Wednesday, June 21, 2006

From combined dispatches

U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq have found about 500 chemical weapons since the March 2003 invasion, with more thought to exist, according to portions of an intelligence report made public yesterday.

“Since 2003, Coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent,” said an overview of the report, which was declassified at the behest of Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and head of the House intelligence committee.

“Despite many efforts to locate and destroy Iraq’s pre-Gulf war chemical munitions, filled and unfilled pre-Gulf war chemical munitions are assessed to still exist,” according to the report.

The two Republican lawmakers said the report validates one key U.S. rationale for the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

“We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Mr. Santorum said in a press conference yesterday afternoon. “This is an incredibly … significant finding. The idea that, as my colleagues have repeatedly said in this debate on the other side of the aisle, that there are no weapons of mass destruction, is in fact false.”

A Pentagon official who confirmed the findings to Agence France-Presse that all the weapons were pre-1991 munitions “in such a degraded state they couldn’t be used for what they are designed for.” The official, who asked not to be identified, said most were 155mm artillery projectiles with mustard gas or sarin of varying degrees of potency.

But a counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. government told The Washington Times that even imperfect chemical munitions could be rigged for improvised use, as Iraqi insurgents have used artillery shells as roadside bombs. The adviser also said that the unclassified sections of the report do not suggest, and there’s no sure way to tell, whether the gas had been degrading for the three years since the fall of Saddam or the 15 years since he agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

The two-month-old report by the National Ground Intelligence Center, a military intelligence agency that started looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the Iraq Survey Group stopped doing so in late 2004, stressed that the pre-Gulf War Iraqi chemical weapons could be sold on the black market.

“It has been reported in open press that insurgents and Iraqi groups desire to acquire and use chemical weapons,” the report said.

The counterterrorism adviser noted that Saddam needed fewer than 20 such munitions to kill an estimated 5,000 Kurds in Halabjah in 1988.

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