Shells found near Basra were not chemical weapons

Three dozen mortar shells found buried in southern Iraq did not contain chemical blister agents as initially reported, the Danish army said yesterday.

The conclusion, after a week of tests by British, US and Danish experts, is a further blow to the dwindling hopes of finding the barred chemical, biological or nuclear weapons whose alleged existence was the official reason for the 20 March invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

The first 36 shells were found in the desert north of Basra on 9 January, in a zone supervised by Danish troops. They were buried among scrap construction equipment.

Initial tests detected traces of mustard gas, a First World War-era chemical weapon, suggesting that the shells were from the mid-1980s - when Saddam used chemical weapons in his war against Iran. The area where they were unearthed saw particularly fierce fighting during that conflict.

But further tests in Iraq and at the US Department of Energy laboratories in Idaho were negative, the Danish army said. "The results show the shells from the Danish area did not contain chemical warfare agents," a spokesman said.

In all, 50 unmarked 120mm shells were recovered, and at least 50 more are believed to be buried in the area. Local residents told troops that another 400 of the shells had been thrown into the Tigris river.

Earlier reported finds of caches of chemical weapons also proved false, while supposed mobile biological weapons laboratories found after the war appear to have been for other purposes. No trace of any biological agent has been discovered on them.

With every passing day it seems more likely that Iraq did destroy its WMD stockpiles in the early 1990s after the Gulf War in 1991 - just as Baghdad claimed.

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