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Reuters March 11, 2003

Iraq's drone project known for years

DOHA, March 11 (Reuters) - Iraq's efforts to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, capable of delivering chemical or biological weapons have been reported for years by Western intelligence, the United Nations and aviation experts.

The United States this week complained that chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix had failed to draw attention to the existence of such a UAV in his latest report.

Some U.S. officials have said an undeclared Iraqi drone, possibly big enough to fly further than U.N. resolutions allow, could be a "smoking gun" as Washington presses to disarm Iraq.

Baghdad's bid to kit out a UAV that could spray chemical or biological agents centred on the L-29 light trainer aircraft adapted for UAV flight, which was pictured in an October 2002 CIA briefing paper on the globalsecurity.org military website.

Global Security.org said Czech firm Aero Vodochody sold Iraq 78 L-29s and 90 L-39 trainer planes between the late 1960s and early 1980s.

"Given the difficulty in acquiring spare parts for these aircraft, by some estimates only a quarter of the L-29 aircraft sold to Iraq were still in service as of 2002," it said.

Global Security.org said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the creation of an "anthrax airforce" in 1990, just before the Gulf War, to spray chemical and biological agents on civilians and ground troops.

"Early efforts to convert combat aircraft were not successful, but spraying equipment was successfully tested using an anthrax-like substance," it said.

In September 1995, Iraq declared two projects concerning the use of aircraft drop tanks to disseminate germ warfare agents. One used a Mirage F-1 aircraft, the other a MiG-21, the site said, quoting the previous U.N. inspection regime, UNSCOM.

In the same year, Saddam launched a new programme using a converted L-29. Flights started in 1997 and tests continued in late 1998 with the aircraft fitted with two under-wing weapon stores capable of carrying 300 litres of anthrax or other nerve agents.

"If this were to be sprayed over a built-up area such as Kuwait City, it could kill millions of people," Global Security.org said.

It also cited a January 1999 report by Jane's Defence Weekly which quoted the British Defence Ministry as reporting Iraq was converting some Czech-built L-29s at the Tallil airbase into UAVs to deliver chemical or biological warfare agents.

The "anthrax airforce" at the Al Sahra airfield was targeted by coalition forces during Operation Desert Fox in late 1998.

Some U.S. officials minimize the potential danger of the L-29s, arguing they are slow, low-flying and could be easily spotted and shot down, said Global Security.org.

"But other officials are concerned they could be used in a terrorist-like attack against an unsuspecting civilian population."

Global Security.org lists the L-29's range at 800 km (500 miles).


Copyright 2003, Reuters Limited