The key issue in the discovery of 11 warheads in an Iraqi bunker is whether they were intended to be filled with lethal chemical agents or explosives, former UN weapons inspectors said.
The UN arms monitors in Baghdad said they were empty chemical warheads for 122mm rockets that Iraq did not list in its dossier to the Security Council in December.
But Iraq said they were not for biological or chemical use – and had been declared in the 12,000 page report.
Whether the warheads were designed for possible use in chemical warfare is a critical factor because Iraq was required to declare all its chemical munitions and destroy them under supervision of UN inspectors.
But Iraq is allowed to have conventional 122mm rockets containing explosives, said Terry Taylor, a former UN inspector who heads the Washington office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Iraq had tens of thousands of these rockets, which have a range of over six miles and are a favourite battlefield weapon, he said.
Thousands were filled with chemical agents and about 26,500 of these 122mm rockets that Iraq claims it destroyed have not been accounted for, he said.
“It is one of their principal chemical weapons delivery means,” he said. “The big question is whether the inspectors are right” in declaring that the warheads were designed to be filled with chemical agents.
Raymond Zilinskas, a former inspector who now directs the chemical and biological weapons non-proliferation programme at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, said there were three possibilities: The warheads may never have been filled with a chemical agent, they might have been filled but were emptied before inspectors left in 1998, or the warheads were filled and emptied recently, he said.
If they were emptied recently, “that would be a very serious issue because the Iraqis have declared that they don’t have any of the stuff, and that could lead to ‘material breach’ being declared under Resolution 1441,” he said.
The resolution, adopted on November 8, gave Iraq a last chance to disarm and threatened serious consequences if it failed to.
If the 11 warheads were chemical warheads but had never been filled, however, Zilinskas said it would be “a very, very small story” because it would only show that a very small number had escaped destruction.
The former inspectors said it should not be difficult to confirm whether the 11 warheads found yesterday were chemical warheads.
Zilinskas said all Iraqi weapons were colour-coded, with rings in different colours to identify the type of munitions.
In addition, the inspectors said, chemical warheads have a different internal design than conventional warheads, though they look the same from the outside.
“In most chemical munitions there is a central tube filled with explosives, surrounded by an empty cavity that is filled with the toxic agent, whereas a high explosive warhead would be simply filled with the explosive material which is a solid rather than a liquid,” said Jonathan Tucker, a former inspector and chemical and biological weapons expert now at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
“A chemical or biological warhead would normally have some kind of liner to reduce the risk of leakage,” he said.
Physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq, said: “They are going to have to test to see if there are any traces of chemical weapons in the warheads and in the bunkers where they were found, and they will have to talk to the Iraqis.”
Taylor said that between 1992 and 1994, former UN inspectors destroyed 11,500 unfilled 122mm rockets designed for chemical use.
Another 6,454 of these rockets filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin were accounted for and destroyed by inspectors between 1992 and 1993.
Remnants of about 4,000 additional rockets with chemical agents were accounted for between 1991 and 1998, he said.