US accuses Iraq over biological weapons

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The United States said today that it strongly suspects Iraq of building up a germ warfare program, but stopped short of saying that country might supply biological weapons to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

John R. Bolton, under-secretary of state for arms control, also told the 144 nations that have signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention that the US finds North Korea's biological weapons program "extrememly disturbing."

"The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no U.N. inspections to improve all phases of its offensive biological weapons program," Bolton said at a convention review conference in Geneva.

"The existence of Iraq's program is beyond dispute."

He said the United States believed North Korea had a dedicated, national-level effort to achieve a biological weapons capability and that it has "developed and produced, and may have weaponized" biological agents.

He also said the United States was "quite concerned" about Iran, Libya, Syria and Sudan, all of which appeared to have biological weapons programs.

"There are other states I could have named which the United States will be contacting privately concerning our belief that they are pursuing an offensive biological weapons program," he said.

Bolton said the United States knows "that Osama bin Laden considers obtaining weapons of mass destruction to be a sacred duty" and wants to use them against the United States."

"We are concerned that he could have been trying to acquire a rudimentary biological weapons capability, possibly with support from a state."

But he said the United States was "not prepared to comment whether rogue states may have assisted" bin Laden in the plan.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador to the conference, said the allegation that his country was developing biological weapons was "unjustified and baseless."

The United States, which has rejected a legally binding inspection plan under the treaty, said it would rather set up a mechanism under which the U.N. secretary-general would order inspections when violations are suspected.

Other countries, including Japan, said the binding commitment is necessary if the treaty is to be effective.

Belgian Ambassador Jean Lint, speaking for the European Union, said the 15-nation bloc also supports the inclusion of "investigation measures" under the treaty.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message to the conference that it faced a clear challenge to deal with the threat of biological weapons.

"The horrific attacks on 11 September could have been far worse if weapons of mass destruction had been used," Annan said. "In recent weeks, the world has seen the use of biological agents to create chaos and terror violating the international norm."

American officials shocked other countries last July by rejecting more than six years of negotiations on enforcement measures of the 1972 treaty, arguing they were ineffective.

Bolton was speaking at the start of a three-week meeting in Geneva planned as a review of the agreement. He was presenting to other countries the new U.S. approach since the United States has come under an anthrax attack.

The emergence of anthrax-tainted letters in the United States in the weeks following the 11 September terrorist attack has thrust the issue biological warfare into the spotlight.

"Since Sept. 11, America and others have been confronted by the evils these weapons can inflict," said a statement by President George W. Bush earlier this month.

"This threat is real and extremely dangerous," said Bush. "Rogue states and terrorists possess these weapons and are willing to use them."

Bush demanded that all 144 countries that have signed the treaty enact "strict national criminal legislation" against violations of the treaty and apply strict extradition requirements.

Under the proposed protocol, there would be a limited number of inspections of biotech industries and defense facilities.

The United States said the enforcement proposal would be ineffective in stopping countries from developing biological weapons while it would pose risks to U.S. national security and to commercial secrets of the U.S. biotech industry.

The treaty drafters omitted an enforcement mechanism when they negotiated the accord during the Cold War, in part because no one seriously thought anyone would try to use such weapons.