Saddam's lethal weapon
She’s been described as the most dangerous woman in the world. One American columnist went so far as to suggest the 48-year-old mother of one is the sole reason President George W Bush wants to go to war against Iraq. Weapons inspectors call her ‘Dr Germ” or ‘Toxic Taha”, and some of them have been on the receiving end of her fiery temper.
Yet until a few years ago, almost no one outside of Baghdad had even heard of Dr Rihab Taha, the British-educated scientist credited with filling President Saddam Hussein’s secret bunkers with ‘enough lethal germs to kill everyone on Earth —twice”, according to United States bio-weapons expert Dr Richard Spertzel.
It was Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, who confirmed in August 1995 — after defecting to Jordan — what United Nations weapons inspectors had long suspected: a chicken-feed and pesticide plant at Al Hakam, an hour’s drive south-west of Baghdad, was Iraq’s main biological weapons facility.
What the inspectors had not realised, until Kamal told them, was that in a traditionally male-dominated society, a slightly built woman with grey-streaked black hair headed up the germ warfare programme for at least 10 years.
Kamal’s betrayal cost him his life, reportedly at Saddam’s own hand, but it also allowed inspectors to uncover details of the work for which Taha had a passion.
In January CNN obtained UN translations of some of her personal papers, showing that she personally supervised field tests on the dispersal of some of the deadliest pathogens known to man, during which 122mm Al-Buraq rockets, large-calibre artillery shells and 250kg bombs were filled with botulinum toxin and an anthrax simulant. Videotapes recovered by weapons inspectors before they were thrown out of Iraq in 1998 faithfully record the effect of these tests on laboratory animals, but the images are said to be so horrifying that they have never been released for public viewing.
Even more disturbing is the conviction among inspectors that Taha also used human ‘guinea-pigs” to test the biological agents made under her direction.
Israeli military sources claim that she watched from behind the safety of thick glass as Iranian prisoners of war, strapped to beds in an underground section of Al Hakam, writhed and died in agony.
UN inspectors suspect that Taha routinely used the inmates of Iraqi prisons to gauge the effect of her germs as weapons of war, exposing them to such blood-chilling diseases as haemorrhagic conjunctivitis — which temporarily blinds victims before they start bleeding from the eyes — Crimean Congo Fever; and Camel Pox, first cousin to smallpox, which slowly kills the victim from blood loss through open lesions.
Little is known about Taha’s early years, but in 1979 she travelled to Britain on a student visa and obtained her doctorate from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She studied biology intensively, focusing on infectious diseases. Dr John Turner, former head of the biology department at the university, taught her for four years, and was shocked to learn how she had put her education to use. ‘She is the very last student I would have suspected of becoming involved in biological warfare,” said Turner.
Fellow students remember her as quiet and shy, nothing much to look at and somewhat meek and mild in class. However, UN inspectors who grilled Taha repeatedly from 1995 to 1998 say her mild-mannered public face is a carefully constructed front for an inherently evil nature, and that she is a mistress of deception. More than once while being questioned by the inspectors, Taha flew into violent rages, overturning chairs and storming out of the room when her calculations and scientific explanations were challenged.
By the time Taha completed her studies in Britain, development of
a germ warfare programme had become Saddam’s chief priority. Four of his top scientists were executed during the early 1980s because they were not making enough progress in the field. Taha became involved in 1984 as one of 100 scientists working to weaponise lethal viruses and bacteria at Salman Pak, bombed out of existence during the 1991 Gulf War.
In 1987 she was placed in charge of the top secret bio-weapons plant at Al Hakam, creating what UN inspectors say is the world’s largest germ warfare arsenal outside of the former Soviet Union. Under her direction, they estimate, Iraq produced 8 400 litres of anthrax; 19 000 litres of botulinum, a fatal form of food poisoning that causes the tongue to swell and suffocates the victim; 2 000 litres of aflatoxin, a mould that destroys the immune system and induces a fast-growing and fatal form of cancer; and an unknown quantity of gas gangrene, which causes the victim’s skin to dissolve and fall off.
And Taha — whose daughter, Huda, is eight years old — even stockpiled a fatal diarrhoea virus that targets only infants. Prior to Hussein Kamal’s 1995 revelations, UN inspectors had questioned Taha, and dismissed her as inconsequential. When they confronted her with the information he had supplied, however, her shy, quiet façade cracked and she told them defiantly that she was immensely proud of her work.
‘Suddenly, she had no qualms about claiming credit as the brains behind Iraq’s bio-weapons. She spoke with such passion, it was almost as if she had found a miracle cure for horrible diseases instead of actively working to spread them. I don’t think she had the slightest guilt or remorse about what she had done,” said one inspector.
But, Taha’s boasting notwithstanding, finding and destroying the weapons proved all but impossible. Asked for detailed reports of the programme, Baghdad submitted six different versions, all rejected as lies. Raids on facilities suspected of housing bio-weapons were always just too late, the cupboards bare, documents still burning in rubbish bins. Somehow, Taha and her cohorts were always a step ahead of the UN teams.
Finally, they realised why. Taha was secretly married to Lieutenant General Amir Mohammad Rashid, the government-appointed Iraqi official assigned to work with the weapons inspectors and who was thus in an ideal position to tip-off his wife in advance, allowing her to destroy or move the evidence.
The inspectors learned enough, however, to warrant the destruction of Al Hakam over a six-week period in the summer of 1996. The buildings were blown up with explosives, the toxin cultures carefully neutralised by microbiologists, the double-jacketed steel fermenters destroyed.
Rashid, now 63, went on to become Saddam’s minister of oil — but on January 7, without warning, he was sacked from the Cabinet, giving rise to speculation that his wife, now allegedly retired, might finally be willing to talk, perhaps even tell the UN inspectors where and by whom the germ warfare programme was continued after Al Hakam was demolished.
However, those who had dealings with Taha during the first round of inspections believe it highly unlikely that she is about to suffer an attack of truth. As one of Saddam’s top bio-weaponeers, and the wife of a Cabinet member, she has spent most of her life as a member of Iraq’s privileged but endangered species, who serve at the president’s whim and live with the constant threat of torture or death for entire families should a single member betray the master.
Chicanery and obfuscation are second nature to Saddam’s scientific savants. As Taha told a UN weapons inspector during a particularly stormy session when he repeatedly accused her of lying about the biological warfare programme she led: ‘It is not a lie, Dr Spertzel, when you are being ordered to lie.” A war crimes tribunal would presumably hold a somewhat different view, but for now, at least, Iraq’s Dr Germ is answerable to no one.