BAGHDAD, Iraq - A roadside bomb containing deadly sarin nerve agent exploded near a U.S. military convoy, the U.S. military said Monday. It was believed to be the first confirmed discovery of any of the banned weapons that the United States cited in making its case for the Iraq war.
Two members of a military bomb squad were treated for "minor exposure," but no serious injuries were reported.
The chemicals were inside an artillery shell dating to the Saddam Hussein era that had been rigged as a bomb in Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq.
It appears two chemical components in the shell, which are designed to combine and create sarin during flight, did not mix properly or completely upon detonation, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Kimmitt, however, said a small amount of the nerve agent was released.
Two former weapons inspectors - Hans Blix and David Kay - said the shell was likely a stray weapon that had been scavenged by militants and did not signify that Iraq had large stockpiles of such weapons.
Kimmitt said he believed that insurgents who planted the explosive didn't know it contained the nerve agent.
Sarin-type agents produced by Iraq were largely of low quality and degraded shortly after production, U.N. inspectors said in a March 2003 report. They said it was unlikely that agents produced in the 1980s would still work today.
U.S. troops have announced the discovery of other chemical weapons before, only to see them disproved by later tests. A dozen chemical shells were also found by U.N. inspectors before the war; they had been tagged for destruction in the 1990s but somehow were not destroyed.
"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 the IED could be rendered inoperable. This produced a very small dispersal of agent," he said.
The incident occurred "a couple of days ago," he said.
The Iraqi Survey Group is a U.S. organization whose task was to search for weapons of mass destruction after Saddam's ouster.
The round was an old `binary-type' shell in which two chemicals held in separate sections are mixed after firing to produce sarin, Kimmitt said.
Many of the materials used for roadside bombs are believed to have been looted from arsenals after the collapse of the regime in April 2003.
Dispersal of the gas would be far more effective if a shell containing nerve agent were fired from an artillery piece, he said. Kimmitt said he believed it was the first case in which U.S. forces had found an artillery shell containing sarin.
It was unclear if the sarin shell was from chemical rounds that the United Nations had tagged and marked for destruction before the U.S. invasion.
Prior to the war, U.N. inspectors had compiled a short list of proscribed items found during hundreds of surprise inspections: fewer than 20 old, empty chemical warheads for battlefield rockets, and a dozen artillery shells filled with mustard gas. The shells had been tagged by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s but somehow not destroyed by them.
Kay, who led a U.S. team hunting for weapons, said it appears that the shell was one of tens of thousands produced for the Iran-Iraq war, which Saddam was supposed to destroy or turn over to the United Nations. In many cases, he said, Iraq did comply.
"It is hard to know if this is one that just was overlooked - and there were always some that were overlooked, we knew that - or if this was one that came from a hidden stockpile," Kay said. "I rather doubt that because it appears the insurgents didn't even know they had a chemical round."
While Saturday's explosion does demonstrate that Saddam hadn't complied fully with U.N. resolutions, Kay also said, "It doesn't strike me as a big deal."
In 1995, Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed sarin gas in Tokyo's subways, killing 12 people and sickening thousands. In February of this year, Japanese courts convicted the cult's former leader, Shoko Asahara, and sentence him to be executed.
Developed in the mid-1930s by Nazi scientists, a single drop of sarin can cause quick, agonizing choking death. There are no known instances of the Nazis actually using the gas.
The Bush administration cited allegations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as a main reason for launching the war in Iraq last year.
The Iraq Survey Group, made up of dozens of teams, has been conducting a secretive and largely fruitless weapons hunt across Iraq for more than a year. The survey group combines members of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. military Special Forces and others.
The team has run into a number of dead ends. In January, for example, field tests on discovered mortar shells near Qurnah in southern Iraq indicated a blister agent was in the shells. But followup tests indicated that the munitions did not contain the agents, though U.S. officials said Saddam had such agents in the early to mid-1990s.
Blix, the former U.N. weapons inspector, said in Sweden Monday that before the war, his team found 16 empty warheads that were marked for use with sarin.
He said it was likely the sarin gas used could have been from a leftover shell found in a chemical dump.
"It doesn't sound absurd at all. There can be debris from the past and that's a very different thing from have stocks and supplies," he said.
According to U.N. weapons inspectors, sarin-type agents constituted about 20 percent of all chemical weapons agents that Saddam Hussein's government declared it had produced.
The accounting for sarin was one of a dozen remaining disarmament tasks that inspectors submitted to the U.N. Security Council in March 2003, said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman the U.N. inspectors.
"Iraq was known to possess a lot of this material, and there were questions about the accounting," Buchanan said.
Iraq declared that between 1984 and 1990, it produced 795 tons of Sarin-type agents. About 732 tons were put in bombs, rockets and missile warheads. Iraq further declared that about 650 tons were consumed during the period 1985 to 1988, which included the Iran-Iraq war, and 35 tons were destroyed through aerial bombardment during the Gulf war in 1991.
Iraq destroyed 127 tons of Sarin-type agents under U.N. supervision, including 76 tons in bulk and 51 tons from munitions.
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The BBC, quoting a "senior coalition source", are reporting it as munitions left over from the Iraq/Iran conflict that went astray, rather than evidence that there are undiscovered stockpiles of WMD's in Iraq.
Personally, I don't care whether it is an old shell or new, to me it proves that Saddaam was lying his ass off when he claimed to have "destroyed" everything.
I'd still like to see a bit more discovered and announced before I am satisfied, but I have a funny feeling we are going to see a lot of this stuff in the coming weeks. My question is, specifically about the mustard gas especially, why was this kept under wraps? You would think they would scream this from the rooftops...
What is, say, some wrestling promoter came and wanted to but the site from you, but they'd delete half the posts and start censoring the place more then you guys already do... but you'd be getting a shit load of cash for the place.