U.N. experts in desert destroying shells

Thursday, February 13, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Chemical weapons experts headed into the Iraqi desert Wednesday to destroy their first batch of banned Iraqi weapons -- 10 leftover artillery shells filled with burning, disabling mustard gas.

Working with an Iraqi team, the U.N. specialists will take four or five days to eliminate the 155mm shells filled with lethal mustard gas. Baghdad, meanwhile, prepared legislation to outlaw such weapons as demanded by the United Nations.

A team of chemical specialists, working with Iraqi counterparts, began neutralizing the chemical shells at the al-Muthanna State Establishment, Iraq's main chemical weapons research and production facility in the 1980s.

It was a piece of unfinished business from the 1990s, when previous U.N. inspectors located the 155mm shells but failed to destroy them.

The legislation also amounts to unfinished business, demanded years ago under U.N. resolutions that banned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in Iraq. After talks last weekend with the chief U.N. arms inspectors, the Iraqis pledged to pass such a law in the coming days.

It was announced Wednesday that the National Assembly, which closely follows the dictates of President Saddam Hussein's government, would convene in special session Friday. The purpose was not announced, but it presumably will rush through the ban on weapons of mass destruction.

Security Council involved

As the assembly meets in Baghdad, chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei will be submitting reports to the U.N. Security Council in New York updating their assessments of Iraqi cooperation in the 11-week-old arms inspections process. Before leaving Iraq on Monday after two days of talks, Blix had said he was finding an improved "positive attitude" in Baghdad.

Among other things, the Iraqis agreed, after weeks of delay, to allow American U-2 reconnaissance flights over Iraq in support of the U.N. inspections.

The U.S. government, marshaling tens of thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf region, has threatened war against Iraq if, in its view, it is not disarming adequately. But the majority on the 15-nation Security Council -- including Germany and veto-holding powers France, Russia and China -- want the inspections to continue, and oppose U.S. plans for early military action.

Even Pope John Paul II is taking a hand in trying to head off a U.S. war. His special envoy, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, was in Baghdad on Wednesday awaiting a meeting with Saddam, with a personal message from the pope urging the Iraqi leader to cooperate fully with the U.N. inspectors.

Celebrating Mass at a Chaldean Catholic cathedral, Etchegaray led diplomats, government officials and ordinary Iraqis in prayers for peace.

"Who today, everywhere in the world, isn't talking and thinking about the grave threats that weigh on Iraq?" he asked.

At the United Nations, international missile experts found that an Iraqi missile exceeded the maximum 93-mile range allowed under U.N. resolutions, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said Wednesday. He said it is now up to Blix to recommend what to do about the violation.

Maximum range exceeded

The experts met Monday and Tuesday to examine Iraq's production of the al-Samoud 2 and al-Fatah missiles, which in some tests exceeded the maximum range allowed under Security Council resolutions in place since the 1991 Gulf War.

The Bush administration has said for months it has solid evidence Iraq has U.N.-prohibited weapons programs, but it has not produced proof. In its latest presentation Feb. 5 to the Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited old U.S. allegations that were subsequently investigated by U.N. inspectors, who did not report finding U.N. violations.

The United States insists that it is up to Iraq to offer conclusive proof that it has no weapons of mass destruction rather than for Washington and other governments to prove that it still has them.

In the latest effort to build a case against Iraq, Powell on Tuesday portrayed a new tape attributed to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden as showing a link between Iraq and bin Laden's al-Qaida network. In the tape, the speaker expresses support for Iraq in its confrontation with America, but also describes Saddam's Iraqi secular leadership as "infidels," that is, traitors to Islam.

Anti-terrorism experts have questioned whether such a link exists. On Wednesday, an Iraqi vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, rejected the U.S. allegation, telling Lebanese television, "Iraq does not host and did not host in the past and did not have any connection (with al-Qaida)."

Arms inspectors in the 1990s oversaw destruction of the bulk of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, and dismantled Iraq's program to try to build nuclear weapons. The inspections resumed last November, after a four-year gap, to search for any remaining weapons or revived programs.

The only banned weapons or components inspectors have found are the previously known mustard-gas shells, and 18 empty artillery rocket warheads designed for chemical agents. Those unfilled warheads were discovered at various times in two locations by both U.N. inspectors and the Iraqi government.

Mustard, a liquid, gives off a vapor that burns and blisters exposed skin and damages the respiratory system when inhaled. It could not be learned immediately how the U.N. experts planned to neutralize the mustard at al-Muthanna, 40 miles northwest of Baghdad, but it can be done both through burning and by dilution with water.

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