Sarin in Baghdad

May 27, 2004

THE PENTAGON has confirmed that traces of the nerve agent sarin were detected in an Iraqi artillery shell that was found and detonated in Baghdad on May 15. To suggest that this discovery proves the Bush administration was right to go to war against Saddam Hussein is close to ludicrous.

Yet it would be equally foolhardy simply to dismiss this find. Chemical weapons are serious business -- and where there was one shell, there may be more.

Some background: No one disputes that Iraq produced nerve agents, and used them, during the 1980s. In 1991, the United Nations ordered Iraq to dispose of them. Allegations that Iraq had failed to comply were cited by the Bush administration to justify last year's invasion. It was, in our view, a flimsy excuse for war. In any case, the deadly stockpiles never turned up.

The 155 mm shell that was found 12 days ago apparently dates from before 1991. Arms control experts suspect that the insurgents who had the shell were unaware of its contents. But are there others?

Conventional wisdom holds that the Hussein regime actually did destroy its prohibited weapons but chose not to admit it. A few diehards in Washington still hope that American troops may yet stumble upon a large hidden store of such munitions. A third possibility is that chemical and perhaps biological arms were smuggled out of Iraq just as the war got under way last year.

That is a frightening prospect. It could mean that even now, Iraqi nerve agents are ready for use in Islamabad or Istanbul, in Nairobi or Moscow, in Tokyo or New York. It would also mean that the U.S. effort to contain Iraqi weapons was worse than a failure -- that in fact the invasion of Iraq was the direct cause of their proliferation.

Here's hoping that the conventional wisdom is right -- that virtually all the Iraqi weapons have long since been destroyed. Terrorists, of course, can be perfectly effective using conventional explosives, but chemical weapons, banned by international convention, hold a particular horror. That said, it is worth noting that Iraq was hardly the only country with a chemical weapons program; U.S. intelligence, for what it's worth, lists 15 other likely candidates. Nerve agents are not that difficult to produce, and their effect can be devastating.

The point, then, is this: Sarin and its counterparts do pose an urgent threat, worldwide, and no one should be made complacent by their relative absence in Iraq. At the same time, a blunt and ill-advised frontal assault, such as America launched against Baghdad, may be about the worst way to go after them.

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