| Saddam Hussein’s biological warfare expert Rihab Rashid Taha al-Azzawi al-Tikriti. (AP)
Washington, May 12 (Reuters): US forces have taken into custody the British-educated Iraqi microbiologist dubbed “Dr Germ,” who spearheaded the biological warfare programme under toppled President Saddam Hussein, officials said today.
Rihab Rashid Taha al-Azzawi al-Tikriti, who received her doctorate from Britain’s University of East Anglia before guiding Iraq’s biological arms development, was taken into custody over the weekend, a defence official said.
Taha is married to former Iraqi oil minister Amir Muhammed Rasheed, who surrendered to US forces on April 28. Ranked as number 47 on the US list of the top 55 most-wanted Iraqis, he ran Iraq’s military industries until becoming oil minister in 1995. Taha is not on the list.
“She has a background in biological weapons, and so that is obviously important to us,” said Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for US Central Command. Central Command described her as “former director of the Iraqi bacterial/biological programme.” Officials indicated that Taha surrendered to US forces but did not provide details.
The announcement of her apprehension comes a week after it was disclosed a second Iraqi woman scientist linked to Saddam’s biological weapons programme had been apprehended. American-educated microbiologist Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, the only woman on the US list of most-wanted Iraqis, is known by the nickname “Mrs Anthrax.”
The US accused Saddam’s toppled government of possessing large stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and cited those arms as a key justification for war. US search teams have not found any such weapons.
Taha has admitted producing germ warfare agents in the past, including anthrax and botulinum. She has said all such Iraqi weapons were destroyed.
Biological weapons are living micro-organisms and biological toxins harnessed deliberately to kill or sicken others.
In an interview this year with ABC News, Taha said her work helped protect Iraqis from Israel. “We haven’t done anything to harm other people. It is our right to be capable enough to defend ourselves — all what we have done is just a deterrent. Nothing more than that,” she said.
UN weapons investigators tagged her with the nickname “Dr Germ” based on her work in germ warfare agents.
While she was known to throw tantrums while being questioned by UN officials, the world body’s arms inspection process played a key role in her personal life. She met her husband during talks on UN inspections in 1993 in New York, and married him after Rasheed divorced his then-wife.
In the early 1980s, she studied plant toxins at the University of East Anglia before returning to her native country to work on biological weapons. She is in her late 40s.
Washington’s new civilian administrator for Iraq arrived in Baghdad today, full of praise for the man he is supplanting after just three weeks but refusing to predict when Iraqis would get their own government.
. Paul Bremer said retired US general Jay Garner had been “very effective” in starting postwar reconstruction and forecast a smooth handover following a staffing shakeup seen by many as a mark of dissatisfaction with progress on restoring basic services and forming a transitional Iraqi government.
“I don’t anticipate any problems with the changes,” Bremer said on landing at Baghdad airport from Kuwait, via a short stop in Iraq’s southern second city, Basra. He said he was proud of the work Garner and his team had done so far. Garner said last week that the core of an Iraqi government could be in place within weeks.
“We will discuss with appropriate people in Iraq a transition to an Iraqi government at a time line that still has to be determined,” Bremer said.