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  •   Tests Show Nerve Gas in Iraqi Weapons

    By Jim Hoagland and Vernon Loeb
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, June 23, 1998; Page A01

    United Nations weapons inspectors have uncovered evidence that Iraq put deadly VX nerve gas into missile warheads before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, contradicting claims by the Iraqi government that it was unable to make a weapon using the volatile nerve agent, according to official documents and diplomatic sources.

    The new evidence is contained in a confidential U.S. Army laboratory analysis completed on June 10 of warhead fragments recovered by U.N. inspectors from a destruction pit at Taji, Iraq, in March. Swabs from the warheads were analyzed for the United Nations at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, which reported finding "significant amounts" of "VX disulfide . . . and stabilizer" in the samples.

    The laboratory results appear to confirm an account by a defecting Iraqi general and suspicions long harbored by technical experts that Iraq succeeded a decade ago in stabilizing and weaponizing VX gas, a few drops of which can kill a human in minutes. Iraq's ability to add VX to its missile arsenal would significantly expand the lethal capacity of a chemical attack on its neighbors or internal opponents.

    The discovery also suggests a continuing effort by Iraq to conceal weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi officials repeated denials regarding their VX program as recently as last week, in a meeting in Baghdad with Richard Butler, executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), which is responsible for finding and destroying prohibited weapons in Iraq.

    Butler is scheduled to report his complete findings to the Security Council in a closed-door session on Wednesday. Last week, he informed the council that he had presented preliminary results from the Aberdeen laboratory to Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, but was rebuffed.

    "During the discussions," Butler said in a June 16 report to the Security Council, "the Commission presented the preliminary results of the chemical analysis of certain evacuated remnants of special missile warheads. The Iraqi side rejected these results. Both sides agreed to conduct further discussions on the issue."

    Butler also reported that "Iraq refused to undertake additional steps to clarify the extent of its attempts to produce the chemical warfare agent VX. Iraq stated that this matter was closed and that it was only ready to discuss the evidence available to the Commission of incorrect declarations on VX."

    Aziz took strong exception to Butler's version of the exchange in a letter yesterday to the Security Council, saying Butler had been "incorrect" in asserting that Iraq had refused to clarify the extent of its efforts to produce VX. Aziz said Iraq had presented all necessary documents showing that it had not produced VX in 1990 or 1991 "in sufficiently stable manner to be utilized within the framework of the armament program."

    Aziz also asserted in his letter that Iraq has completed all disarmament activities required by a 1991 Security Council resolution and that a new work schedule agreed to with Butler would enable UNSCOM to submit its final report, clearing the way for a lifting of Gulf War sanctions.

    The Washington Post obtained a copy of the U.S. Army lab report from officials of the Iraqi National Congress, the principal Iraqi exile opposition group. Diplomatic sources confirmed the findings. U.S. officials declined to discuss the report, but did not dispute its conclusions.

    The new indications of Iraqi deception also are likely to reverberate in U.S. politics, where conservative Republicans are increasingly critical of what they see as a failure by the Clinton administration to support strongly either aggressive UNSCOM inspections for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or efforts to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

    Word of the new findings on VX gas began to circulate on Capitol Hill late last week, leading to the drafting over the weekend of a pointed letter to President Clinton from Republican congressional leaders demanding to know if Clinton would back up Butler in a confrontation with Baghdad. The letter was sent to the White House last night.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.), one of the four GOP signatories of the letter, said he was "deeply disturbed" by reports that the administration has not acted on the VX information.

    "The latest example of a failed policy toward Iraq will not be swept under the rug. The issue of whether UNSCOM has received all the support it needs and deservesfrom the U.S. will figure heavily in the nomination hearings of Richard Holbrooke" to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and of the current ambassador, Bill Richardson, to be energy secretary, Lott said.

    sk,-1 State Department spokesman James P. Rubin denied GOP suggestions that the administration has accepted restrictions on UNSCOM inspections since the Feb. 23 accord between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein that averted U.S. military strikes. "We strongly support Richard Butler and UNSCOM," Rubin said.

    Iraq is known to have used chemical weapons against Iran and against the Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s, and to have developed an extensive arsenal of biological and chemical weapons before the Gulf War.

    In 1994, Wafiq al-Samurrai, who was Saddam Hussein's chief of military intelligence, defected from Iraq and disclosed that at least 10 warheads filled with VX and 10 filled with anthrax had been available to Iraqi forces in 1991.

    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, which Iraqi officials claimed to have destroyed in secret. At a meeting with two panels of U.N. experts in Baghdad in February, Iraqi Lt. Gen. Amer Saadi, the head of Iraq's delegation, said that "if there was know-how, it was only on the laboratory scale, without full understanding."

    But the panel of experts dismissed these contentions and demanded that Iraq account for the large quantities of chemical warfare agents imported in the 1980s and for 500 missing warheads. This helped clear the way for an UNSCOM inspection in March of a pit where the Iraqis said they had disposed of many of the missing warheads.

    The pit, located at the Taji weapons production facility about 20 miles north of Baghdad, contained fragments of three warheads that UNSCOM shipped to the laboratory at Aberdeen, one of several labs worldwide used by the United Nations to test toxic agents.

    "This is a smoking gun," Ahmed Chalabi, president of the Iraqi National Congress, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It shows that Saddam is still lying, and that this whole arrangement based on his turning his weapons of terror over to the United Nations is not workable. He has stabilized VX, which means he can store it for a long time and bring it out for use when he wants."

    A Republican Senate source echoed Chalabi's concern: "This report means that they have VX out there now, and can use it. They have lied from from the start."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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