MONITOR Wire Services
Speaking May 17 in Baghdad, General Mark Kimmitt, the coalition's senior military spokesman in Iraq, took reporters by surprise.
"The Iraqi Survey Group confirmed today that a 155-millimeter artillery round containing sarin nerve agent had been found," Kimmitt said. "The round had been rigged as an IED [improvised explosive device] which was discovered by a U.S. force convoy. A detonation occurred before that IED could be rendered inoperable. This produced a very small dispersal of agent."
After more than a year's search, it appeared that the Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) -- the U.S. team searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction -- had finally found something, although the amount was small, and the significance was not immediately apparent.
Sarin is a clear, odorless liquid that can cause lethal convulsions in those who breathe it or get it on their skin. It was the poison used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to kill 12 people in an attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
The government of Iraq told United Nations inspectors that it had manufactured hundreds of tons of sarin, and that it used the nerve gas during its war with Iran in the 1980s. It also is believed to have been the agent used against Kurds in northern Iraq 10 years ago.
The Pentagon confirmed on May 25 that the shell did contain sarin.
Kimmitt said no one was seriously injured in the explosion of the shell, but that two people were treated for what he called "minor exposure" to nerve agents. The general said there were no serious injuries apparently because detonating the shell was much less effective in dispersing the nerve gas than had the shell been fired from a cannon.
Nor was there any immediate evidence that more artillery shells containing nerve agents exist in Iraq, or if the discovery indicates the presence of a significant stockpile of sarin and other unconventional weapons.
As for the strategic significance of the discovery, Rumsfeld said he believes the United States had good reason to conclude that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But whether he had them just as the war began, he said, remains a mystery:
"The intelligence information in our country and in other countries that have excellent intelligence-gathering capabilities was that they existed, that the government of Iraq was systematically deceiving the world about what it was doing. There was a great deal of evidence to that effect. We don't now know what actually happened [to make the weapons disappear]," Rumsfeld said.
In January, Danish troops in southern Iraq discovered mortar shells they believed to contain a blister agent. But subsequent tests proved the shells, which apparently dated to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, had no chemical warfare agent.
Some U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that they are concerned that there may be more weaponized sarin in Iraq, and that insurgents who use whatever weapons they can find may not be able to distinguish between ordinary explosives and shells containing deadly poisons.
The agent used in the shell found on May 15 is believed to be old, and therefore lacking much of its original potency. Still, the AP quotes U.S. officials as saying insurgents may be putting themselves and others in danger simply by handling the explosives, let alone detonating them.
In a May 22 analysis for the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Ritter, former UN weapons inspector in Iraq (1991-1998) said that the shell was likely a "dud" fired long ago in a training exercise. Ritter explained:
What gives away whether the shell had been fired is the base-bleed charge, which unlike the rest of the shell, will show evidence of being fired (or not). Iraq declared that it had produced 170 of these base-bleed sarin artillery shells as part of a research and development program that never led to production. Ten of these shells were tested using inert fill -- oil and colored water. Ten others were tested in simulated firing using the sarin precursors. And 150 of these shells, filled with sarin precursors, were live-fired at an artillery range south of Baghdad. A 10 percent dud rate among artillery shells isn't unheard of -- and even greater percentages can occur. So there's a good possibility that at least 15 of these sarin artillery shells failed and lie forgotten in the Iraq desert, waiting to be picked up by any unsuspecting insurgent looking for raw material from which to construct an IED.