The US has detained for far too long Iraqi scientists arrested last year in the belief that they would provide information about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, according to an Iraqi government source.
Even when US investigators concluded that no such weapons existed the scientists were not freed because the Americans feared their release would be seen as a tacit admission that Iraq had no WMD. This may explain why the US embassy in Iraq is determined to detain Dr Rihab Taha, who once worked on biological weapons, while the Iraqi justice ministry says it sees no good reason for her continued detention.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose Tawhid and Jihad group is threatening to behead the British contractor Kenneth Bigley, probably had no idea that his demand would focus attention on the detention of two female Iraqi scientists. It is more likely that Zarqawi was trying to make propaganda points since it is widely rumoured among Iraqis that the US and Britain hold many female Iraqi prisoners.
When Dr Taha, a microbiologist with a doctorate from the University of East Anglia, surrendered to US forces in Baghdad on 12 May last year, US officials hoped she would lead them to biological weapons.
In the approach to the war, one of the key demands of the US and Britain was that Saddam Hussein allowed free access to scientists whom the UN inspectors wanted to interview about WMD. After the war, American inspectors, first under David Kay and from January under Charles Duelfer, were able to order the detention of these scientists.
But the 1,500-page study by the US government’s Iraq Survey Group now concludes that Iraq had no large-scale programmes to build such weapons.
The Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology has unsuccessfully sought the freedom of some detained scientists on the grounds that their expertise is needed to rebuild Iraq’s scientific potential. Dr Taha headed a research team to develop biological weapons from 1985 to 1995 and it is possible that she and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, the biotech researcher nicknamed "Mrs Anthrax", were able to provide information about WMD developed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, but much of this would already have been known in the US and UK.