- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq Military officials here said they did not know if tests on the contents of a 55-gallon drum found near a small industrial town in central Iraq yielded conclusive positive results for chemical weapons or agents used to make them.
U.S. troops discovered the suspicious drum of clear, odorless liquid among a batch of 14 over the weekend near Baiji, about 115 miles north of Baghdad, military officials said.
Lt. Col. Valentin Novikov, chemical officer of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, said initial tests yielded positive results for the nerve agent cyclosarin and a blister agent.
A second round of tests conducted by specialists in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, using an M93-A1 Fox testing vehicle, also turned up positive results for a nerve agent, but it was not clear what type.
On Sunday, Col. Novikov said that a mobile exploitation team would need to go to the site of the drums to take samples that would be sent to four laboratories around the world. Conclusive scientific results, he said, could be expected in two or three days.
But on Sunday night Capt. Brian Cutchin, leader of Mobile Exploitation Team Bravo, told the New York Times that after surveying the pile of 55-gallon drums, his team's tests showed "no positive hits at all" for chemical agents.
Col. Novikov and Lt. Col. Bill McDonald, 4th Infantry spokesman, said they still were waiting for a report from the team.
"I don't know definitively whether the samples were taken yet," said Col. Novikov, adding that the exploitation team "suspects that it might be rocket fuel."
While they stress that initial field tests on chemicals are not always accurate, being designed to err on the side of caution to protect soldiers in combat, both colonels said the tests were positive for a nerve agent.
"All I can tell you is that the test, the very basic tests, came up positive," Col. McDonald said. "The only way that you're going to know for sure is from a lab."
Col. Novikov said Capt. Cutchin's assessment of the scene "could be right."
"They're supposed to submit a report, and my office would get a copy of it," he said.
Nerve agents were developed after World War I for military use as more toxic forms of insecticides. Sarin, for example, is a more powerful version of common organophosphate ingredients in industrial pesticides and industrial chemicals.
Though developed before World War II by Germany, sarin was not used as a military weapon until Iraq used it against Iranian soldiers in the 1980-88 war. Saddam Hussein's government also used blister agents such as mustard gas against Iraqi civilians in rebellious areas.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Iraqi government claimed that it had produced 795 tons of sarin.
Exposure to a nerve gas, such as the sarin suspected to be in the drums, can incite loss of muscle control, paralysis, unconsciousness and death within minutes, while blister-agent victims experience burning and swelling of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract.
The blister agent of most concern for terrorist purposes is mustard gas. In high concentrations that cause the lungs to fill with fluid, the gas may cause death. Less-severe cases include swelling, burning, blistering, coughing, bronchitis and long-term respiratory disease.
Sarin and the faster-penetrating cyclosarin are G-type nerve agents identified as the "most toxic of the known chemical-warfare agents" by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The gas is inhaled or absorbed through the skin and eyes. In small amounts, nerve gas can cause dimmed vision, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting.
Scientists have determined that blister agents, unlike nerve agents, have long-term effects. The Armed Forces Epidemiology Board found that humans exposed to nerve agents do not suffer delayed or long-term effects. But blister agents may cause respiratory cancer in humans, the Department of Health and Human Services says.
Nerve gas and blister agents are not made in the United States and are held in only a few undisclosed military storage sites.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Web site reports that these highly toxic substances are "not presently used in the United States, except for research purposes, and the U.S. Department of Defense must destroy all remaining stocks of mustard gas by 2004."
Sarah Marcisz contributed to this article from Washington.

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