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`Dr. Germ' - a threat to the planet?

If Western forces attack Baghdad, the No. 1 Iraqi marked for death after Saddam Hussein will be a quiet, 42-year-old woman who has prepared enough deadly viruses to kill everyone on Earth twice over.

This British-trained scientist has been dubbed "Dr. Germ" by Western intelligence operatives who consider her the most dangerous woman on Earth.Yet in Iraq, she is a heroine who just two weeks ago was publicly applauded by Saddam Hussein at Baghdad's Military Industrial Commission as he handed her a scientific achievement prize for her deadly work.

In a neat, blue suit and sober jewelry, Rihab Taha smiled her thanks before driving home to look after her baby girl in a smart and very secure Baghdad town-house.

For this woman, with mousey hair now flecked with gray, is the person who persuaded Saddam to launch his germ warfare program back in the 1980s. And it is her lethal handiwork, started on her return from the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, in 1984 and kept a secret by Saddam, that has now sparked the latest crisis that could turn to war.

In an extraordinary decade, Taha has overseen the creation of 10 billion killer doses of toxins, including botulinum, a vicious food poisoning bug that provokes a swollen tongue, frothing mouth and dizziness before a victim's rapid demise. She is suspected of producing a host of lethal viruses and bacteria that are still stockpiled secretly around Iraq in bunkers and factories known only to Saddam's closest aides.

Most incredibly, she has masterminded the testing of anthrax - which dissolves the kidneys, liver and lungs leading to death within two days - on rats, mice, dogs, sheep and donkeys.

Almost certainly humans, too, U.N. inspectors say. Videos seized by them two years ago showed the animals, often placed in sealed plastic boxes, writhing in agony as the biological agents took their toll. (The moving pictures of the dying creatures were so dreadful to watch they have never been released.)

Today it seems certain that under Taha's direction research was also done into hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, which temporarily blinds and makes eyes bleed, plus another ghastly virus leading to lethal diarrhea in children. Taha became an expert on camel pox, which provokes bleeding skin lesions, and on Crimean Congo fever.

As the scale of Taha's deeds come to light, those who knew her in Norwich - where for five years she studied plant toxins and would return from holidays in Iraq with gift-wrapped boxes of dates for fellow students - have expressed surprise at the notorious rise of a very ordinary scientist and non-descript girl who loved watching the BBC in her spare time.

"She talked about Saddam Hussein as though he was someone she admired, almost on fatherly terms," said a student who befriended Taha at the time. "But she was difficult to really get to know. She and two other Iraqi girls would keep up to date on the Iran-Iraqi conflict by staying glued to the TV."

"Of all the students I've ever had, Taha is the last person I would suspect of doing something like this," said John Turner, her teacher for four years at East Anglia University. "She kept quiet and was in the background. Although she was well-liked, she was not a gifted student, but very hardworking. I am flabbergasted."

Even the first U.N. inspector to meet Taha, although aware that she played a key role in Iraq's biological arsenal, was unprepared for the woman he faced, a woman so nervous that she even shyly sought his opinion of her work as a scientist.

"She was an unassuming individual to look at her. No one would suspect she was the head of the country's germ warfare program," said David Hux-soll, who headed the initial U.N. weapons inspection team in 1991. (He is dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University.)

U.N. inspectors have at last discovered the truth about the sinister work of "Dr. Germ" - and other Iraqi scientists, many of whom were educated at British universities - despite Taha's own desperate attempts at a cover-up.

After seven years of sleuthing, they believe Taha's doomsday arsenal of biological weaponry may even have been used on human guinea pigs. Recent Israeli intelligence reports point to such atrocities at Salman Park, a military complex 50 miles south of Baghdad.

According to the Israeli sources, it was here - from safely behind a glass screen - that Iraqi scientists watched as Iranian prisoners of war were strapped to beds in an underground room. On the ceiling was a powerful spray-gun aimed at the terrified men beneath.

On occasions the spray-gun poured out anthrax bacteria, which penetrates the skin and lungs, leaving the prisoners dying in agony from internal hemorrhaging. At other times it contained toxins for use in chemical weapons. Again the victims faced a horrible death.

In another test, intelligence sources say, at an open air site near Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia, 12 Iranian prisoners were tied to posts while shells loaded with anthrax were blown up by remote control a few yards away. The heads of the doomed men were shielded to protect them from shrapnel so the power of the bacteria could be properly monitored. Each died from the disease a couple of days later.

It is the horrific possibility of experimentation on humans that is now being explored by the U.N. inspectors, who were turned away from Abu Gharib jail, near Baghdad, when they tried to uncover evidence that prisoners had been removed for the testing two years ago.

Raymond Zilimskas, a former germ-warfare analyst at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, met Taha and her sidekicks on two trips to Iraq. He says her scientific and management prowess was obvious to him. But today he wonders if Saddam is trying to hide the extent of Taha's work because it involved experiments on humans.

"That's what everybody's asking," he said recently.

Despite some successes in destroying Iraqi weapons, the U.N. believes many of the most dangerous weapons of all - the biological variety - are still being hidden by the Iraqis. At one stage inspectors feared that sizable quantities of anthrax were being moved around the country in refrigerated trucks by Saddam's Republican Guard.

Certainly, when Taha was first relentlessly questioned about her research she denied everything, bursting into tears, throwing tantrums and even storming out of the interview room.

At the heart of Iraq's entire biological warfare effort, code-named Project 324 because work started at al-Hakam on March 24, 1988, the factory produced gas gangrene that makes the skin of a human melt and fall off. It was from there during the gulf war, that Taha carried out Saddam's personal instructions to experiment on how to load bombs and missile warheads with deadly toxins.

At the secret factory - which escaped U.S. and British aerial bombardment during the Persian Gulf conflict but has now been destroyed by the U.N. - the tiny but determined Taha discovered that a single missile warhead filled with anthrax could annihilate 30,000 or 40,000 people in 12 hours. A teacup of the toxin is enough to wipe out the inhabitants of a small town.

Yet when Taha was grilled about the al-Hakam factory she insisted it was only making chicken feed to help end the hunger of Iraq's people. "Our country now needs fat chickens and lots of eggs, so we are trying to do just that," she declared. "This project is purely for civilian use."

That was, of course, a lie. But her devious work, including a plan to wreak havoc in the West by developing an antibiotic-resistant agent, earned Taha friends in high places. On one occasion as a U.N. inspector began to list the biological agents she had developed, he said she started to cry hysterically.

Suddenly Gen. Amer Kashid, the Iraqi official in charge of liaison with the U.N. inspection teams - and a mastermind of the attacks on Kuwait, Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf conflict - stepped in. He called the inspector a bad scientist for accusing Taha of misdeeds.

Soon afterward the inspectors discovered the general was in love with Taha and had sired her daughter. He had quietly married her in 1994, despite still being married to another woman, the mother of his 6-year-old child.

However, the real breakthrough came when Saddam's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamal - himself a weapons expert - defected to Jordan in 1995 and told the world about Dr. Germ. He said her charming ways and pleasant manner were nothing but a sham.