Iraq's nerve gas warheads anger U.S. Halt to sanctions unlikely as Aberdeen lab finds VX


UNITED NATIONS -- The first physical evidence that Iraq loaded deadly VX nerve gas into missile warheads before the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf has strengthened the resolve of the United States and its allies to maintain the embargo on Iraqi oil sales, diplomats said yesterday.

U.N. weapons inspectors excavated warhead fragments in March from a weapons dump at Nibai, Iraq, and shipped them to the Army laboratory at Aberdeen. The laboratory found significant traces of VX, an agent so toxic that a few droplets can kill.

"It's a nail in the coffin for Iraq's efforts to lift sanctions and to show substantial progress on disarmament," said Bill Richardson, the chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations.

John Weston, Britain's chief delegate, said there is no room to give Iraq the benefit of the doubt about the existence of "extremely potent chemical weapons" like VX. "I think it ill serves the United Nations not to look the facts in the face and to deal with them squarely in a case of this kind," he said.

The United States and Britain have fought against relaxing the sanctions, which were imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, until weapons inspectors verify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction and the means to make them. The condition was spelled out in Security Council Resolution 687, enacted in 1991.

The three other permanent members of the Security Council, China, France and Russia, have supported a more accommodating approach that takes into account the limited cooperation Iraq has offered so far. The oil sanctions have already been relaxed to allow Iraq to earn money for food and medicine imports.

But the discovery of VX on missile warhead fragments, first reported yesterday by the Washington Post, has sounded alarms because it offers proof that the Iraqis lied when they called their VX program purely experimental. Experts say that if the Iraqis could stabilize VX sufficiently to pour into warheads, they could also keep it stable enough to hide for years from inspectors.

President Clinton left little doubt that the United States will use the discovery to keep the sanctions on Iraqi oil. "Let the inspections go forward and don't lift the sanctions until the resolutions are complied with," he said yesterday.

Iraq, in a statement yesterday by its U.N. mission, said the Aberdeen analysis of warheads could not be correct because "continuous production failure" had barred the use of VX in munitions.

The Iraqi statement also sought to find fault with the handling of the VX samples, saying Baghdad was told that only one of the seven samples analyzed had shown variable traces of VX. It also said that the samples were taken without giving Iraq equivalent samples, as had been agreed upon.

The statement also noted that Iraq had insisted that any analysis of importance be done in a neutral country or be divided among laboratories of other countries.

The Security Council is to be briefed on the issue today by Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who heads the arms inspection team.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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