The Daily Telegraph, London. http://www.telegraph.co.uk
We mustn't be panicked into a war with Saddam
By Robert Harris
ON the morning of March 20, 1995, at the height of the Tokyo rush hour, five members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo each boarded a separate subway train carrying a plastic bag containing a small quantity of the nerve agent Sarin. At 8am, the terrorists punctured the bags with umbrellas, released the liquid and killed 12 commuters.
This remains, to date, the worst-ever terrorist attack using one of the so-called "weapons of mass destruction" of which we now hear so much, and it is worth pondering, for two reasons.
The first is that, paradoxically, these supposedly "massively" destructive weapons have rarely proved more lethal than conventional explosives: five Semtex bombs detonated on those Japanese trains would probably have killed more victims and caused more physical damage.
The second point is more crucial: the Tokyo attack was perpetrated without the involvement of any foreign state. The Sarin that Aum Shinrikyo used was manufactured by the group itself, using its own facilities in Japan.
It was a similar story with the anthrax sent through the US post last autumn. Theoretically, just one of the infected letters - that sent to the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle - contained enough anthrax spores to kill 200 million people.
In fact, the entire sequence of poisonings killed only five. And, as with the Tokyo attack, no rogue terrorist state was involved: according to the FBI, the weapons-grade material involved was probably stolen from inside an American research agency.
I mention this because we are in danger, at the instigation of an understandably vengeful America, of being panicked into a war with Iraq, which may well not be justified by past experience of terrorism and which may lead to massive casualties.
If Saddam Hussein were close to possessing nuclear weapons, destroying him would be an urgent matter. But there is little evidence that he is. Indeed, in 1998, the Iraqis were willing to allow the International Atomic Energy Authority to continue its monitoring activity, even while they were making the work of the other UN weapons inspectors impossible.
So nuclear is not the immediate issue here. Instead, what Iraq has - and probably in abundance - are what are collectively known as "the poor man's atomic bomb": chemical and biological weapons (CBW).
As it happens, this is a subject I know a little about. Twenty years ago, with Jeremy Paxman, I co-wrote a history of gas and germ warfare, with the charming title, A Higher Form of Killing. It has just been republished. Revising and updating it has made me appreciate for the first time just how immense the Iraqi CBW arsenal was at the time of the Gulf.
By their own admission, the Iraqis had armed 166 aircraft bombs and 25 Scud missiles with a mixture of biological agents, mostly anthrax and botulinal toxin. Another 30 Scuds were armed with chemical warheads. After Iraq's surrender, the UN inspectors destroyed 38,000 munitions either loaded with, or capable of being loaded with, gas.
The obvious question therefore arises: why didn't Saddam use these weapons in 1991? And the likeliest answer is: he feared that America would retaliate with some kind of nuclear strike. This was the calculated effect of the warning given to Baghdad by the US Secretary of State, James Baker, on the eve of the allied attack: "If the conflict involves your use of chemical and biological weapons against our forces, the American people will demand vengeance. We have the means to exact it."
But deterrence cuts two ways. At least one respected and well informed strategic expert, Avigdor Haselkorn, believes that the reason America didn't press home its attack all the way to Baghdad in 1991 was its fear that Saddam - with his back to the wall and with nothing to lose - would have fired chemically and biologically armed Scuds at Israel and at coalition forces. America decided to quit while it was ahead.
Eleven years later, this analysis is more pertinent than ever. As any cat will tell you, it is a famously bad idea to corner a rat. If Saddam still possesses a CBW arsenal - which is, after all, supposedly our casus belli - then we must presume he will try to use them, for we are leaving him no way out.
If he can strike at Israel, he will. If he can poison our troops, he will. If he can pass some part of his arsenal to terrorists - which up to now he doesn't appear to have done, presumably because he fears retaliation - then again, he probably will.
In other words, it may be that the best way to make sure Saddam does not use his CBW arsenal is to leave him responsible for it, whereas the surest way to ensure those gases and toxins are actually spread throughout the world is to attack him.
And so, for the first time in my life, rather to my surprise, I find myself beginning to line up with the doves. The Falklands in 1982, the Gulf in 1991, Kosovo, Afghanistan - in all of these I supported military action. But this mooted assault on Iraq strikes me as being in a different category.
We are being whipped into a war psychosis about "weapons of mass destruction" that are, practically, often no more destructive than high explosive and that can, unlike nuclear weapons, be manufactured in the middle of a city or stolen from a laboratory.
We are considering acting pre-emptively against a state that has not - has it? - actually sponsored a terrorist threat against us. We are likely, in the process, to fracture the united international front against al-Qa'eda, split public opinion in this country and make bio-terrorism more likely. All in all: a strange way to go about making the world a safer place.
A Higher Form of Killing (Arrow) by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman is available for £8.99 plus £1.99 postage and packing from Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222. Alternatively buy the book from amazon.co.uk by clicking here.