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Newsday January 18, 2003

CIA: No Chemicals in Iraqi Warheads

By Knut Royce

Washington - The CIA believes that 11 of 12 chemical warheads discovered Thursday in Iraq by UN weapons inspectors never contained lethal chemicals and a former inspector said the incident probably has little significance in demonstrating Iraqi noncompliance with a UN mandate to destroy weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraqis "don't normally fill [the warheads] until they are ready to fire," said a senior administration official familiar with the CIA's reports on the discovery of the shells and artillery rockets. "And these rockets haven't been fired, so there may be no trace of chemicals in them."

He said the United States was awaiting UN test results on the warheads, discovered at a munitions depot 90 miles southwest of Baghdad. The official said that this particular lot of 122-mm warheads and rockets, configured by the Iraqis to launch the nerve agent sarin, had been purchased by the Iraqis from Egypt in the 1980s. He said Italy also had sold Iraq 122-mm rockets and launchers during the Iraqi war with Iran. The United States, which saw Iran as the worse of two evils, also collaborated with the Iraqi military at the time.

One Defense Department official said the finding did not come as a great surprise, mainly because Iraq was known to have had such shells during the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago.

"There's really not much new there; that's what you'd expect to find if you were an inspector looking for something," the official said. "Now you've got to find the [chemical] agent or proof of the agent."

Raymond Zilinskas, a former UN inspector in Iraq who directs a chemical and biological nonproliferation program in California, said that the warheads are "such a small quantity that I can't believe people would think this is really a smoking gun, as long as they were not filled."

Had they recently been filled, however, Iraq "would probably be in material breach," because it has declared that all chemical weapons have been destroyed. A "material breach" of UN demands is widely seen as a trigger for U.S. forces to attack Iraq. On Friday, the White House characterized the warheads find only as "troubling and serious."

Zilinskas, who runs his program at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies, said Iraq has "kind of a mania for record keeping." Nevertheless, he said, after the numerous wars and insurgencies since the 1980s, Iraq, which also has hundreds of tons of conventional munitions, could well "lose a case here or there of chemical weapons."

But the senior administration official said Iraq has claimed it destroyed 15,000 of the chemical rockets and shells, yet has produced no records for the claimed destruction. "There's an open question about them," he said. "Now we know where at least 11 of them were. The question now is, is there another bunker somewhere with 14,989 of them?"

He said Iraq normally does not store the chemicals inside the warheads because they can leak. "So they store the chemicals separately, and when they get ready to fire them they put the chemicals in [the warheads]," he said.

There can be exceptions. Inspectors in the 1990s discovered a dozen 155-mm shells filled with mustard gas. The UN later asserted that Iraq had failed to account for 550 mustard gas shells it claimed had been lost in 1991.

The CIA believes Iraq has secretly stocked "at least 100 metric tons and possibly as much as 500 metric tons" of chemical warfare agents, according to a report it prepared in October. Even at the high end this would pale by comparison to the thousands of tons Iraq had before Desert Storm in 1991 and the subesequent mandated destruction of its chemical weapons.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials suspect Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been careful to keep the elements of chemical or biological weapons separate, to make them harder to detect and destroy.

"If you're going to try to keep a program hidden, one of the techniques is to keep the pieces handy so when you need to do it, you can do it on very short notice," one official said yesterday. "The fact that they have unused shells, [means] they have the potential of filling them in short order."

The Telltale Tip

Unlike conventional munitions, warheads that are designed to carry chemical weapons have a special nozzle and reservoir that allow the toxic agent to be put in - a giveaway to UN inspectors.

Facts about the 12 warheads found in Thursday:

How It Works:

Chemical agent (1) is placed into warhead via filling nozzle (2). When shell arrives at target, fuse (3) detonates charge (4). Blast shatters shell casing (5), releasing toxic agent.

SAKR Series Artillery Rocket

Caliber: 122 mm

Range: 22 miles

Length: 8.5 feet

Origin: Egyptian

(Soviet-based design)

SOURCE: GlobalSecurity.org

GRAPHIC: Newsday / Len De Groot, Rod Eyer, Gustavo Pabon; Researched by Andrew Wong - The Telltale Tip (see end of text)

Copyright 2003 Newsday