|Some see her as the worlds most powerful woman, others as the worlds most evil, but both of those descriptions miss the point. Male or female, Dr. Rihab Rashida Taha would rank among the most important of a new breed of Third World weapons designers ó highly nationalistic, Western-educated and willing to violate any international norms or scientific ethics.|
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It was Saddamís decision to continue hiding her handiwork that has led to this crisis that could turn to war.
A 42-YEAR-OLD MOTHER of a baby girl, Rihab Rashida Taha al-Awazi is now, along with her husband, at the center of the Iraqi crisis. She is also, to borrow a phrase from her leader, the mother of all Third World biological weapons programs.
Nicknamed Dr. Germ by U.N. inspectors, it was she who sold the idea of an Iraqi biological weapons program to Saddam Hussein and was then given the job of creating its extensive and expensive stockpile of what the Pentagon calls bug bombs.
Gen. Amer Rashid al-Ubaidi, her husband of three years, has long been the man the U.N. inspectors deal with on the most sensitive superweapons issues, since he oversaw many of them.
There is no question that she was the driving force behind the Iraqi biological weapons program, says Dr. Gordon Oehler, who until two weeks ago ran the CIAs Non-Proliferation Center. Until she came along, the program had neither the leadership nor the technical expertise.
Physically nondescript, even mousy, say those who have met her, she is of medium height with slightly graying hair she wears long and pulled back. As a scientist, she is described by those same people as an average sort or ordinary. Yet her program is hardly ordinary or average.
WORK IS BEHIND CURRENT CRISIS
Twelve years after Taha made her first pitch for a germ-warfare program, Iraq is believed to have more than 10 billion deadly doses of anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin a crop pathogen that also can cause liver problems and quite possibly other bacteria, viruses, toxins and fungi hidden around Iraq in bunkers and factories. It was Saddams decision to continue hiding her handiwork that has led to this crisis that could turn to war.
Like so many Iraqi weapons scientists, Taha received her undergraduate training in Iraq and then in 1979 just before the Iran-Iraq war went to Englands East Anglia University in the working-class town of Norwich, for her Ph.D. Her courses were paid for by the Iraqi ministry of higher education.
In England, she studied plant pathogens diseases that attack crops like wheat and tobacco in a small lab under Dr. John Turner, the head of the universitys biology department. Described by others at the university biology department as someone who just scraped through, she did not have the credentials one would have expected for the position she later held. Some have said that if she were not a foreigner, she wouldnt have made it.
And although Taha was an Iraqi nationalist who referred to Saddam in almost fatherly terms, she spent much of her time in a campus residence with two Iranian girls. They would watch BBC reports on the progress of the war between their two countries, worried about how it was affecting people at home. Often, she would join Turner at his home. Several times a year, she would return to Baghdad, bringing back gifts for him, his wife and children as well as a kilogram of dates for her fellow students and faculty.
NOT A GIFTED STUDENT
Turner described Taha back then as introverted, pleasant, not a gifted student, but hard-working. When Turner first learned in 1995 of his proteges new line of work, he announced that he was shocked. She was the last person I would suspect of doing something like this. This is certainly not the person I knew.
In 1984, Taha left Norwich and headed back to Iraq, telling Turner she had been offered a job as a lecturer at the University of Baghdad. The question that lurks in Turners mind is whether Taha was sent West with the idea of developing expertise in biological weapons or whether her expertise fit neatly into a plan the Iraqis subsequently developed.
During that period, as Saddams ambitions grew and the Iran-Iraq war raged on, Baghdad sent hundreds of engineers to Europe and North America for training. Taha, like the British-educated head of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, Jafar Jafar, appears to been someone whose talents were fitted into a weapons program, rather than the reverse.
Whatever was true, by the next year, Taha had another agenda.
RESEARCHING THE POSSIBILITIES
On arriving home, she did not go to the University of Baghdad, but was assigned instead to the Iraqi chemical weapons operation at a place called al Muthanna, whose ambitious director was then looking to develop a companion program in germ warfare. Enter Dr. Taha, with her freshly minted Ph.D. She was assigned to do a paper study, drawn from published materials, of the possibilities of biological weapons.
In a few weeks, she had her paper done and presented it first to the men who ran al Muthanna, then the Ministry of Industry, both of whom quickly approved it. The paper became the seminal event in the development of the germ-warfare program. In fact, according to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, it was Taha who revived a dormant program that had been started in 1978 and then abandoned. Without her, ACDA believed, there would be no program.
In 1985, a prominent Iraqi microbiologist recommended re-establishing the biological weapons program, ACDA reported earlier this year, without identifying Taha. Research on anthrax and botulinum toxin was initiated at Iraqs main chemical-warfare facility at al Muthanna and continued until 1987 when the program was transferred to the Salman Pak facility.
COPYING THE U.S.
At Salman Pak, work flourished, mainly because of Iraqs dire situation in the Iran-Iraq war. After a futile attempt to sue for peace with Iran in early 1986, Saddam poured money into all of his superweapons programs. And Tahas Western experience was more than helpful to its success. For example, Taha knew that Iraq could order anthrax from specimen houses in the West, including the United States. One facility outside Washington sent 27 separate anthrax specimens to Iraq. U.N. inspectors say that she based a lot of her early work on published materials related to the long-dead U.S. biological weapons program.
We recognized they were trying to duplicate what the U.S. program had done before it was shut down, at least in terms of the agents they were producing, one inspector said.
Inhalation studies on anthrax and botulinum were conducted at Salman Pak and by the end of 1987, Iraq had decided to begin full-scale production.
The facility included animal pens, and according to both U.S. intelligence and UNSCOM inspectors, Taha and her staff were using their newfound prowess to test anthrax and botulinum first on rats and mice, then rhesus monkeys, beagles and eventually donkeys. Video provided UNSCOM two years ago showed the animals writhing in agony as the effects of the biological agents took hold. Particularly gruesome, the videos were never released.
HUMAN GUINEA PIGS?
Taha was directly responsible for those tests and some believe she may also have been responsible for human trials, although she and the Iraqi government deny it. There is indirect evidence of the need for human subjects. Early in the program, the Iraqis had difficulty obtaining primates for their experiments, even sending, at Tahas direction, a team to Africa in hopes of bringing some back. They returned empty-handed. That shortage of primates and a surfeit of Iranian prisoners of war have made many inspectors suspicious.
It certainly wouldnt have violated their scruples, one inspector said.
Within two years, Taha had built up a staff of 150. And although the CIA was not yet aware of her identity, it was aware of Iraqi research efforts. A secret October 1988 CIA intelligence estimate obtained by NBC News, entitled Chemical and Biological Weapons: A Poor Mans Atomic Bomb, stated unequivocally that Iraq had begun producing weapons-grade anthrax and botulinum.
WHAT THE CIA DIDNT KNOW
But the CIA thought that the Iraqi program was limited to Salman Pak, when in fact by 1988, a new and much larger facility was under construction. In March 1988, Taha had agreed to the selection of a plot of land near the town of al-Hakam for the main biological warfare production operation.
|Dr. Taha with colleagues in Iraq. One U.N. inspector described Taha's actions as hysterical, saying she would turn to tears, throw tantrums and even stormed out of one session.||
Like Iraqs nuclear and chemical weapons production complexes, al Hakam was divided into well-separated research and production areas. Equipment was brought from legitimate biotech facilities throughout the country. But al Hakam was to be Tahas biggest failure. Her management skills were not good and after a series of problems not atypical with scientists of any nationality or gender, construction of the new facility was taken away from her.|
But otherwise, her staff grew to hundreds of scientists and a larger network of facilities was built. In addition to anthrax and botulinum toxin, the U.N. later learned that gas gangrene, which causes the skin to melt and fall off, was researched at Salman Pak and later produced at al Hakam. Wheat smut, which can destroy wheat crops, was produced as an economic weapon at Salman Pak and another facility in Mosul in the north of the country. Ten liters of ricin, a toxin which if touched can cause death, were produced and unsuccessfully field tested in artillery shells. Viral research on acute hemorrhagic conjunctivitis and camel pox was conducted for a short time at the Daura facility. Taha also told the UNSCOM inspectors that genetic engineering to create antibiotic-resistant agents was planned but she said it was never realized. Evidence that Iraq experimented with plague also was denied despite indications the Iraqis purchased and stored the necessary growth media.
Even after the Iran-Iraq war ended in August 1988, Saddam continued pushing the program to its limits, running tests on filling bombs, rockets and eventually missile warheads with agents. Although a scientist, Taha was taken to the factories where the munitions were being built so she could get a rudimentary understanding of how what she was producing in larger and larger imported fermentation vats was converted into weapons.
Often, she would go to Europe on shopping trips, buying top-of-the-line equipment in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
TARGETING THE U.N. COALITION
After Iraqs invasion of Kuwait, word went forth from Baghdad that Taha should gear up the germ-warfare program make it a crash program. Saddams people wanted biological weapons that could injure or kill the enemy, that is, coalition troops, she told the U.N. Whatever restraints were on the program ended and new types of agents were developed and in some cases tested, under her control.
At al Muthanna, the chemical weapons facility, at least 100 bombs were filled with botulinum toxin, 50 with anthrax and 16 with aflatoxin. Twenty-five al-Hussein missiles, capable of reaching Dharhan or Tel Aviv, were to be equipped with warheads filled with the same three agents. Munitions were deployed at four locations.
Aircraft drop tanks were modified as biological spray tanks. To be fitted to either piloted or unpiloted aircraft, the tank would be able to spray up to 2,000 liters of anthrax over a target. Field trials were conducted in early January 1991 although Iraq now claims the trials were failures. The Iraqis never got a chance to try the spray tanks in combat. On Jan. 31, the U.S. sent a cruise missile into Iraq and took out an unpiloted MiG-21 that had been used as a testbed.
At the same time, U.S. jets mercilessly bombed Salman Pak and other known biological warfare facilities, including al-Muthanna. But Tahas biggest secret, al-Hakam, remained just that, a secret. It was untouched by U.S. bombing and continued operating at full strength. Iraq and Dr. Germ had succeeded in hiding their greatest asset.
A CONSUMMATE LIAR
When the war ended, and UNSCOM inspectors arrived in Iraq, Taha became the point person for U.N. inspectors regarding the biological weapons program. Nervous at first, she eventually toughened, proving herself over and over again to be, in the words of one inspector, a consummate liar.
First, she claimed the program had been defensive in nature; then that all biological agents and munitions were ordered destroyed in the months after the war, none of which inspectors believed. It became a game of cheat, retreat and cheat again.
The first U.N. inspector to meet Taha was Dr. David Huxsoll, who headed the initial U.N. biological weapons inspection team in 1991 and later returned with two other teams in 1991 and 1994. Now the dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University, Huxsoll had been the commander of the U.S. Armys Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Dietrick, Md., whose primary mission is developing vaccines and treatments for biological weapons.
By the time he arrived in Baghdad, he had been briefed about Tahas role, but he was not prepared for what he found.
She was a quiet, unassuming individual to look at her, says Huxsoll, adding his voice to her academic advisers appraisal. No one would suspect she was the head of a germ-warfare program.
In dealing with the inspection teams, she was accommodating to our personnels needs. She and I got along well together, considering ... But there was another side to her as well, an insecure side. In response to my interest in what she was doing, she expected an opinion from me on whether she was a good scientist.
ROLE MODEL FOR IRAQI WOMEN
Taha has been held up as an example to Iraqi women interested in science in spite of a career devoid of any accomplishment other than the development of germ warfare.
Last January 17, instead of meeting with UNSCOM inspectors, Dr. Taha went to a ceremony at the Military Industrial Commission. Dressed in a smart blue suit and fashionable jewelry, she was presented with an award by Saddam at a special Science Day celebration. The award, said a UNSCOM inspector, was for her work in biological weapons, specifically the development of anthrax and botulinum weapons.
It couldnt have been for anything else, said one inspector. She did not achieve anything else in her career.
Raymond Zilinskas, at the time a germ-warfare analyst at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, met Taha on two trips to al-Hakam (which the CIA ultimately learned about).
Tahas skills were evident to him, not only in the area of biotech, but also in the area of management. The Iraqis, he notes, keep all sorts of records of their weapons programs.
But Zilinskas wonders what they are still trying to hide of Dr. Germs handiwork. One thing he suspects: the Iraqis used human as well as animal subjects in their experiments, as the Japanese did in World War II, throwing prisoners of war into cells and subjecting them to all kinds of biological horrors.
Thats what everybodys asking, he told the New York Times. The speculation is that it probably has to be unsavory activities unethical experimentation. The real mysteries have to do with testing. These are records they would go to any lengths to hide. The biggest mystery is what they intend to do. What was the intent of each of the warheads that they were going to put on their missiles.
TIGHTENING THE NOOSE
But as the UNSCOM noose tightened, Taha became increasingly pressured about just what Iraq had accomplished under her tutelage. One inspector described her actions as hysterical, saying Dr. Germ would turn to tears, throw tantrums and even storm out of one session with U.N. inspectors.
Repeatedly, she denied what UNSCOM inspectors had found. The classic case came in June 1995, when one inspector recited, to her embarrassment, the list of agents she had developed. Weeping, she denied it and left the room. Gen. Amer Rashid, the Iraqi official in charge of dealing with the U.N. inspectors, lashed out, saying the biological inspector who had made the statement was indeed a bad scientist.
Not long afterward, the inspectors learned that Rashid, whose weapons had rained death and destruction on Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, was merely being chivalrous. Rashid, it turned out, had married Taha the year before in spite of the fact that he was still married to another woman and had a 6-year-old child. The romance, it was rumored, had bloomed when Taha was prepping Rashid. Not impressed, a U.S. intelligence officer referred to the Taha-Rashid nuptials as social notes from Hell.
Then in August 1995, Tahas lies became more difficult. Gen. Hussein al Kamel, son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and her husbands boss, defected and told the tale of what was really going on in Tahas world, how this charming, professional and pleasant woman had worked on viruses that make eyes bleed, cause children to die from diarrhea and spread camel pox previously unknown forms of germ warfare.
Finally, the Iraqis were forced to admit what they had accomplished. And even though they still have not revealed it all, what was revealed gave the U.N. inspectors a better view of just what they were dealing with and in the case of Rihab Rashida Taha just who they were dealing with.
She had no hesitation about presenting herself as the brains behind [the biological-warfare program]. Shes a proud Iraqi and especially proud of what she was able to accomplish, one top-ranking U.N. scientist said. I dont think she had a qualm in the world about it.
ITS ONLY CHICKEN FEED
And not only did she lie to the UNSCOM inspectors, but she mounted a public relations campaign to keep the U.N. from destroying al Hakam. Before Hussein Kamel defected, she first permitted NBC News to check out the facility, making sure they saw it was only making chicken feed to help end hunger. Then, later, she took other Western journalists on a tour.
Our country now needs fat chickens and lots of eggs, so we are trying to do just that, she claimed. This project is for purely civilian use.
Hardly. And after Kamel defected, she could no longer carry on the ruse, especially when after Kamel decided to return home, he was murdered by Saddam for the crime of revealing her successes. Tahas husband was given his job.
Why did she do it? Was it the scientific challenge or something else?
Huxsoll thinks he knows. He asked her once what drove her.
She told me that when she started, the Iran-Iraq war was going on and it would go on for eight years, Huxsoll said. She wanted to help her country, she said, and she talked as well about a general concern about Israel and its weapons programs.
Today, her work is reviled, her name no doubt on a target list and perhaps on a list of war criminals as well since she was behind Iraqs decision to violate the Biological Weapons Convention and may have overseen human experimentation. But in Tel Aviv, she must be pleased to know she and her work are feared. After all, by one estimate, an Iraqi Scud missile warhead filled with anthrax would kill between 30,000 and 100,000 Israelis in one long night of horror.
Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer.
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