Top Iraqi weapons scientist taken into U.S. custody

Tuesday, May 6, 2003

WASHINGTON -- A top Iraqi scientist has been taken into custody, according to U.S. officials who say they suspect she has information about a banned biological weapons program.

Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who has advanced degrees from two U.S. universities, was taken into custody on Sunday, a Defense Department official said. He had no other details about her detention.

With Ammash's detention, 19 of the 55 Iraqis listed as the most wanted by U.S. officials have been reported captured. In a deck of playing cards with photos of the 55 that troops are using to hunt leadership figures, she is the five of hearts.

Officials have not yet found any weapons of mass destruction -- which the Bush administration cited as justification for the war in Iraq -- and have said they need information from Iraqis to help find them.

Other high-ranking Iraqi officials have denied under interrogation that there have been banned chemical or biological weapons programs in recent years.

U.S. intelligence officials said that Ammash, 49, is believed to have played a key role in rebuilding Baghdad's biological weapons capability since the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

She was born in 1953 in Baghdad, and her father was Salih Magdi Ammash, a former vice president, defense minister and member of the Baath Party's leadership. Saddam Hussein reportedly ordered his execution in 1983.

Ammash was trained by Nassir al-Hindawi, described by United Nations inspectors as the father of Iraq's biological weapons program, officials said.

Ammash received her undergraduate degree at the University of Baghdad, master of science in biology from Texas Woman's University, in Denton, Texas, and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1983.

In one of several videos of Saddam released during the war, Ammash was the only woman among about a half-dozen men seated around a table. The videos were used as Iraqi propaganda as invading forces drew closer to Baghdad, and it was not known when the meeting happened or what was the significance of her presence there.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday that weapons of mass destruction will not be easily found because Saddam hid them from U.N. inspectors.

So far, high-level Iraqi officials, such as Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's closest deputies, have not cooperated or provided information about the weapons, U.S. officials said.

"We're going to have to find people not at the very senior level who are vulnerable, obviously, if they're in custody, but it will be people down below who had been involved in one way or another," the defense secretary said.

Asked if any of these lower-level officials are cooperating, Rumsfeld said: "Are they telling us something substantive? We don't have anything substantive to announce at the present time."

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