|Tuesday, 18 May 2004
Shell: Major Discovery Or A Curious Relic?
The United States went to war with Iraq because, according
to U.S. President George W. Bush, President Saddam Hussein
refused to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction. More
than 13 months after Hussein's downfall, no large stocks of
these weapons have been found. But on 17 May the U.S. military
announced that insurgents had used a roadside bomb containing
a small amount of the deadly nerve gas sarin.
Washington, 18 May
2004 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking yesterday in Baghdad, General Mark
Kimmitt, the coalition's senior military spokesman in Iraq,
took reporters by surprise.
The Iraqi Survey Group confirmed today that a 155-millimeter
artillery round containing sarin nerve agent had been found," Kimmitt
said. "The round had been rigged as an IED [improvised
explosive device] which was discovered by a U.S. force
convoy. A detonation occurred before that IED could be
rendered inoperable. This produced a very small dispersal
After more than a year's search, it appeared that the Iraqi
Survey Group -- the U.S. team searching for evidence of
weapons of mass destruction -- had finally found some on
15 May. But the amount was small, and the significance
was not immediately apparent.
Sarin is a clear, odorless liquid that can cause lethal
convulsions in those who breathe it or get it on their
skin. It was the poison used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult
to kill 12 people in an attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
The government of Iraq told United Nations inspectors that
it had manufactured hundreds of tons of sarin, and that
it used the nerve gas during its war with Iran in the 1980s.
It also is believed to have been the agent used against
Kurds in northern Iraq 10 years ago.
Kimmitt said no one was seriously injured in yesterday's
explosion of the shell, but that two people were treated
for what he called "minor exposure" to nerve agents. The
general said there were no serious injuries apparently
because detonating the shell was much less effective in
dispersing the nerve gas than had the shell been fired
from a cannon.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded cautiously
to the report yesterday, saying it must still be confirmed
that the agent was in fact sarin. He said an initial field
test for sarin was positive, but that additional tests
were being conducted.
Nor was there any immediate evidence that more artillery
shells containing nerve agents exist in Iraq, or if the
discovery indicates the presence of a significant stockpile
of sarin and other unconventional weapons.
As for the strategic significance of the discovery, Rumsfeld
said he believes the United States had good reason to conclude
that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But whether
he had them just as the war began, he said, remains a mystery:
The intelligence information in our country and in other
countries that have excellent intelligence-gathering capabilities
was that they existed, that the government of Iraq was
systematically deceiving the world about what it was doing.
There was a great deal of evidence to that effect. We don't
now know what actually happened [to make the weapons disappear]," Rumsfeld
In January, Danish troops in southern Iraq discovered mortar
shells they believed to contain a blister agent. But subsequent
tests proved the shells, which apparently dated to the
Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, had no chemical warfare agent.
Some U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that
they are concerned that there may be more weaponized sarin
in Iraq, and that insurgents who use whatever weapons they
can find may not be able to distinguish between ordinary
explosives and shells containing deadly poisons.
The agent used in the shell found on 15 May is believed
to be old, and therefore lacking much of its original potency.
Still, the AP quotes U.S. officials as saying insurgents
may be putting themselves and others in danger simply by
handling the explosives, let alone detonating them.
But Rumsfeld made it clear that he believes it is too early
to say just what threat such weapons may pose.
There are other, political, reasons that the discovery
of the sarin-laced shell may be significant, according
to Michael O'Hanlon, who specializes in foreign policy
and military issues at the Brookings Institution, a private
Washington policy research center.
O'Hanlon tells RFE/RL that the discovery of the suspected
sarin can have two distinctly different meanings. "One
of them is: We didn't need to fight because there was so
little of this stuff, and why bother? But the other point
is, of course, this is a reminder that he [Hussein] used
to have a lot of chemical agents, and if he did destroy
them, it's because we [the United States] finally, after
many years, managed to convince him," O'Hanlon said.
O'Hanlon says the threat posed by such weapons is still
not clear, given the age of the poisons and the likelihood
that insurgents may detonate them in ways that were not
But O'Hanlon says that if a small arsenal still exists
at weapons depots around the country, its potency lies
not in its chemical makeup, but in its status as a relic
of a dangerous part of Iraq's pre-war past.
It's not by itself a huge threat. But some people seem
to have forgotten he ever had much of this stuff, ever
really wanted it, ever used it. And this is one more visible
reminder that there used to be a lot of this stuff in Iraq.
On the other hand, I think the chances are that there's
not much any more," O'Hanlon said.
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission
of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W.
Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org