Shells found in Iraq free of chemical warfare agents

MORTAR shells found in Iraq did not contain any chemical warfare agents, the Danish army said yesterday.

Originally, the 36 shells were thought to contain a blister agent, but a week of tests in Iraq and in the United States at the US Department of Energy’s National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho proved negative.

The shells, found north of Basra, had initially been though to contain a blister agent after tests by Danish and British troops.

“The results show that the shells from the Danish area did not contain chemical warfare agents,” the Danish Army Operational Command said.

However, the first field tests by Danish and British troops based in the area, had indicated a blister agent was in the shells, which US military officials said were likely remnants from the 1980-’88 war between Iran and Iraq.

Members of the US-led Iraq Survey Group were dispatched to Qurnah in southern Iraq, 250 miles south-east of Baghdad, to do more tests.

After field tests resulted in a negative finding, one shell was sent to the National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory for a final confirmation. It was not clear why the Danish and British tests first showed they could contain blister gas, the Danish army said from its headquarters in Karup, 160 miles north-west of Copenhagen.

“The Danish Army Operational Command will now investigate what could be the cause to this,” the statement said, adding the testing kits will be sent to Denmark for examination. The 120mm shells, with no markings of origin, were found by Danish engineers and two Icelandic de-miners who were tipped off by local residents.

The Danish troops have unearthed 50 shells. Another 50 more are thought to be still buried.

Villagers told the troops that they found about 400 or more years ago and threw them in the Tigris river. Before invading Iraq, the United States asserted that Saddam’s regime had stockpiles of mustard gas, a First World War-era blister agent that is stored in liquid form. The chemical burns the skin, eyes and lungs.

American intelligence officials also claimed Iraq had failed to destroy stocks of sarin, cyclosarin and VX in violation of UN resolutions. Nine months after Saddam’s regime collapsed, no such materials have been found.

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