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The Record (Canada) April 05, 2003

U.S. troops find signs of chemical readiness

SOURCE: Associated Press

As the military advances closer to Baghdad, signs of Iraqi chemical preparedness are multiplying, although there is still no conclusive evidence Saddam Hussein possesses any weapons of mass destruction.

Yesterday, troops at a training facility in the western Iraqi desert came across a bottle labelled "tabun," a nerve gas and chemical weapon Iraq is banned from possessing.

Closer to Baghdad, troops at Iraq's largest military industrial complex found nerve agent antidotes, documents describing chemical warfare and a white powder that appeared to be used for explosives.

UN weapons inspectors went repeatedly to the vast al Qa Qaa complex, most recently on March 8. But they found nothing during spot visits to some of the 1,100 buildings at the site 40 kilometres south of Baghdad.

Col. John Peabody, engineer brigade commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said troops found thousands of five-centimetre by 12-centimetre boxes, each containing three vials of white powder, together with documents written in Arabic that dealt with how to engage in chemical warfare.

A senior U.S. official familiar with initial testing said the powder was believed to be explosives. The finding would be consistent with the plant's stated production capabilities in the field of basic raw materials for explosives and propellants.

According to UN weapons inspectors, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Iraqis filled warheads and artillery shells with explosives at the site and manufactured bomb casings there. The activities, for conventional weaponry, were allowed under UN resolutions. But the resolutions, passed after the 1991 Gulf War, ban Iraq from possessing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles to deliver them.

Peabody told an Associated Press reporter that troops at al Qa Qaa also discovered atropine, used to counter the effects of nerve agents, and 2-Pam chloride, which is used in combination with atropine in case of chemical attack.

The presence of atropine, and the discovery of gas masks and chemical suits earlier in the war, could indicate Iraq was preparing to use chemical weapons.

For years, the al Qa Qaa site has raised the suspicions of weapons inspectors who believed the facilities could be converted for the production of missiles and chemical and nuclear weapons. It was visited repeatedly during the 1990s and during the last cycle of inspections between Nov. 27 and March 17, when UN experts went to the complex more than 10 times.

According to a British dossier on Iraq published in September 2002, parts of al Qa Qaa's chemical complex, destroyed in 1991, were repaired and are now operational, including a production plant for the chemical weapon phosgene.

Nuclear inspectors believe an area of the complex was involved in designing an atomic bomb before Iraq's nuclear program was destroyed by UN teams after the 1991 Gulf War. The facility also made lenses and other components that can be used to trigger nuclear explosions.

In March 1990, customs officers at Heathrow Airport in London seized a case of capacitors -- components for triggers in nuclear weapons -- bound for al Qa Qaa that were especially designed for detonating nuclear warheads.

Inspectors had installed cameras and sensors all around the complex after the Gulf War but the Iraqis dismantled the equipment when inspectors left in 1998. The new inspections regime, which returned in November, had planned to install new monitoring equipment but ran out of time.

Much is riding on the disarmament process.

The United States believes Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and a reviving nuclear weapons program.

But the U.S. administration was unable to convince much of the world in the run-up to the war.

Countries including France and Russia blocked the United States from winning UN support for the war partly because they saw no proof that Iraq possessed such weapons. The chief weapons inspectors reported several times that they had found nothing to support the administration's claims.

So far, invading U.S. forces have not found chemical or biological weapons. Officials and former weapons inspectors have said discoveries were likely to be made closer to Baghdad. Several large facilities, such as al Qa Qaa, are within an 80-kilometre radius of the capital.

"We believe that this regime does possess weapons of mass destruction, we remain convinced of that," Brig.-Gen. Vincent Brooks said yesterday. He said some weapons may have been pulled into the Baghdad area, "either delivery systems, or, potentially, storage systems."

But a discovery far from the Iraqi capital was made yesterday when troops in the western desert came across what they believe is a training centre for nuclear, chemical and biological warfare in Iraq's western desert, Brooks said.

One bottle found at the site was labelled as tabun: a nerve agent that the U.S. government says may have been used during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. There was no way to immediately confirm whether the substance was indeed tabun and soldiers found only a small amount, indicating the site was meant for training, not storing or deploying chemical weapons, Brooks said.

"In that particular site, we believe that was the only sample," he said. "That's why we believe it was a training site. Our conclusion is that this was not a (weapons of mass destruction) site ... it proved to be far less than that."

Photos of the site showed shelves of brown bottles with yellow labels. Brooks said troops did not understand some of the labels and were collecting the bottles for examination.

THE INVISIBLE THREAT

The Bush administration is convinced that Iraq has chemical weapons and the means to deliver them. Some of the weapons that Iraq has produced in the past and possible delivery systems:

MAJOR CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WEEAPONS SITES DECLARED BY IRAQ

Chemical weapons facilities acknowledged by Iraq in the 1990s include production and deployment sites. Biological facilities include research, production, testing and deployment.

DELIVERY SYSTEMS:

Checmical and biological weapons can be spread by explosive devices or pressurized gas. other means include the use of aircraft with spray tanks and ground vehicles with aerosol generators.
Spraying by unmanned drones.
RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades
130-mm and 155-mm artillery shells
DB-2 chemical bomb
R-400 chemical bomb
Chemical warhead based on Al-Hussein missile with a range of 653 km.

A MISSILE'S REACH
Missiles loaded with chemical weapons could have a range of up to 653 km, extending far beyone Iraq's borders.

WHAT ARE CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS?

CHEMICAL:

Mustard blister agents, CS tear gas, Nerve agents: sarin, Tabun, VX agent

Source: Primarily man made substances.

How are they dispersed

Spread as a liquid or by aerosol. May be loaded into rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells, artillery shells, aerial bombs or missiles, or sprayed by aircraft.

Defence

Various real-time detectors provide warning of potential exposure to chemical agents, allowing soldiers time to don protective gear. Special clothing covers eyes, skin and respiratory system.

BIOLOGICAL:

Anthrax, Botulinum, Ricin

Source
Found in nature. Made by using bacteria or viruses as replicating agents or other materials produced by living organisms.

How they are dispersed

Spread as a liquid or by aerosol. The small particle size requires a high-energy generating system and weather conditions that keep the aerosol cloud near the ground. may be loaded into missiles or shells or put into food or water.

Defence

Existing detectors are less effective than those for chemical weapons. Identification requires time. Treatments are available for some toxins.

Sources: "Testbook of Military medicine," Office of the Surgeon General, John Pike, GlobalSecurity.org, "Weapons: An International Encyclopedia," CIS maps, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government," Sept. 24, 2003.

Rebecca Perry

Los Angeles Times


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