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U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis

Prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, last week's "Turkey Defense Terrorism Threat Awareness Message" warned of a possible chemical weapons attack by al Qaeda on the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Incirlik is an important NATO facility from which a U.S.-led coalition in 1991 launched thousands of bombing runs to force Iraq to withdraw its army from Kuwait. Turkey has given conditional agreement to its use in the event of a new war with Iraq.

According to two officials, a second related threat report was distributed in Washington this week. The CIA message, transmitted before the daily 3 a.m. compilation of the Threat Matrix, described a European ally's warning that the United States might face a chemical attack in a big-city subway if war breaks out with Iraq. A U.S. government spokesman said the European ally offered little evidence and "the credibility of the report has not been determined."

Among the uncertainties about the suspected weapon transfer in Iraq is the precise relationship of the Islamic operatives to the al Qaeda network. One official said the transaction involved Asbat al-Ansar, a Lebanon-based Sunni extremist group that recently established an enclave in northern Iraq. Asbat al-Ansar is affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and receives funding from it, but officials said they did not know whether its pursuit of chemical weapons was specifically on al Qaeda's behalf.

The government is also uncertain whether the transaction involved a chemical agent alone or an agent in what is known as a weaponized form -- incorporated into a delivery system such as a rocket or a bomb. The latter would be a more efficient killer, but chemical weapons are deadly in either form. Among the reasons for suspecting VX was involved is that it is the most portable of Iraq's chemical weapons, capable of inflicting mass casualties in a quantity that a single courier could transport.

After initial denials, Iraq admitted in the 1990s that it had manufactured tons of VX and two less sophisticated nerve agents, Sarin and Tabun. Its remaining chemical arsenal was limited to blister agents, such as mustard gas, that date back to World War I.

First developed as a weapon by the U.S. Army, VX is an oily, odorless and tasteless liquid that kills on contact with the skin or when inhaled in aerosol form. Like other nerve agents, it is treatable in the first minutes after exposure but otherwise leads swiftly to fatal convulsions and respiratory failure. The United States, a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, destroyed the last of its stocks of VX and other chemical agents on the Johnston Atoll, 825 miles southwest of Hawaii, in November 2000.

U.S. military forces, hazardous materials teams and some ambulance systems carry emergency antidotes. They usually come in autoinjectors containing atropine and an oxime -- drugs that reverse the neuromuscular blockade of a nerve agent. Atropine-like drugs have other uses, such as in anesthesia and in treating cardiac arrest, and are often stocked in hospitals.

During inspections by the U.N. Special Commission, or UNSCOM, in the 1990s, Iraq denied producing any chemical weapon other than mustard gas. Faced with contrary evidence, it eventually acknowledged the manufacture of 3.9 tons of VX and 3,859 tons in all of lethal chemicals. The Baghdad government also admitted filling more than 10,000 bombs, rockets and missile warheads with Sarin. It denied having done so with its most potent agent, VX, but an international commission of experts assembled by UNSCOM said the scientific evidence suggested otherwise.

UNSCOM said in its final report, in January 1999, that it could not account for 1.5 tons of the VX known to have been produced in Iraq, and that it could not establish whether additional quantities had been made.

The U.N. Security Council ordered Iraq in April 1991 to relinquish all capabilities to make biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as well as long-range missiles. The declared basis for the present threat of war is the U.S. view, shared by the Clinton and Bush administrations, that the Baghdad government never came close to complying.

In 1998, the Clinton administration asserted that Iraq provided technical assistance in the construction of a VX production facility in Sudan, undertaken jointly with al Qaeda. In retaliation for al Qaeda's August 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton ordered the destruction of the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan's capital.

Clinton's advisers released scant public evidence about al Shifa, and the Tomahawk missile attack was widely regarded as a blunder. Top Clinton administration officials, and career analysts still in government, maintain there was strong evidence behind the strike but that it remains too valuable to disclose. During last year's New York trial of the embassy bombers, prosecution witness Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a onetime operative who broke with al Qaeda, offered limited corroboration. He named al Qaeda and Sudanese operatives who had told him they were working together to build a chemical weapons plant in Khartoum. He said nothing about Iraqi support for the project and named a site near, but not in, the al Shifa plant.

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