Deadly Unknowns about Iraq's Biological Weapons Program

By Milton Leitenberg
Senior Fellow, Center for International and Security Studies
University of Maryland

February 9, 2000

As a new UN agency prepares to resume inspections of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, there are troubling indications that Iraq's biological weapons (BW) program is on-going. Recent information also indicates that Iraq may be pursuing other biological agents, as yet unidentified, as part of its program.


On January 25, 1999, the now-defunct UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) provided a report to the United Nations Security Council that summarized the status of eight years of work under UN Security Council Resolutions 687, 707, 715 and 1051 for those portions of Iraq's WMD programs that it was responsible for investigating and destroying, including Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, and all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers. Investigating, ascertaining the status of, and destroying components of Iraq's nuclear weapons program was the responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and was therefore not dealt with in the UNSCOM report.

The 58-page "Annex C" of the January, 1999, UNSCOM report deals with biological weapons. It reviews every aspect of the investigations, including:

The report provides detailed tables comparing Iraq's claims in its last (or various) "Full, Final and Complete Declaration" statements with UNSCOM's assessment of the status of Iraq's BW agents, culture media for producing them, and delivery systems. The tables dealt with

The tables include detailed comments by UNSCOM which clearly establish the inadequacy or untruth of Iraqi submissions in each category. To take one single example, Iraq reported that it had filled sixteen missile warheads with Botulinum toxin (after altering the number between 15, 13 and 16 in various submissions or statements), five with anthrax spores, and four with aflatoxin. However, after UNSCOM found evidence for additional missile warheads filled with anthrax, Iraqi officials suggested that perhaps the numbers of warheads that they had reported as being filled with Botulinum toxin and anthrax had accidentally been switched. After saying, "Oh, we must have confused the Botulinum toxin and anthrax numbers; just switch the two [the 16 and the five]," an Iraqi official then added, "Just put down whatever [numbers] you like." This incredible piece of Iraqi effrontery directly indicates two things: a) that the 16:5:4 numbers are not real and that those particular numbers were concocted, and b) that one therefore has no idea what the real numbers are and how near, or far, from the Iraqi claims they are.

Indications of an on-going BW program

The briefest summary of UNSCOM's judgment of the status of Iraq's BW program, and Iraq's reporting of it under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 687 is provided by a few sentences in the January 1999 report:

This brief note provides an additional piece of information that does not appear in the January 1999 UNSCOM report, or in any other UNSCOM report. It does not replace any of the above concerns; it simply adds another one to them.

One of the outstanding, unresolved issues in Iraq's BW program is the amount of culture media that Iraq imported, and on which microorganisms are grown. These were of four main types: Casein, Yeast Extract, Thioglycollate Broth, and Peptone, with much smaller amounts of some other growth media. Large amounts of all but the Thioglycollate broth are unaccounted for. These missing quantities are usually discussed in terms of how much additional anthrax these quantities of growth media might have produced, which Iraq has not accounted for, or how much additional anthrax Iraq might still covertly produce using the missing quantities of culture media. In other words, the agent constantly associated with these missing quantities of media has been anthrax, one of the identified, already reported Iraqi BW agents. This may in fact be the case, and the missing growth media may have been retained and concealed for past, current, or future anthrax production. However, there is the possibility that Iraq produced one of three other as-yet-undisclosed agents.

Two other relevant pieces of information should also be noted. It is sometimes remarked that the usual expiration dates from the time at which these culture media were produced by their manufacturer and imported into Iraq, and the time at which they can optimally be used to culture microorganisms, has or soon will expire. That is correct. However, bacterial culture media can frequently be used beyond their nominal expiration dates. Growth on them is simply less efficient.

The second point to note is that Iraq has developed the capability to produce its own culture media on which to grow microorganisms. The question as to whether the date of optimum usability of Iraq's imported and still unaccounted for media has passed is therefore of less significance in regard to Iraq's capability to still covertly produce BW agents. Iraq was also constantly working to increase its capability to produce BW production and processing equipment domestically, so as to eliminate the need to import such equipment. Late in 1994 and in 1995, UNSCOM found multiple pieces of evidence suggesting that Iraq was in fact covertly producing at least one BW agent.

Are other agents, as yet unidentified, being produced?

There are three suggestions that Iraq has produced BW agents beyond those that it reported as having produced, or was doing research and development on. Iraq declared production of the following bacterial agents: Botulinum toxin, Bacillus anthracis, and Clostridium perfringens. Bacillus subtilus and Bacilus thuringiensis were also produced for use as simultants. Iraq also produced aflatoxin, a fungal toxin, and wheat smut (a species of Tilletia), a fungal antiplant agent. Iraq also produced a plant-derived toxin, Ricin, and carried on research on other fungal agents, such as Tricothecene mycotoxins. Finally, Iraq conducted a virus research program on three reported viral agents: Infectious Hemorrhagic Conjunctivitis virus (Enterovirus 70), Rotavirus, and Camel Pox.

Former UNSCOM officials apparently believe that Iraq may have produced another as yet unreported BW agent, and that this agent was produced in an as yet unreported and unidentified BW production facility, and that this facility was, or may still be, underground. One suggestion, suggested by British intelligence officials, is that the agent was the organism that produces plague. The evidence for this belief by UK officials has not been publicly described.

There are also appears to be a possibility that Iraq produced quantities of Brucella mellitensis, which causes Brucellosis. Both the plague and the Brucella organisms are bacteria. The third suspicion would be of greater significance should it turn out to be correct, and it is that the still unreported agent is a virus. Iraq nominally initiated a virus research program in July 1990, if not earlier, and declared having worked with the three viral agents named above. The suspicion is that Iraq may have initiated production of a viral agent different from the three in its declared viral R&D program. If this were the case, the missing bacteriological growth media would be irrelevant; viruses are grown in tissue culture or on fertilized eggs. Iraq maintained large egg incubator capacity at several facilities that were involved with its biological weapons program. What is more, if the additional BW agent were viral, it would indicate still greater sophistication achieved by Iraq's BW program, as it is more difficult to produce viral BW weapons than bacterial, fungal or toxin agents. Finally, it might also suggest external technical assistance to the Iraqi BW program, perhaps during 1988-1990.


1. "Report: Disarmament," UNSCOM, Report to the Security Council, January 25, 1999. Back to text