WASHINGTON — (TC WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials now believe that Iraq has developed the capability to arm its ballistic missiles with both chemical and biological weapons, increasing the threat to Israel and the U.S.-led multinational force in the Persian Gulf, government sources said yesterday.
But some administration officials and outside defense experts discounted the likelihood of an imminent attack, some asserting that Iraq still needed to overcome several technical obstacles if it expected to fire the missiles accurately and to disperse nerve gas or deadly anthrax spores into the air.
Others said they were not convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had any immediate plans to use chemical or biological agents. He would have to be suicidal, knowing that an Iraqi offensive would trigger a swift, punishing, pre-emptive or retaliatory strike, they reasoned.
"Obviously, the capability exists, but it's not perceived to be a dominant or imminent threat," said a senior military official who refused to be identified. "Obviously, we're keeping a close watch on them."
Within the Bush administration, at least one senior official has sounded a warning that the current policy of waiting for economic sanctions to wear down Iraq risks giving the Iraqis more time to improve their biological war-fighting capabilities.
While Iraq is reputed to have one of the largest chemical weapons program in the world, posing a threat U.S. officials have discussed extensively, much less is certain about its ability to engage in germ warfare.
Defense experts said Iraq has been using a research facility in Salman Pak to investigate typhoid, cholera, anthrax, botulism and tularemia, a debilitating but not lethal disease also known as rabbit fever.
Since late September, when CIA Director William H. Webster disclosed that Iraq had "a sizable stockpile" of biological weapons, Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and others have raised the specter of Iraq's possible use of germ warfare.
"Intelligence officers report they will have a militarily significant number of biological weapons by early next year," Mr. Aspin said recently. "The longer we wait after completing mobilization, the more danger our troops will face."
Yesterday, an informed U.S. official indicated that Iraq continues to make progress on the biological-weapons front.
"Do they have the capability to arm their missiles with chemical or biological weapons? The answer is yes," the official said. He said Iraq had the ability to "deliver" biological agents, although he refused to specify if this meant the use of artillery shells, bombs or missiles.
It is understood, however, that the Iraqis have tested ballistic missiles armed with chemical weapons.
Another official said there was little agreement within the administration over the amount of time Iraq might need to mount acredible threat of a germ warfare attack.
"There are differing views on how hard it is for Iraq to do that, whether it's a simple matter or difficult matter, the degree of accuracy they want or whether it's more to make a statement," he said.
Iraq has modified its Soviet-made Scud-B missile to increase its nominal 190-mile range to up to 560 miles, far enough to reach Israel from western Iraqi launch sites. But experts said the Iraqis still face several technical challenges, including how to detonate or trigger a biological warhead and how to blanket a large area with disease-inducing agents.
"One big problem is distribution," said retired Navy Capt. James T. Bush of the Center for Defense Information. "If you're going to distribute a biological agent by air, whether by missiles or bombs, you need the agent released at precisely the right height -- otherwise it won't go where you want it to go, or it'll be a big puddle on the ground. And the right height could vary day to day, depending on the weather and wind direction."
Pentagon officials also said they doubted Iraq's ability to deliver biological warheads accurately over long distances.
The Iraqis fired Soviet-made FROG-7s -- an unguided surface-to-surface rocket with a 45-mile range -- and Scuds hundreds of times during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, with a poor record of direct hits.
Scud missiles often were off target by more than half a mile.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security analyst, said Iraq's longer-range missiles did not have payload room to carry enough bacterial agents to do extensive damage.
"The amount you do send up risks being dissipated" by the wind, he said. "It takes a lot of biological agents to cover a wide area -- literally tons."
Biological agents were more likely to be delivered in bombs or covertly by ships moving over the area to be contaminated, he said. But satellites and AWACS surveillance planes are certain to detect Iraqi ship or aircraft activity, and the well-equipped allied forces are not likely to surrender control of the skies to the Iraqis, he and others agreed.