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Iraq Special Report

  2 Panels Reject Iraqi Claims on Arms

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page A19

Two groups of experts from nine countries have endorsed recent claims by the United Nations that Iraq could have a clandestine stockpile of deadly chemical arms and has not met key requirements for disclosing all data on its weapons of mass destruction.

The experts reached their conclusions after holding seminars in Baghdad earlier this month at the request of the Iraqi government, which apparently expected that the panelists would endorse its claims to have eliminated all its chemical arms and ballistic missile warheads.

Instead, the panelists have lent fresh support to the notion that the task of inspecting and eliminating Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is far from over. That contention has formed the backbone of U.S. and allied demands that Iraq allow unfettered access to U.N. inspectors, as provided for in a 1991 resolution by the U.N. Security Council, a demand that Iraq is refusing to meet.

"The panels did two things: They demonstrated to a wide range of international experts the depth and seriousness of the problems which remain to be resolved. Secondly, during the course of the work in Baghdad, there were some new questions raised" about the information that Iraq has already provided, said Charles Duelfer, deputy chairman of the U.N. Special Commission.

He explained that in particular, "there is more uncertainty now about the quantity and disposition" of the missile warheads Iraq made to carry poison gases and germ weapons.

One of the panels was convened to assess an Iraqi claim that its scientists never produced a large quantity of the nerve agent VX because of technical difficulties at its poison gas factories. In its report, which was sent yesterday to the Security Council, the panel called the Iraqi claim "not credible" and without "technical justification."

Instead, the panel said, Iraq had enough technical expertise to have readily produced as much as 100 tons of VX before 1991. It also said the country probably still has the "know-how," equipment and material needed to produce 200 tons. The latter amount is approximately 50 times more than Iraq has admitted making at any time.

VX gas is so deadly that even a drop absorbed through the skin can kill within minutes. The panel, which concluded by consensus that Iraq may still have some of this gas, included representatives of China, Germany, France, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.

The second panel, which included representatives of six of these nations, expressed similar skepticism in its report about a separate Iraqi claim that it no longer has any warheads for medium-range ballistic missiles. The panelists called the information Iraq has turned over to the United Nations about its production and subsequent destruction of those warheads insufficient or inconsistent.

The panel also expressed particular concern about the reliability of Iraqi data on missile warheads that were specially developed to carry chemical or biological agents, saying that "less progress" was achieved in this area than others. The panelists also complained more generally that the Iraqi scientists who testified before the group had not given factual answers and on occasion had "vehemently objected to the introduction of all relevant facts and information."

Since 1996, U.N. weapons inspectors have been concerned that Iraq is concealing several dozen large warheads that could be filled with chemical or biological agents and placed atop missiles capable of hitting Israel, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring nations.

The inspectors have also suspected that Iraq is hiding a stockpile of VX gas produced before the 1991 Persian Gulf War in a form that has kept it chemically stable and ready for use today. Iraq initially denied having done any work on VX, then admitted to having conducted some research on it, and finally admitted to having made 3.9 tons in the course of its research.

But Iraq denies ever having produced any of the chemical agent for use in weapons because it could not find an efficient method for doing so. Iraqi Lt. Gen. Amer Saadi, the head of Iraq's delegation at the meetings, said that "if there was know-how, it was only on the laboratory scale, without full understanding."

The panelists, however, said that according to their analysis of the history of the program, Iraqi scientists were aware of at least two efficient approaches and should have encountered no difficulties in carrying them out.

"There has been a long history of the misrepresentation of the VX program, and as of this [meeting] . . . vital information remains to be revealed," the panel said.

Another technical meeting to scrutinize Iraq's claim to have eliminated all of its biological weapons was scheduled in Baghdad later this month but has been postponed indefinitely because of the threat of U.S. military action.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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