By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
AT the beginning of the Gulf war, Iraqi poison gas figured prominently in Pentagon planners' concerns. Mystery surrounded Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons arsenal: How much gas did he have, and what kinds? Could he deliver it with bombs? Shells? Scud missile warheads?
Fortunately for the United States-led coalition forces, no chemical nightmares came true. Iraqi military leaders never resorted to poison gas use. Perhaps they feared retaliation, or lacked defensive equipment. Perhaps the war just ended too soon.
Since the war's end, dogged United Nations inspection has done much to strip away the veil surrounding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. While attention has focused on nuclear revelations, in many ways information gathered about Iraqi chemical weapons has been just as important. Among key UN findings:
* Iraq did, indeed, have a stockpile of some 46,000 chemical munitions of various types.
* Although they were never fired, Iraq had at least 30 chemical-filled warheads for Scud ballistic missiles.
* The quality of Iraqi chemical weapons is very poor. The Scud warheads might have broken up in flight; hundreds of poison munitions are now leaking and dangerous.
UN inspectors have taken the Western world's first extensive look at the Al-Muthanna State Establishment, the major chemical-weapons facility known outside Iraq as Samarra. Many of the installation's buildings were heavily damaged by allied bombing, but Western intelligence agencies still worry about Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons potential. (Western officials ponder control of former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, Page 5.)
"Much of the hard-to-get production equipment was removed and hidden before the bombing started," said Robert Gates, director of central intelligence, last week. "If UN sanctions are relaxed, we believe Iraq could produce modest quantities of chemical agents almost immediately, but it would take a year or more to recover the chemical-weapons capability it previously enjoyed."
Under the terms of the cease-fire agreement ending the Gulf war, chemical-arms inspection teams of a UN special commission have been visiting Iraq since the middle of last year.
In December, a UN team found metal-working machinery from a chemical-weapons bomb plant hidden at a sugar factory in Mosul. The inspection work has proved hazardous. The large Al- Muthanna facility was littered with unexploded bombs and damaged chemical drums when UN teams first entered it last fall. …