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The world’s deadliest woman?

Rihab Rashida Taha would rank among the most important of a new breed of Third World weapons designers — highly nationalistic, Western-educated and willing to violate any international norms or scientific ethics.

Male or female, Dr. Rihab Rashida Taha would rank among the most important of a new breed of Third World weapons designers -- highly nationalistic, western-educated and willing to violate any international norms or scientific ethics.

A 48-year-old mother of a 7-year old girl, Rihab Rashida Taha al-Awazi was, to borrow a phrase from her leader, the mother of all third world biological weapons programs.  Nicknamed "Dr. Germ" by U.N. inspectors, it was she who sold the idea of an Iraqi biological weapons program to Saddam Hussein and was then given the job of creating its extensive -- and expensive -- stockpile of what the Pentagon calls "bug bombs".  As for her husband of eight years, General Amer Rashid al-Ubaidi, he was until he was caught the man the United Nations inspectors dealt with on the most sensitive superweapons issues, since he oversaw many of them.

"There is no question that she was the driving force behind the Iraqi biological weapons program," said Dr. Gordon Oehler, who ran the CIA's Non-Proliferation Center during the 1990's.  "Until she came along, the program had neither the leadership nor the technical expertise."

She has also been held up as an example to Iraqi women interested in science, in spite of a career devoid of any accomplishment other than the development of germ warfare.

She could show either a level of brazenness or vulnerability when dealing with a crisis.  In January 1997, she stiffed UNSCOM inspectors who wanted to meet with her on the biological weapons program, Dr. Taha went to a ceremony at the Military Industrial Commission.  Dressed in a smart blue suit and fashionable jewelry, she was presented with an award by Saddam at a special "Science Day" celebration.  The award, said a UNSCOM inspector, was for her work in biological weapons, specifically the development of anthrax and botulinum weapons. 

"It couldn't have been for anything else," said one inspector.  "She did not achieve anything else in her career."

Other times, she would stammer and cry when confronted with uncomfortable facts.  And after 1997, she faded in contrast to the other female microbiologist, Dr. Huda Ammash.  Ammash, the daughter of a Ba'ath Party leader and former Defense Minister Saddam had killed, was put in charge of rebuilding the biological program.  Like Taha, her accomplishments in germ warfare won Ammash promotions, first to the party's Military Commission and then to the nation's highest body, the Revolutionary Command Council.  She too is in U.S. custody, surrendering to U.S. authorities in early May 2003.  But Huda Ammash, a graduate of Texas Women's College and the University of Missouri, is fashionable and elegant, prone to giving fashion shows and interviews in western business suits. 

No one would describe Rihab Taha that way.  Physically non-descript, even "mousy", say those who have met her, she is of medium height with slightly graying hair she wears long and pulled back.  As a scientist she is described by those same people as an "average sort" or "ordinary".  Yet her program is hardly ordinary or average.

Work was behind war effort
A mere six years after Taha made her first pitch for a germ warfare program, U.N. inspectors found Iraq had developed more than 10 BILLION deadly doses of anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin -- a crop pathogen that can also cause liver problems, and quite possibly other bacteria, viruses, toxins and fungi hidden around Iraq, in bunkers, in factories and even in factories. 

Like so many Iraqi weapons scientists, she received her undergraduate training in Iraq and then in 1979 -- just before the Iran-Iraq War -- went overseas, to England's East Anglia University in the working-class town of Norwich, for her PhD, her courses paid for by the Iraqi ministry of higher education.

There, she studied plant pathogens -- diseases that attack crops like wheat and tobacco in a small lab -- under Dr. John Turner, the head of the university's biology department.  Described by others at the university biology department as someone who "just scraped through", she did not have the credentials one would have expected for the position she later held.  Some have said that if she were not a foreigner, she wouldn't have made it.

And although an Iraqi nationalist who referred to Saddam in almost fatherly terms, she spent much of her time in a campus residence... with two Iranian girls.  They would watch BBC reports on the progress of the war between their two countries, worried about how it was affecting people at home.  Often, she would join Turner at his home.  Several times a year, she would return to Baghdad, bringing back gifts for him, his wife and children as well as a kilogram of dates for her fellow students and faculty.  [Huda Ammash, the other biological weapons scientist held by the U.S. was arrested by Columbia, Mo., police for breaking up a pro-Iranian demonstration on the University of Missouri campus in 1983.]

Not a gifted student
Turner described Taha back then as "introverted, pleasant, not a gifted student, but hardworking".  When Turner first learned in 1995 of his protégé’s new line of work, he announced that he was shocked.  She was "the last person I would suspect of doing something like this.  This is certainly not the person I knew."

"We don't work on things like animal diseases here," he added. "We study plant pathogens."  But of course, she did do some basic studies in various animal diseases.

In 1984, she left Norwich and headed back to Iraq, telling Turner she had been offered a job as a lecturer at the University of Baghdad.  The question that lurks in Turner's mind is whether Taha was sent west with the idea of developing expertise in biological weapons or whether her expertise fit neatly into a plan the Iraqis subsequently developed.

During the period, as first Saddam's ambitions grew and then the Iran-Iraq war raged on, Baghdad sent hundreds of engineers to Europe and North America for training.  Taha, like the British-educated head of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, Jafar Jafar, appears to have been someone whose talents were fitted into a weapons program, rather than the reverse.

Whatever was true, Taha had another agenda by the next year. Initially, when UNSCOM inspectors questioned her, she said she had simply been looking for a job after school and had taken a position in the biological weapons program.  Later, she admitted the scenario was a bit more complicated.

Researching the possibilities
On arriving home, she did not go to the University of Baghdad, but was assigned instead to the Iraqi chemical weapons operation at a place called al Muthanna, whose ambitious director was then looking to develop a companion program in germ warfare.  With his bosses in Baghdad not objecting, he decided to push the issue.  Enter Dr. Taha, with her freshly minted Ph.D.  She was assigned to do a paper study, drawn from published materials of the possibilities.

In a few weeks, she had her paper done and presented it first to the men who ran al Muthanna then the Ministry of Industry, both of whom quickly approved it.  The paper became the seminal event in the program development.  In fact, according to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, it was Taha who revived a dormant program that had been started up in 1978 and then abandoned.  Without her, ACDA believed, there would be no program.

"In 1985, a prominent Iraqi microbiologist recommended re-establishing the biological weapons program," ACDA reported just before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, without identifying her.  "Research on anthrax and botulinum toxin was initiated at Iraq's main chemical warfare facility at Muthanna and continued until 1987 when the program was transferred to the Salman Pak facility."

Copying the U.S.
At Salman Pak, work flourished, mainly because of Iraq's dire situation in the Iran-Iraq war.  After a futile attempt to sue for peace with Iran in early 1986, Saddam poured money into all the superweapons programs.  And Taha's western experience was more than helpful to its success.  For example, Taha knew that Iraq could order anthrax from specimen houses in the west, including the United States.  One house outside Washington sent 27 separate anthrax specimens to Iraq.  U.N. inspectors say that she based a lot of her early work on published materials related to the long-dead U.S. biological weapons program.

"We recognized they were trying to duplicate what the U.S. program had done before it was shut down, at least in terms of the agents they were producing", said one.

Inhalation studies on anthrax and botulinum were conducted at Salman Pak and by the end of 1987, Iraq had decided to begin full-scale production of anthrax and botulinum toxin.  Botulinum, being a toxin, was Taha's favorite.

The facility included animal pens, and according to both U.S. intelligence and UNSCOM inspectors, Taha and her staff were using their newfound prowess to test anthrax and botulinum on first on rats and mice, then rhesus monkeys, beagles and eventually donkeys.  Video provided UNSCOM two years ago showed the animals writhing in agony as the effects of the biological agents took hold.  Particularly gruesome, the videos were never released.

Human guinea pigs
Taha was directly responsible for those tests and some believe she may also have been responsible for human trials, although she and the Iraqi government deny it.  There is in fact indirect evidence of the need for human subjects.  Early in the program, the Iraqis had difficulty obtaining primates for their experiments, even sending, at Taha's direction, a team to Africa in hopes of bringing some back.  They returned empty-handed.  That shortage of primates and a surfeit of Iranian prisoners of war has made many inspectors suspicious.

"It certainly wouldn't have violated their scruples," said one inspector.

Iraq did not limit its testing to botulinum and anthrax.  Taha in fact had come under criticism from senior people for not making enough progress and soon others, more expert in viruses and fungi, were brought... some not so voluntarily.

Ultimately, there were field trials or studies of a biological devil's brew: gas gangrene, which causes the skin to "melt" and fall off, mycotoxins that can kill plants or animals, foot and mouth disease, hemorrhagic conjunctivitis that causes eyes to bleed, and two forms of wheat-killing toxins. Their only restraint appeared to be fear of contamination.  Only one of this series of agents was ever weaponized according to the Iraqis, aflatoxin.

It is the one agent that mystified inspectors -- and still does -- but Taha claims it was not her choice, but that of the virologist who was brought in to help her.

"Still, within two years, she had built up a staff of 150," said Oehler.  And although the CIA was not yet aware of her identity, it was aware of Iraqi research efforts... a secret October 1988 CIA intelligence estimate obtained by NBC NEWS, entitled "Chemical and Biological Weapons: A Poor Man's Atomic Bomb", stated unequivocally that Iraq had begun producing weapons-grade anthrax and botulinum.

What the CIA didn’t know
But the CIA thought that the Iraqi program was limited to Salman Pak, when in fact by 1988, a new and much larger facility was under construction.  In March 1988, Taha had agreed to the selection of a plot of land near the town of al-Hakam for the main BW production operation.

Like Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons production complexes, al Hakam was divided into well-separated research and production areas.  Taha's plan envisioned research, development, production and storage of agents, but no munitions filling. She was, after all, not a weapons designer.  That part of the program was left to someone else.  Equipment was brought from legitimate bio-tech facilities throughout the country.  But al Hakam also represented her biggest failure.  Her management skills were not good and after a series of problems not atypical with scientists of any nationality or gender, construction of the new facility was taken away from her.

But otherwise, the staff grew to hundreds of scientists and a larger network of facilities was built.  In addition to anthrax and botulinum toxin, the U.N. later learned that gas gangrene was researched at Salman Pak and later produced at al Hakam.  Wheat smut, which can destroy wheat crops, was produced as "an economic weapon" at Salman Pak and another facility in Mosul in the north of the country.  Ten liters of ricin, a toxin which if touched can cause death, were produced and unsuccessfully field tested in artillery shells.  Viral research on acute hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, and camel pox was conducted for a short time at the Daura facility.  Taha also told the UNSCOM inspectors that genetic engineering to create antibiotic-resistant agents was planned but she said it was never realized.  Evidence that Iraq experimented with plague were also denied even though growth media for plague was purchased and stored.  Even after the Iran-Iraq War ended in August 1988, Saddam continued pushing the program to its limits, running tests on filling bombs, rockets and eventually missile warheads with agents.  Although a scientist, Taha was taken to the factories were the munitions were being built so she could get a rudimentary understanding of weaponization of what she was producing in larger and larger fermentation vats she was importing. 

Often, she would go to Europe on shopping trips, buying top-of-the equipment in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

Targeting the U.N. Coalition
After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, word went forth from Baghdad that Taha should gear up the germ warfare program, make it a crash program.  Saddam's people wanted biological weapons "that could injure or kill the enemy", that is, coalition troops, she told the U.N.  Whatever restraints were on the program ended and new types of agents were developed and in some cases tested, under her control.

At al Muthanna, the chemical weapons facility, bombs were filled with anthrax and botulinum. U.N. inspectors found that at least 100 were filled with botulinum toxin, 50 with anthrax and 16 with aflatoxin.  Twenty-five al-Hussein missiles, capable of reaching Dharhan or Tel Aviv, were to be equipped with warheads filled with the same three agents.  Munitions were deployed at four locations.

Aircraft drop tanks were modified as biological spray tanks.  To be fitted to either piloted or unpiloted aircraft, the tank would able to spray up to 2,000 liters of anthrax over a target.  Field trials were conducted in early January 1991 although Iraq now claims the trials were failures.  It never got a chance to try the spray tanks in combat.  On January 31, the U.S. sent a cruise missile into Iraq and took out an unpiloted MiG-21 that had been used as a test bed.

At the same time, U.S. jets mercilessly bombed Salman Pak and other known BW facilities, including al-Muthanna.  But Taha's biggest secret, al-Hakam, remained just that, a secret.  It was untouched by U.S. bombing and continued operating at full strength.  Iraq and "Dr Germ" had succeeded in hiding their greatest asset.

‘A consummate liar’
When war ended, and UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq, Taha became the point person for U.N. inspectors regarding the biological weapons program.  Nervous at first, she eventually toughened, proving herself over and over again to be, in the words of one inspector, "a consummate liar".

First, she claimed the program had been defensive in nature, then that all biological agents and munitions were ordered destroyed in the months after the war, none of which inspectors believed.  It became a game of cheat, retreat and cheat again.

The first U.N. inspector to meet her was Dr. David Huxsoll, who headed the initial U.N. biological weapons inspection team in 1991 and later returned with two other teams in 1991 and 1994.  Huxsoll knows about biological weapons.  He had been the commander of the U.S. Army's Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Dietrick, Md., whose primary mission is developing vaccines and treatments for biological weapons.

By the time he arrived in Baghdad, he had been briefed about her role, but he was not prepared for what he found.

"She was a quiet unassuming individual to look at her," said Huxsoll in a 1997 interview, adding his voice to her academic advisor's appraisal. "No one would suspect she was the head of a germ warfare program."

Like Dr. John Turner at East Anglia, he describes her as "very nice, actually quite pleasant and charming."

In dealing with the inspection teams, she was "accommodating to our personnel's needs. She and I got along well together, considering... “But, he says, there was another side to her as well, an insecure side.  "In response to my interest in what she was doing, she expected an opinion from me on whether she was a good scientist."

Another inspector who met her on two trips to al-Hakam -- which the CIA ultimately learned about, Raymond Zilinskas, recalls her as professional, willing to discuss "technical matters" regarding equipment at the site outside Baghdad.  Zilinskas also knows about biological weapons, being at the time a germ warfare analyst at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. 

Her skills were evident to him, not only in the area of biotech, but in the area of management.  The Iraqis, he notes, kept all sorts of records of their weapons programs.  Zilinskas always wondered about the program's intent. 

"That's what everybody's asking," he told the New York Times. "The speculation is that it probably has to be unsavory activities -- unethical experimentation.

The real mysteries have to do with testing.  These are records they would to any lengths to hide.  The biggest mystery is what they intend to do.  What was the intent of each of the warheads that were going to put on their missiles?"

Tightening the noose
But as the UNSCOM noose tightened, Taha became increasingly pressured about just what Iraq had accomplished under her tutelage.  One inspector described her actions as hysterical, saying "Dr. Germ" would turn to tears, throw tantrums and even storm out of one session with U.N. inspectors.  Repeatedly, she denied what UNSCOM inspectors had found.  The classic case came in June 1995, when one inspector recited to her embarrassment the list of agents she had developed.  Weeping, she denied it and left the room.  General Amer Rashid, the Iraqi official in charge of dealing with the U.N. inspectors lashed out, saying the biological inspector who had made the statement was indeed a "bad scientist".  Not long afterwards, the inspectors learned that Rashid, whose weapons had rained death and destruction on Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, was merely being chivalrous.  Rashid, it turned out, had married Taha the year before -- in spite of the fact that he was still married to another woman and had a 6 year old child.  The romance, it was rumored had bloomed when Taha was prepping Rashid.  Not impressed, a U.S. intelligence officer referred to the Taha-Rashid nuptials as "social notes from Hell."

"It was a role she played rather well," recalled one U.N. scientist of Taha's denials. "But we knew she was lying."

Then in August 1995, the lies became more difficult.  General Hussein al Kamel, son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and her husband's boss, defected and told the tale of what was really going on in Taha's world, how this "charming", "professional" and "pleasant" woman had worked on viruses that make eyes bleed, cause children to die from diarrhea and spread camel pox -- previously unknown forms of germ warfare.

Finally, the Iraqis were forced to admit what they had accomplished and, even though they still to this day have not revealed it all, what was revealed provided the U.N. inspectors with a better view of just what they were dealing with and in the case of Rihab Rashida Taha, just who they were dealing with.

"She had no hesitation about presenting herself as the brains behind [the BW program].  She's a proud Iraqi and especially proud of what she was able to accomplish," said one top-ranking U.N. scientist. "I don't think she had a qualm in the world about it."

It’s only chicken feed
And not only did she lie to the UNSCOM inspectors, but she mounted a public relations campaign to keep the U.N. from destroying al Hakam.  Before Hussein Kamel defected, she first permitted NBC News to check out the facility, making sure they saw it was only making chicken feed to help end hunger.  Then, later, she took other western press on a tour.

"Our country now needs fat chicken and lots of eggs, so we are trying to do just that," she claimed.  "This project is for purely civilian use."

The effort failed and in May 1996, the facility was destroyed a few weeks after Kamel returned home and was murdered by Saddam for the crime of revealing her successes. As a compensation, her husband got Kamel's job.

Why did she do it?  Was it the scientific challenge or something else?  Huxsoll thought he knew.  He asked her once what drove her.

"She told me that when she started, the Iran-Iraq war was going on and it would go on for eight years," said Huxsoll. "She wanted to help her country she said and she talked as well as about a general concern about Israel and its weapons programs."

In the past, her work was reviled for its violation of international law and norms.  Now, she steps into the spotlight again, this time as a possible pawn in a game of hostage taking.  But in Tel Aviv, she must be pleased to know she and her work are feared.  After all, by one estimate, an Iraqi Scud missile warhead filled with anthrax would kill between 30,000 and 100,000 Israelis in one long night of horror.