Inspectors hail arrest of Iraq's 'Mrs Anthrax'

American forces in Baghdad have captured Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a senior biological weapons scientist who was one of the most wanted members of the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.

Ms Ammash, who was among the 55 most-wanted officials identified in a deck of cards issued to US soldiers, was taken into custody on Sunday, in what was apparently a pre-negotiated surrender. Her detention brings to 19 the number of the 55 who have been caught.

What was unclear was whether she would take Britain and America any closer to finding any of the illicit weapons whose alleged development and possession by Saddam was the primary justification for the war.

Other high-ranking Iraqis have denied under interrogation that any such programmes existed in recent years, and US officials are starting to shift ground. They now argue that even if stocks may have been destroyed, Iraq still had the know-how to restart manufacturing at short notice.

President George Bush expressed anger over the weekend that the former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, was refusing to co-operate with US forces since his surrender.

Washington also now insists that only with the co-operation of ordinary Iraqis will the weapons, of whose existence the intelligence services sounded so certain, be discovered.

United Nations weapons inspectors welcomed the arrest of 49-year old Ms Ammash, who was shown on Iraqi television on 27 March sitting at the same table as Saddam Hussein during a leadership meeting. The date of the recording is not known, however.

"Given the fact that she was involved with the top leadership, she is somebody who is quite interesting in terms of the latest thinking in Iraq," said a UN spokesman, Hiro Ueki. "But we won't know until the coalition interrogates her whether she was involved in a clandestine weapons programme or not."

Ms Ammash's presence at the meeting with Saddam was taken as a sign that the Iraqi leader was continuing to engage in producing banned weaponry, despite official assertions that all of the country's biological and chemical weapons had been destroyed.

Ms Ammash, called "Mrs Anthrax" in the West, is held to have played a senior role in rebuilding Baghdad's biological weapons capability since the 1991 Gulf War.

Born in 1953 in Baghdad, she is the daughter of Saleh Mahdi Ammash, a former vice-president, defence minister and member of the Baath party's leadership. Saddam reportedly ordered his execution in 1983.

She was trained by Nassir al-Hindawi, in the past described by UN inspectors as the father of Iraq's biological weapons programme, and both are reputed to be among Iraq's top weapons scientists.

Others include Amir al-Saadi, Saddam Hussein's chief scientific adviser and chemical weapons expert who has surrendered to the Allies, and Dr Rihab Taha, a woman called "Dr Germ" by inspectors for her work on biological weapons. Dr Taha is married to the former Iraqi oil minister, Amir Muhammad Rashid, who has been arrested by US forces.

Ms Ammash is the only woman who features on the most-wanted list, ranking 53rd out of the 55. In 2001, she became the first and only woman to be elected to the Baath party's regional command, its highest policymaking body, after working closely with Saddam's younger son, Qusay.

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