Iraqi Nerve Gas Tests Confirmed
By John M. Goshko
"I explained to the council that that is very serious because Iraq always has insisted it never weaponized VX," said Richard Butler, executive chairman of the U.N. commission (UNSCOM) charged with locating and eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "Facts are facts. Iraq has been deceiving the international community with weaponization of nerve gas."
Butler spoke after giving a closed-door briefing to the 15-nation council about the findings of a confidential U.S. Army laboratory analysis completed June 10 of warhead fragments recovered by UNSCOM inspectors from a destruction pit at Taji, Iraq in March.
The report on the analysis at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland said "significant amounts" of "VX disulfide . . . and stabilizer" were found in the samples. The findings were first revealed by The Washington Post Tuesday after it received a copy of the report from the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group opposed to President Saddam Hussein.
VX is a colorless, odorless liquid that turns into gas upon contact with oxygen. A few drops can kill a human in minutes.
The possibility that Iraq has unaccounted quantities of VX could greatly affect the debate within the Security Council about whether to lift the crippling economic sanctions placed on Baghdad during the Gulf War. Three permanent council members -- Russia, France and China -- are leading a campaign to end the sanctions, while the other two, the United States and Britain, contend that Iraq's lack of cooperation with UNSCOM casts serious doubt on whether it has eliminated its prohibited weapons.
"This is a very serious violation," U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson said today. "It means Iraq won't have the sanctions lifted."
Sources familiar with the meeting said many delegations, which had been encouraged by recent signs of greater Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM, appeared disappointed at what appeared to be a major deception. The sources said members of the Russian delegation sought to create the impression that the situation involved a deliberate U.S. leak aimed at discrediting Iraq.
Secretary General Kofi Annan, who negotiated an agreement ending the standoff over the presidential palaces and who is widely believed to favor ending the sanctions, said before the meeting: "We are dealing with the Iraqis on a large spectrum of issues, and I hope this particular development will not destroy the improved relations that has allowed UNSCOM to carry on with its work."
For more than two years, UNSCOM has been seeking unsuccessfully to obtain from the Iraqi government information it says is necessary to ascertain the extent of Iraqi efforts to manufacture VX and what became of the supplies it might have produced. After changing their story several times, Iraqi officials most recently have claimed that they never were able to produce the gas in a militarily usable form.
Iraq further has insisted that all experimental quantities had been destroyed. Yesterday, the Iraqi government reiterated its denial and threatened "grave consequences" if the sanctions were not lifted.
However, that denial was dismissed by Butler, who said: "There is absolutely no doubt that VX was present in some of those missiles. It is utterly unambiguous." Butler also said that in line with a demand from Iraq, the missile shards would be sent to laboratories in France and Switzerland for analysis. But he noted that the Aberdeen facility is renowned for its expertise in chemical warfare testing, and he said, "Whatever happens at the other labs will not invalidate the [Aberdeen] findings."
In a related development, Richardson demanded that Iraq apologize for a letter to the council from Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf referring to Martin Indyk, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Mideast affairs, as "a known Jew and Zionist." Portugese Ambassador Antonio Monteiro, the current council president, said he would raise the matter with Iraqi Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company