Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Security and defense specialists yesterday said the discovery of sarin in a roadside bomb in Baghdad has renewed fears that insurgents in Iraq have access to more of the deadly nerve agent.

“The worst case would be that you’d have to have your chemical protection gear at close hand at any time, because any of these mortar attacks could turn out to be a poison gas attack and any roadside bomb could turn out to be a poison gas attack,” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

Mr. Pike, whose Washington think tank is following developments in Iraq, said he is not suggesting that such a scenario is probable, but it certainly is cause for concern.

Randall Larsen, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who is the head of a security-consulting firm and an adviser to the McGraw Hill Homeland Security Summit, said the incident is receiving too much hype.

“I don’t think there’s enough information available right now to know if this was one round that was just mixed in with some high explosive 155 mm shells or did it actually come out of some hidden stockpile that we don’t know about,” Mr. Larsen said.

But if it did, he said, coalition forces will face a long, hot summer in their chemical uniforms.

“It is almost summer in Iraq, and the heat becomes unbearable in those suits.”

There were no indications yesterday that the sarin discovery had prompted coalition forces to change their force protection level to wear gas masks and the full protective gear known as “moon suits.”

A spokesman at the Pentagon said troops in Iraq are “well-trained and well-equipped to deal” with the threat posed by chemical weapons and that “commanders on the ground are authorized” to order troops to don full chemical protective gear if needed.

The Iraq Survey Group, the joint CIA and military intelligence unit in Iraq, Monday night said small amounts of sarin were in the exploded shell discovered by U.S. troops Saturday near Baghdad International Airport.

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration repeatedly cited concern over Saddam Hussein’s having weapons of mass destruction as a reason for the invasion.

The round found Saturday was an older, binary type in which two chemicals were stored. When fired from a rocket launcher, the chemicals mix to create sarin. Military officials said the mixture and its dispersal are “very limited” when such a round is used in a roadside bomb.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pike said the sarin discovery raised questions about whether Iraqi insurgents purposely planted the 155 mm chemical artillery shell near the airport.

Remnants of Saddam’s security apparatus might compose an element of the insurgency and could have made off with a fraction of residual chemical weapons stocks, he said.

“There were obviously large quantities of stocks that were missing in action.”

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