UN fears over Iraqi armoury

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DESPITE seven years of inspections, the United Nations still fears that Iraq harbours a huge potential armoury of chemical and biological weapons.

The Unscom executive chairman, Richard Butler, says in his latest report that Iraq could produce as much as 200 tons (180 metric tons) of the deadly nerve agent VX and continues to conceal information about its missile warheads.

Mr Butler reported after meetings in Iraq last month that his previously "businesslike" talks with the Iraqis had been punctuated by "abuse" and "denigration." Although the change of manner came in a dispute over access to eight "presidential sites," Mr Butler's reports show there is real cause for concern. The sites are huge and contain other buildings, including warehouses as well as palaces.

UN inspectors who have been working to identify and destroy Iraq's armoury since 1991 have reported mixed progress. Most of Saddam Hussein's missiles and a large number of chemical weapons had been destroyed, they said, but there were real fears about his biological warfare programme.

The information given by Iraq about biological weapons had been inaccurate and often contradictory. However, it was believed that it held quantities of aflatoxin, which destroys the immune system, botulinum toxin, simulant B and anthrax spores.

The Iraqis have admitted filling R400 bombs with anthrax spores and botulinum toxin, though it is not known how many. The latest bulletin from the country's officials "fails to give a remotely credible account of Iraq's biological warfare programme."

Similar problems existed with chemical weapons, though there had been more progress. Before the Gulf War, Iraq had procured more than 1,000 items of production equipment for chemical weapons including mustard shells, which cause terrible skin damage, Agent VX, a highly toxic nerve agent used against the Kurds at Halabja and sarin, the nerve agent used in Nazi gas chambers.

In his latest draft report, the chief UN weapons inspector concludes that Iraq could produce as much as 200 tons (180 metric tons) of VX. Because the UN experts have not been able to assess Iraq's abilities, "there is no credible technical reason why Iraq should fail in the production of VX," the report says.

Unscom had supervised the destruction of 325 pieces of equipment along with 275 tons of "precursor chemicals" for the weapons. However, much of the equipment was only discovered in August 1997 and inspectors believe the Iraqi government has thousands of tons of chemicals which could be used to make weapons.

Of 819 long-range missiles imported by President Saddam in the 1980s, 817 had been accounted for. More than 500 had been used in the Iran-Iraq war, 93 in the Gulf War and 77 in training and testing. The rest had been destroyed, either unilaterally or under supervision by Unscom.