April 9, 2003
In Search of Horror Weapons
s allied forces seize control of more Iraqi real estate every day, one of the great questions still to be answered is whether Saddam Hussein has the unconventional weapons that were cited as the prime reason for launching the invasion. Most Western analysts believe that Mr. Hussein has at least some chemical and biological arms. Otherwise, they reason, he could have headed off the invasion by showing that he had destroyed his previously known chemical and biological stocks. Yet if Iraq does have chemical weapons, Mr. Hussein has shown remarkable restraint by not using them even as his government heads for certain destruction. Solving this mystery requires urgent, neutral investigation once the allies gain full control of Iraq and can mount a sustained search.
American forces, encumbered in bulky protective suits, believed that there was a strong possibility of chemical attacks. While nothing like that has yet materialized, it is possible that the invading forces disrupted control of the weapons or moved too fast for the Iraqis to launch a chemical attack. Perhaps American threats to prosecute Iraqi commanders for war crimes deterred their use, or Mr. Hussein was loath to tarnish his bid for world opinion by resorting to weapons he claimed not to have, especially since they were unlikely to turn back the invaders in any case.
But it is also possible that Iraq simply has far fewer horror weapons than many have suspected. Some analysts are now wondering whether Mr. Hussein kept only small quantities of forbidden materials because he presumed that his well-trained scientists and existing manufacturing capacity could be geared up after the United Nations' scrutiny eased off.
Almost every day brings new reports that advancing troops have found indications of chemical weapons, but the evidence has been mostly small-scale and circumstantial: gas masks, protective suits, nerve gas antidotes, training manuals, a few barrels of suspicious chemicals, a cache of shells that look as if they are designed to be filled with chemicals. No actual chemical weapons have been clearly identified yet, and there is no conclusive proof that any suspicious chemicals are warfare agents and not pesticides. That judgment could change in the blink of a laboratory technician's eye. Then the issue would become whether Iraq had significant quantities of lethal materials and the means to deliver them.
In making the case for the invasion, the administration suggested that Iraq's arsenal might be quite large: up to 500 tons of nerve and mustard agents, and 30,000 munitions capable of delivering them; materials to produce 25,000 liters of anthrax and 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; and mobile or underground laboratories to make germ weapons. If so, it should be possible to find them with the help of Iraqi scientists and officers. But for any findings to be credible in the battle for global opinion, neutral analysts — from the United Nations or technically proficient nations like Finland or Switzerland — will be needed to verify the laboratory results and ensure a strict chain of custody to avoid charges of tampering with the evidence.