Tuesday, May 18, 2004

A roadside bomb found in Baghdad contained a deadly nerve agent, the second time in 10 days, that U.S. forces have found weapons of mass destruction hidden since the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The 155 mm artillery shell found Saturday that had been fashioned into a homemade bomb by Iraqi insurgents contained two chemicals that, when mixed, make the nerve agent sarin. Ten days earlier, a homemade device was found containing mustard agent.

The Iraq Survey Group, the joint CIA and military intelligence unit in Iraq, confirmed the presence of small amounts of sarin in the exploded shell, the U.S. military said last night.

The military said the bomb was evidence of banned weapons because Saddam’s regime “had declared all such rounds destroyed.”

“This is it,” said a defense official involved in monitoring Iraqi weapons.

The bomb was found early Saturday by U.S. military forces on a road near Baghdad International Airport after a soldier noticed a detonation cord sticking out of bomb placed along a road.

The bomb went off before it could be disarmed, and a liquid began seeping out of the remains of the artillery shell.

The liquid was determined in early tests to be one of two chemicals that when mixed together produce sarin — a poison that kills by disrupting the central nervous system.

The military described the artillery shell as “an old binary type that requires the mixing of two chemical components stored in separate sections of the shell.”

“For the deadly agent to be produced, the two components have to be mixed,” the military saz U.S. intelligence official said. “This is a very significant development and not only raises concerns about how many more might be out there but who has them.”

The official said it was too early to say whether the discovery of the sarin bomb and the mustard bomb on May 7 indicate that insurgents might be resorting to the use of chemical bombs against U.S. and allied forces.

It also was not clear, the official said, whether the insurgents who planted the bomb “knew it contained sarin,” because the shell did not have any special markings and the bomb was configured as if the shell contained conventional explosives.

Defense officials think Saddam hid chemical weapons with conventional arms in the widely dispersed ammunition dumps being found throughout Iraq.

About 8,700 weapons depots have been uncovered from the estimated 650,000 tons to 1 million tons of stored weapons. Many were looted by Iraqis immediately after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.

Hans Blix, a former U.N. weapons inspector, suggested that the sarin bomb is not evidence of large-scale hidden stockpiles, saying the sarin agent might have been a leftover shell from a chemical-arms dump.

“It doesn’t sound absurd at all. There can be debris from the past, and that’s a very different thing from having stocks and supplies,” Mr. Blix said in Sweden.

David Kay, who quit as head of the Iraq Survey Group earlier this year, has criticized U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to accurately gauge Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological arms programs. In January, he told a Senate panel: “It turns out we were all wrong.”

Yesterday, Mr. Kay said: “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. I rather doubt that because it appears the insurgents didn’t even know they had a chemical round.”

Mr. Kay said the sarin bomb “doesn’t strike me as a big deal.”

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for coalition military operations, first disclosed that the shell “containing sarin nerve agent” blew up, but only “produced a very small dispersal of agent” because the shell was used as a homemade bomb and not fired from artillery.

Still, two U.S. soldiers were treated for exposure to sarin after experiencing symptoms including nausea and dilated eyes.

The intelligence official said a 155 mm shell like the one found in Iraq can hold between 2 liters and 5 liters of sarin.

“Two to five liters is deadly if people in the vicinity breathe the vapors,” the official said. “As you go a couple dozen meters down wind, in the open, it is less lethal.”

Iraq had told U.N. inspectors in the 1990s that “a few hundred” sarin artillery shells were made and used in testing during the late 1980s, but insisted all were destroyed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But it was not until after the 1995 defection of Iraqi official Hussein Kamel that Saddam’s government admitted having binary sarin shells, which are safer to handle for military personnel.

One immediate worry is that U.S. troops on patrol in Iraq must don sealed protective suits, which are debilitating in the 100-plus-degree heat.

Coalition spokesman Capt. Patrick Swan, said, “We have had no change to our current protective posture.”

Troops currently are outfitted for conventional combat.

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