By Dettmer, Jamie
Insight on the News , Vol. 17, No. 49
Iraq may have been able to boost its development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including deadly nerve agents such as VX gas, by purchasing dual-use chemicals and equipment bought under the auspices of the U.N. oil-for-food (OFF) program, according to an official U.S. government study just leaked to INSIGHT.
The study's findings were known to the Bush administration before it bowed on Nov. 30 to Russian pressure and agreed to a six-month extension of the U.N. program that allows Baghdad to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.
According to the report, undertaken for the Department of Energy by the International Assessments Division of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and completed after Sept. 11, "many items" purchased under the OFF scheme are of "potential benefit to a clandestine WMD program, armed forces or a police or security service."
The authors cite several contracts as "troubling" and highlight the July sale of 10,000 one-liter bottles of Methidathion 40, a pesticide that can be used as a precursor chemical for VX gas.
When told by INSIGHT of the report's findings, a dismayed Ambassador Richard Butler, the former head of the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), the U.N. body tasked after the Persian Gulf War with disarming Iraq, commented dryly: "How utterly unsurprising." Asked why such contracts were not being halted by his successors at the United Nations, Butler remarked: "That's a very good question. I just don't know. Maybe they are not scrutinizing the contracts as they should."
In his recent book, The Greatest Threat, Butler blasted Iraq for consistently denying that it had produced VX and revealed that his inspectors had found evidence not only of VX-gas production but also of the Iraqis experimenting with missile delivery of the lethal substance. Butler pointed out that a single VX warhead "would contain enough of the chemical to kill up to 1 million people," with a single droplet on the skin representing a lethal dose.
In all, the International Assessments Division reviewed 6,000 OFF contracts during the last 15 months and found "a number of items" that could have been diverted from benign civilian purposes to far more menacing use. "Because of the general applicability of chemical-industry goods, there are numerous examples of goods having potential chemical-weapon production use."
And the same, although to a lesser extent, applies to clandestine biological-weapons production, the reviewers argued.
On the same day the contract for methidathion was signed with the Jordanian company Yamama Agricultural Products, Iraq also purchased 1,500 kilograms of ophenidrine citrate, another chemical useful in the development of nerve agents. The supplier was also a Jordanian business, the Munir Shuktian Group. …