The Iraq Survey Group (ISG)—the task force charged with coordinating the U.S.-led search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—has confirmed that an artillery round filled with sarin nerve agent was found in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters May 17.
A U.S. convoy found the shell, which was rigged as an improvised explosive device (IED), Kimmitt said, adding that a “very small” amount of nerve agent was released from the shell because it partially detonated before it could be disarmed. Two members of an explosive ordnance team sustained minor injuries as a result of exposure to the agent.
Kimmitt added that the round—the first such weapon to be found in Iraq—was “virtually ineffective as a chemical weapon” because it was used as an IED and not an artillery shell. The people who built the device probably did not know it contained chemical agents, he said, adding that the United States believes the shell was built by Iraq’s previous government.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated May 17 at the Heritage Foundation that the field test conducted on the shell “is not perfect” and that further tests should be conducted to identify the substance.
Iraq produced sarin prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War but never provided a satisfactory accounting of its postwar stockpile to UN inspectors. In a March 2003 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) stated that there were discrepancies in Iraq’s claims about the status of nearly 4,800 rocket warheads and 12 aerial bombs filled with sarin-type agents. UNMOVIC also reported that it was “unlikely that [past sarin-filled munitions] would still be viable today.” (See ACT, April 2003.)
During inspections that began in November 2002 and ended just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, UNMOVIC found no chemical weapons but did learn that Iraq possessed 18 empty 122-millimeter rocket warheads that could be used to deliver chemical agents. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) The ISG’s search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has yet to turn up any weapons stockpiles.
Hans Blix, former executive chairman of UNMOVIC, said the shell could be “debris from the past” and was not necessarily a sign that there are weapons stocks. Blix has previously said Iraq likely destroyed the bulk of its prohibited weapons in 1991. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)
Rumsfeld said May 17 that “[w]e don’t now know what actually happened” to Iraq’s WMD, adding that the ISG’s investigation could continue for “maybe a year-plus.”
Meanwhile, a commission established in February by President George W. Bush to investigate U.S. WMD intelligence held its first hearing May 26-27. The commission’s task includes comparing U.S. prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction with the ISG’s findings. Its report is due March 31, 2005. (See ACT, March 2004.)