US CLAIMS OF VX NERVE AGENT FALL APART

Glen Rangwala, 16 March 2003

CONTACT: GLEN RANGWALA, gr10009@cam.ac.uk Lecturer in Politics, Newnham College, Cambridge (UK)

One of the central claims of the US administration about the threat of Iraq's weapons - that of 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent that are unaccounted for - has fallen apart over the past week.

Even before Iraq presented a 25-page technical report on the destruction of VX in 1991, UNMOVIC's working paper of 6 March 2003, released on 10 March, describes how the claims are not credible. As UNMOVIC explain, the 1.5 tonnes in question were produced according to a method that ensured that the VX "must be used relatively quickly after production (about 1 to 8 weeks)" before it deteriorates.

The claims made by the US of 1.5 tonnes of VX include the White House paper ("What Does Disarmament Look Like?") of January 2003, at p.6; and the State Department's paper ("Iraq's Hidden Weapons: Failing to Disclose and Disarm") of 27 February 2003.

Iraq attempted to produce VX nerve agent using four different methods from 1987 to 1991. These are detailed in UNMOVIC's working paper, (UNMOVIC, 6 March 2003, pp.79-83). Iraq declared that it produced 2.4 tonnes of VX in production trials from late 1987 to May 1988, but that this material degraded rapidly and was completely destroyed later in 1988. This account has been generally accepted (ibid., pp.79-80).

Iraq also produced 1.5 tonnes according to a second method (which UNMOVIC refer to as "route B") from April 1988 to April 1990. It is this quantity that that the US has referred to as a source of danger from Iraq. However, two factors would indicate that the 1.5 tonnes of VX nerve agent no longer exist in operational form.

Firstly, Iraq claimed that this quantity of VX was discarded unilaterally by dumping it on the ground. VX degrades rapidly if placed onto concrete. In accordance with Iraq's claim, UNSCOM tested the site at which the VX was reportedly dumped. UNSCOM's January 1999 report states in Appendix II, paragraph 16:

"Traces of one VX-degradation product and a chemical known as a VX-stabilizer were found in the samples taken from the VX dump sites."

However, from this information alone, UNSCOM was not able to make "a quantified assessment"; that is, they were not able to verify that all 1.5 tonnes of the agent had been so destroyed. Since then, it has provided further material from late February 2003 and on 14 March 2003 to substantiate its case, material that is currently being assessed.

Secondly, VX produced according to "route B" degrades rapidly. According to UNMOVIC: "VX produced through route B must be used relatively quickly after production (about 1 to 8 weeks), which would probably be satisfactory for wartime requirements." (UNMOVIC, 6 March 2003, p. 82)

This conclusion is confirmed by other independent assessments. For example, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) strategic dossier of September 2002 records the status of VX produced before the Gulf War: "Any VX produced by Iraq before 1991 is likely to have decomposed over the past decade [...]. Any G-agent or V-agent stocks that Iraq concealed from UNSCOM inspections are likely to have deteriorated by now." (pp. 52 and 53).

Iraq also used two further methods to produce VX: route C seems to have been unsuccessful, but route D did result in the production of "high purity VX [..] in laboratory/pilot-scale equipment" (UNMOVIC, 6 March 2003, p.82). According to UNMOVIC, any VX produced according to route D could have been stabilised, and could remain viable. However, there is no evidence that Iraq did ever produce significant quantities of VX through route D. As UNMOVIC record:

"Based upon the documents provided by Iraq, it is doubtful that any significant quantities of VX were produced using this route before the Gulf war." (UNMOVIC, 6 March 2003, p.82)

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Iraq would have produced VX through route D during the Gulf War due to the more complex process that would have been involved. As UNMOVIC record:

"During times of war, or imminent war, it would make sense for Iraq to produce VX through route B, which involves only about half as many process steps as route D." (UNMOVIC, 6 March 2003, p.82)

In April/May 1998, UNSCOM reported that they had found VX degradation products on missile warheads, indicating that Iraq had stabilised VX sufficiently and had managed to weaponise it (in contrast to the Government of Iraq's own claims). Further tests on the same material from two other laboratories however "found no nerve agent degradation products" (ibid., p.82). The chemical in question "could also originate from other compounds such as precursors or, according to some experts, a detergent" (ibid., p.81).

A more extensive assessment concerning VX is available at: http://traprockpeace.org/iraqweaponsc.html#cexistv

See a comprehensive analysis of "Claims and Evaluations of Iraq's Proscribed Weapons" at http://traprockpeace.org/iraqweapons.html

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