulinum toxin can produce an acute muscular paralysis resulting in death of animals or humans.)

As claimed by Iraq, there was no production of agents and the imported fermenters at Muthanna were not used. However, Muthanna was still looking ahead to biological warfare agent production and wrote a report to the Ministry of Defence recommending that the former single-cell protein plant at Taji be taken over by Muthanna for the production of botulinum toxin. The Ministry of Defence agreed but, in early 1987, before the plan could be implemented, the proposal went into abeyance for a short time owing to administrative reasons.

In May 1987, the biological weapons program was transferred from Muthanna to Al Salman. The reason for this was said to be that the biological work interfered with the (presumably higher-priority) chemical weapons program at Muthanna. At Al Salman, the biological weapons group administratively came under the Forensic Research Department of the Technical Research Centre (TRC) of the Military Industrialization Corporation. After a slow beginning, it appeared that the biological weapons program flourished at Al Salman. Equipment, including the fermenters, was transferred from Muthanna, new equipment was acquired, and new staff joined the biological weapons group to bring the workforce up to about 18. The research at Al Salman shifted to issues related more to the application of the agents as biological weapons. The effects on larger animals, including sheep, donkeys, monkeys and dogs, were studied within the laboratory and inhalation chamber, as well as in the field. Initial weapons field trials were conducted in early 1988. Studies of scale-up production were initiated on botulinum toxin and anthrax.

The earlier proposal for the acquisition of a biological weapons production site was revived and the former single-cell protein plant at Taji was taken over by TRC in mid-1987. The plant was said to be in a run- down condition and it was not until early in 1988 that it was made operational. With a workforce of eight people, and using one 450-litre fermenter, production of botulinum toxin commenced in February or March 1988 and continued until September/October of that year. Production of botulinum toxin also was carried out at Al Salman in flasks or laboratory fermenters.

Initial production fermentation studies with anthrax at Al Salman used 7- and 14-litre laboratory-scale fermenters at the end of 1988. From the beginning of 1989, the 150-litre fermenter transferred from Muthanna was used to produce Bacillus subtilis, a simulant for anthrax as a biological warfare agent. After five or six runs of producing subtilis, anthrax production began at Al Salman around March 1989. About 15 or 16 production runs were performed, producing up to 1,500 litres of anthrax, which was concentrated to 150 litres. Additional production with the laboratory fermenters was also accomplished.

Towards the end of 1987, a report on the success of biological weapons work by TRC was submitted to MIC. This resulted in a decision to enter the full-scale production phase for a biological weapons program.

In March 1988, a new site for biological weapons production was selected at a location now known as Al Hakam. The project was given the designator "324". The design philosophy for the Al Hakam plant was taken from the chemical weapons research and production facility at Muthanna: the buildings were to be well separated, research areas were segregated from production areas and the architectural features of Muthanna buildings copied where appropriate. The plan for the new facility at Al Hakam envisaged research and development, production and storage of biological warfare agents, but not munitions filling. Construction of the production buildings at the northern end of the Al Hakam site was largely complete by September 1988 after which work commenced on erection of the laboratory buildings.

In 1988, a search for production equipment for the biological weapons program was conducted in Iraq. Two 1,850-litre and seven 1,480- litre fermenters from the Veterinary Research Laboratories were transferred to Al Hakam in November 1988. The 450-litre fermenter line at Taji, which was at the time used in the production of botulinum toxin, was also earmarked for transfer to Al Hakam and was relocated there in October 1988. From mid-1988, large fermenters were also sought from abroad, but after Iraq completed a contract for a 5,000-litre fermenter, an export licence was not granted.

At Al Hakam, production of botulinum toxin for weapons purposes began in April 1989 and anthrax in May 1989. Initially much of the fermentation capacity for anthrax was used for the production of anthrax simulant for weapons field trials. Production of anthrax itself, it is claimed, began in earnest in 1990. In total, about 6,000 litres of concentrated botulinum toxin and 8,425 litres of anthrax were produced at Al Hakam during 1990.

From the early period of the biological weapons program at Al Salman, there was interest in other potential biological warfare agents beyond anthrax and botulinum toxin. It became the policy to expand the biological weapons program into these other fields. Thus, from the design phase of Al Hakam as a biological weapons research, production and storage facility, there were plans for such diversification, including facilities to work on viruses and laboratory space for genetic engineering studies.

In April 1988, in addition to anthrax and botulinum toxin, a new agent, Clostridium perfringens, was added to the bacterial research work at Al Salman. (Clostridium perfringens produces a condition known as gas gangrene, so named because of the production of gaseous rotting of flesh, common in war casualties requiring amputation of limbs.) In August 1989, work on perfringens was transferred from Al Salman to Al Hakam.

In May 1988, studies were said to be initiated at Al Salman on aflatoxin. (Aflatoxin is a toxin commonly associated with fungal- contaminated food grains and is known for its induction of liver cancers. It is generally considered to be non-lethal in humans but of serious medical concern because of its carcinogenic activity.) Later research was also done on trichothecene mycotoxins such as T-2 and DAS. (Tricothecene mycotoxins produce nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and skin irritation and, unlike most microbial toxins, can be absorbed through the skin.) Research was conducted into the toxic effects of aflatoxins as biological warfare agents and their effect when combined with other chemicals. Aflatoxin was produced by the growth of the fungus aspergillus in 5-litre flasks at Al Salman.

In 1989, it was decided to move aflatoxin production for biological weapons purposes to a facility at Fudaliyah. The facility was used for aflatoxin production in flasks from April/May 1990 to December 1990. A total of about 1,850 litres of toxin in solution was declared as having been produced at Fudaliyah.

Another fungal agent examined by Iraq for its biological weapons potential was wheat cover smut. (Wheat cover smut produces a black growth on wheat and other cereal grains; contaminated grain cannot be used as foodstuff.) After small production at Al Salman, larger-scale production was carried out near Mosul in 1987 and 1988 and considerable quantities of contaminated grain were harvested. The idea was said not to have been further developed; however, it was only sometime in 1990 that the contaminated grain was destroyed by burning at the Fudaliyah site.

Another toxin worked for weapons application was ricin. (Ricin is a protein toxin derived from castor bean plants that is highly lethal to humans and animals. When inhaled, ricin produces a severe diffuse breakdown of lung tissue resulting in a haemorrhagic pneumonia and death.) It appears that work started in 1988 at Al Salman. The first samples of ricin were supplied from the Sammarra drug factory and after some initial toxicological tests in conjunction with Muthanna, the quantity required for a weapons test was determined. Ten litres of concentrated ricin were prepared. A weapons trial was conducted with the assistance of Muthanna using artillery shells. The test was considered to be a failure. The project was said to have been abandoned after this.

Work on viruses for biological weapons purposes started at Al Salman in July 1990. Shortly thereafter, a decision was taken to acquire the Foot and Mouth Disease facility at Daura and it was taken over for biological weapons purposes, in addition to the continued production of vaccines. It was decided that the Daura plant within the biological weapons program would include facilities for bacteriology, virology and genetic engineering. Three viral agents for the biological weapons program were obtained from within Iraq: haemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus, a rotavirus and camel pox virus. (Haemorrhagic conjunctivitis is an acute disease that causes extreme pain and temporary blindness. Rotavirus causes acute diarrhea that could lead to dehydration and death. Camel pox causes fever and skin rash in camels; infection of humans is rare.) It was stated that very little work had been done on these viruses and none had been produced in quantity.

Early in 1988, efforts began in the weaponization of biological warfare agents and some of the senior scientists involved in the biological weapons program at TRC were sent to Iraq's munitions factories to familiarize themselves with this aspect. At about the same time, TRC first discussed with the Muthanna State Establishment weaponization of biological warfare agents and it was agreed that, because of Muthanna's experience in the weaponization of chemical agents, the Establishment would also provide the necessary assistance for the selection of weapons types for warfare agents and the conduct of field trials.

The first field trials of biological weapons were said to have been conducted in March 1988 at Muthanna's weapons test range, Muhammadiyat. Two tests were done on the same day, one using the anthrax simulant, Bacillus subtilis, and the other using botulinum toxin. The munitions chosen for the tests were aerial bombs positioned on adjacent stands. The effects were observed on test animals (for botulinum toxin) or on Petri dishes (for subtilis). The first tests of both agents were considered failures. The agents in both cases did not spread far enough. Later in March, the second field trial with the same weapons systems was said to have been conducted and it was considered successful.

No further weapons field trials were claimed to have been carried out for the next 18 months. In November 1989, further weaponization trials for anthrax (again using subtilis), botulinum toxin and aflatoxin were conducted, this time using 122 mm rockets, again at Muhammadiyat. These tests were also considered a success. Live firings of filled 122 mm rockets with the same agents were carried out in May 1990. Trials of R400 aerial bombs with Bacillus subtilis were first conducted in mid-August 1990. Final R400 trials using subtilis, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin followed in late August 1990.

After 2 August 1990, the date of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq's biological weapons program was drastically intensified: the emphasis was shifted to production and later to weaponization of produced biological warfare agents. The foot and mouth disease plant at Daura was converted to biological weapons production. The six vaccine fermenters with ancillary equipment at the plant were used for production of botulinum toxin from November 1990 until 15 January 1991, by which time about 5,400 litres of concentrated toxin had been produced. It was decided that there was an additional requirement for anthrax production and the fermenters at Al Hakam that had been previously used for the production of botulinum toxin there were modified to meet the requirements for increased anthrax production. Production of perfringens for biological weapons purposes also began at Al Hakam in August 1990 using the 150-litre fermenter which had been relocated from Al Salman. A total of 340 litres of concentrated perfringens was produced.

In December 1990, a program was initiated to develop an additional delivery means, a biological weapons spray tank based on a modified aircraft drop tank. The concept was that tanks would be fitted either to a piloted fighter or to a remotely piloted aircraft to spray up to 2,000 litres of anthrax over a target. The field trials for both the spray tank and the remotely piloted vehicle were conducted in January 1991. The test was considered a failure and no further effort towards further development was said to have been made. Nevertheless, three additional drop tanks were modified and stored, ready for use. They are said to have been destroyed in July 1991. The prototype spray tank used for trials was claimed to have been destroyed during the Gulf war bombing.

Weaponization of biological warfare agents began on a large scale in December 1990 at Muthanna. As declared, the R400 bombs were selected as the appropriate munition for aerial delivery and 100 were filled with botulinum toxin, 50 with anthrax and 16 with aflatoxin. In addition, 25 Al Hussein warheads, which had been produced in a special production run since August 1990, were filled with botulinum toxin (13), anthrax (10) and aflatoxin (2). These weapons were then deployed in early January 1991 at four locations, where they remained throughout the war.

In summary, Iraq declared the production of at least 19,000 litres of concentrated botulinum toxin (nearly 10,000 litres were filled into munitions), 8,500 litres of concentrated anthrax (some 6,500 litres were filled into munitions) and 2,200 litres of concentrated aflatoxin (1,580 litres were filled into munitions);

Iraq declared that it had decided to destroy biological munitions and the remaining biological warfare bulk agent after the Gulf war. An order for destruction was claimed to have been given orally, and no Iraqi representative seems to be able to recall an exact date for the order or the dates of destruction operations. The order was said to have been given some time in May or June 1991. All filled biological bombs were relocated to one airfield and deactivation chemicals added to agent fill. The bombs were then explosively destroyed and burnt, and the remains buried. A similar disposal technique was used for the missile warheads at a separate site. In late August 1995, Iraq showed to an UNSCOM team a location which it claimed to be a warhead destruction site. However, later on, Iraq changed its story and was unable to identify with any degree of certainty the exact location of warheads destruction operations.

Of the bacterial bulk agent stored at Al Hakam, Iraq stated that a similar deactivation procedure had been adopted. The detoxified liquid was emptied into the facility's septic tank and eventually dumped at the site. About 8,000 litres of concentrated botulinum toxin, over 2,000 litres of concentrated anthrax, 340 litres of concentrated perfringens and an unspecified quantity of aflatoxin, according to Iraq's declaration, were destroyed at Al Hakam.

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Updated Tuesday, November 03, 1998 6:48:07 AM