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Agence France Presse October 1, 2002

US role in Iraq's chemical, biological weapons program comes under scrutiny


As the United States gears up for possible military action to ensure that Iraq is stripped of weapons mass destruction, renewed attention is being focused on Washington's role in helping Baghdad develop its arsenal of chemical and biological agents in the 1980s.

Two weeks ago, Senator Robert Byrd, a senior Democrat from West Virginia, bluntly asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a Senate hearing about a report in Newsweek magazine that he had travelled to Baghdad in December 1983 with a message from then-president Ronald Reagan that Washington would provide help in the Iraqis' war with Iran.

Rumsfeld denied any knowledge of the trip, but promised to review Pentagon records. As of September 30 he had not yet contacted Byrd's office, said Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin. Byrd then asked about US involvement in Iraq's biological weapons program.

"To your knowledge, did the United States help Iraq to acquire the building blocks of biological weapons during the Iran-Iraq War?" Byrd asked. "Are we, in fact, now facing the possibility of reaping what we have sown?"

Rumsfeld also denied any knowledge.

The secretary "seemed to be affronted at the very idea that the United States would ever countenance entering into such a deal with the devil," Byrd said later.

In a September 25 Senate speech, Byrd however made it clear that he wanted some answers.

The US public "needs to know whether the United States is, in large part, responsible for the very Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which the Administration now seeks to destroy," he said. "We may very well have created the monster that we seek to eliminate."

US government documents showed that from 1985 to 1989 pathogenic, toxigenic, and other hazardous materials were legally exported from the United States to Iraq.

The list of biological items legally exported during that period includes botulinum toxin, anthrax, gas gangrene, and vials of West Nile fever virus and Dengue fever.

The items were shipped by the American Type Culture Collection, a non-profit group that provides biological materials to institutions around the world, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The information first surfaced in February 1994, when then-Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan held hearings on Gulf War syndrome, a mysterious illness suffered by many US soldiers who fought in the 1990-91 war.

The US government "approved the sales of quantities of potentially lethal biological agents that could have been cultured and grown in very large quantities in an Iraqi biological warfare program," said Riegle, speaking on the Senate floor in February 1994.

The US government's "approving export of these materials to ... someone like Saddam Hussein violates every standard of logic and common sense," he added.

US support for Iraq in the 1980s "seemed like a good idea at the time," said John Pike, a scientist and defense expert at Globalsecurity.org.

From 1980 to 1988 Iraq was locked in bloody war with Iran, and Washington feared the spread of what they saw as Tehran-inspired Islamic fundamentalism.

Starting in the early 1980s Washington aided Iraq in indirect ways, supplying satellite spy photographs, covert ammunitions and weapons supplies -- and not questioning what the biological samples were used for.

Washington "was generally not inclined to look closely" at Iraq's bioweapons program, Pike said. But now "we're trapped by history," he said.

Pike however cautions that inspectors in the 1990s discovered that Iraq's chemical and biological program went far beyond what was acquired in the United States.

Byrd meanwhile warned that the past US role "should serve as a strong warning" to Bush "that policy decisions regarding Iraq today could have far reaching ramifications."

Copyright 2002 Agence France Presse