Iraq: Iraq's weapons not effective, America admits

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The Independent Online
A SENIOR American ambassador in the Middle East is reported to have told American citizens that Iraq's biological and chemical warheads were "very ineffective" just at the moment when the US and Britain were saying they posed a real threat which would justify airstrikes on Iraq.

The Independent has obtained a memo from an American businessman who attended a briefing at the US embassy in Kuwait on February 3 at which Jim Larocco, the ambassador, downplayed the threat from Iraq, although Kuwait City is the only foreign capital close to the Iraqi border.

"Gas masks are not required," the memo reports Mr Larocco to have said. "No one at the American embassy has gas masks and the American embassy does not recommend any. They are not even interested in finding out a source for gas masks.

"The main reasons for this decision are the new interceptor missiles in place in Kuwait and the fact [that] the biological and chemical warheads are very ineffective."

This private advice on the real extent of the danger posed by Iraqi biological and chemical weapons is in sharp contrast with the picture presented by President Clinton and Tony Blair. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, writing in the Independent, said the threat posed by the weapons was "terrifyingly real."

Mr Larocco confirms that he gave several briefings to American citizens in Kuwait in February and told them that Iraqi chemical and biological attack was "an extremely remote possibility."

He said he recommended that anybody wanting a gas mask get training for it. But he flatly denies saying that Iraqi warheads were ineffective. He says: "I never said anything like that at all. I'm not an expert."

Nevertheless, the memo, drawn up by an experienced American businessman, who does not want to be identified, was written immediately after the briefing. If Mr Larocco and the US State Department believed that Iraqi warheads were effective he is unlikely to have said that American citizens need not acquire gas masks.

But British experts on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction say that Mr Larocco's comments at the briefing are a better analysis of the extent of the Iraqi threat than the far more menacing picture given by President Clinton and Tony Blair.

Mr Blair, citing figures from Porton Down, the government scientific establishment which tests biological and chemical weapons, said that a teaspoon of botulinum toxin could cause seven million deaths and the same amount of anthrax 100 million.

Dr Julian Perry-Robinson, a senior fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit and an expert on Iraqi biological and chemical weapons whose existence he helped establish in 1989, says of Mr Blair's figures: "It is a nonsense comparison. It is like saying 50,000 tons of bullets are enough to kill the entire world. Most larger armies have that number, but it does not mean the earth's population is going to die."

He says the effectiveness of biological and chemical weapons depends on the ability to deliver them and this is very uncertain in Iraq's case. For instance, in the case of anthrax if it is fired in an explosive shell then only a tenth of a per cent of the spores will survive the explosion. The US spent twenty years perfecting a programme to deliver such organisms.

At the core of the search of the UN weapons inspectors is the hunt for information on how far Iraqi scientists had got in perfecting an effective method of delivery through an `aerosol' device. Dr Perry-Robinson says that Mr Larocco's reported remarks about warheads suggest that the US does not really believe Iraq can deliver its biological and chemical weapons. Otherwise it would have made more systematic efforts to protect its civilians in Kuwait.

Ironically, ten years ago at the end of Iraq's war with Iran and its extermination campaign against the Kurds, Washington was denying that Baghdad was manufacturing biological weapons.

When one plant at Salman Pak, south-east of Baghdad, was identified by ABC News, which had received information from Iraqi defectors, from a satellite photograph it had commissioned, the US State Department refused to credit it.