Prague, 19 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tests by U.S. weapons experts have determined that a recently discovered stockpile of Iraqi mortar shells did not contain a chemical warfare agent, as initially suspected.
One week ago, Danish soldiers found 36 mortar shells wrapped in plastic and buried beneath a road construction site north of Al-Basrah. Danish Army Colonel Henrik Friis told reporters at the time that the discovery appeared to be significant.
"We've found some mortar rounds out in the area. We detected some liquid inside," he said. "We took some X-ray photos of the [ammunition] and we saw there was some fluid, something inside. We tested it four times [at the site] and all the results said that it could be blister gas."
"The weapons that the U.S. is looking for will be the production facilities to produce weapons in bulk and the delivery systems that can deliver these agents over long range."
But U.S. military officials took a more cautious approach. They refused to comment on the possibility of chemical agents until more definitive tests were completed by U.S. experts. They also repeated a Danish warning that the rounds appeared to have been buried for at least a decade.
A Danish military spokesman in Iraq, Major Peter Apelgaard, told reporters yesterday that U.S. experts had not found blister gas or any other chemical agent inside the shells.
Ian Kemp, editor of the London-based journal "Jane's Defence Weekly," discussed the significance of the test results -- and the cautious attitude taken by U.S. officials -- in an interview today with RFE/RL.
"Certainly, one of the reasons that the United States, the United Kingdom and other members of the coalition were being cautious was the belief that 120-millimeter mortar rounds actually dated from the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq," he said.
Kemp said he thinks the caliber of the ammunition also led U.S. officials to be careful about immediately proclaiming the discovery of a chemical weapons cache that could have helped Washington justify last year's invasion of Iraq: "Mortar rounds, or indeed, artillery rounds such as 105-millimeter or 122-millimeter, are not a particularly effective delivery means for chemical weapons. These particular rounds would not pose a strategic threat. They have a comparatively limited range. A 120-millimeter mortar round, for instance, would have a range of eight to 10 or 12 kilometers. So this hardly poses a strategic threat. Certainly, this wasn't the major find of weapons of mass destruction that the United States was hoping for."
Kemp says the approach taken by U.S. military officials prevented a potentially embarrassing situation in which they would have to have backtracked on claims of a breakthrough in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"The cautious approach was the right strategy to adopt," he said. "The sort of weapons that the United States is looking for -- and, indeed, the sort of weapons that U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is hoping will be found -- will be the production facilities to produce these weapons in bulk, and the delivery systems that can deliver these agents over a long range. And, typically, that means missiles [such as] Scud missiles that have a much longer range and can pose a strategic threat. Or alternatively, [it means] such form as an aerial delivery system."
Apelgaard says the negative laboratory results have both the Danish and British forces wondering why their initial field tests were wrong.
Those living near the discovery site, which is near the Iraq-Iranian border, say there was heavy fighting in the area between Iraqi and Iranian forces in 1984. Kemp suggests several possibilities linked to that conflict: "Those agents could have been used [in the area] during the 1980-88 conflict. They could have been used in the region and, hence, the soil itself could have been contaminated. [Blister gas] contamination remains in the soil for quite some time, particularly if it were to be something like a filled-in gun position or a filled-in trench where the agent would be trapped at the bottom of the trench or the bottom of the pit. Another reason is that the 120-millimeter mortar ammunition could have been stored with other ammunition which actually contained chemical agents. The coalition forces know from inspections of some of the chemical munitions after the 1990-91 conflict that many of them were in a very, very poor condition. They were very badly corroded, and the chemical agents had leaked from them."
Kemp says the jury is still out on Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal of chemical weapons. He says the administrations in both Washington and London remain hopeful there will be a major discovery soon that backs up their prewar claims that Baghdad possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
"It's in the interest of both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that weapons of mass destruction be found," he says. "And, certainly, they will continue with an exhaustive search. But as more and more information becomes available and the period of time before there is a major find continues to increase, public skepticism is going to grow. And it would seem that once most of the major [Iraqi] leaders have been captured -- particularly the officials who have actually been involved in these programs -- it's going to become increasingly difficult to believe that anything remains to be found."
Kemp concludes that extensive interrogations of Iraqi officials and scientists probably will be necessary to determine the true extent of Hussein's programs for weapons of mass destruction at the time of last year's U.S.-led invasion.