Washington — The United States is still wrestling with a response to Iraq's alleged use of chemical weapons. The controversy reflects the difficulty of getting a handle on the proliferation of these cheap, simple, and deadly weapons.
The Senate is especially active in pushing for legislation that would impose economic sanctions on Iraq for its reported use of chemical weapons in recent months.
Since the US publicly charged Iraq with using these weapons against Kurdish dissidents in late August, the Senate has three times unanimously passed versions of a sanctions package.
Compromise language has now been agreed to by both houses of Congress, say staff members. The only question is what ``vehicle'' can be found to minimize the chance of a presidential veto before Congress adjourns next week. The sanctions are being proposed as an amendment to other legislation.
Sanctions are needed to show the costs of using these deadly weapons, congressional supporters say.
The Reagan administration disagrees, arguing that for now the public lambasting of Iraq by Washington and world press is enough. Top officials say they have assurances from Iraq that it will not use chemical weapons again. The main effort, they say, should be put into building a multilateral framework under which future use could be investigated, and sanctioned if proven.
President Reagan laid the groundwork for such an effort at the United Nations in September, when he proposed an international conference to review and update the 1925 treaty banning chemical weapons use.
French President Fran,cois Mitterrand then offered to host the conference and suggested that steps be taken to allow international sanctions against countries using such weapons in the future. French officials say they hope to be able to convene the conference by early 1989.
French officials admit in private that Iraq's militarily effective use of chemical weapons, first against Iran and then allegedly against the Kurds, makes the risk of proliferation much greater and demands dramatic action.
But as one top French policymaker puts it, ``We need to avoid reacting to a single event, or other countries will take the side of the offending state out of solidarity.'' The more productive approach, he says, is ``to look at the problem as a whole'' and to try to strengthen the existing 1925 treaty.
In that vein, US and French officials are working on proposals for a mechanism that would allow automatic investigation of charges of chemical weapons use among signatories of the 1925 treaty. They are thinking along the lines of a commission that would review charges and investigate those deemed sound. Ideally, penalties would be applied multilaterally against parties found to have used the weapons.
While the Reagan administration supports this multilateral approach, many in Congress argue that the US has to take concrete unilateral action against Iraq to set a standard of leadership opposed to what they say is a morally reprehensible act.
But motives on Capitol Hill are mixed, aides acknowledge. Irrespective of chemical weapons, Iraq has a very poor image there, especially because of its strong support for the Palestine Liberation Organization and its traditionally hard-line stance on Israel.
Administration officials counter by saying that Iraq has shown signs of moderation in recent years, which should be encouraged by maintaining a dialogue.
On chemical weapons, the administration believes it has made ``a major advance'' since publicly confronting Iraq on the issue, senior officials say.
Iraq's foreign minister made a public statement in mid-September saying his country abides by all international agreements barring chemical weapons use. Secretary of State George Shultz told his Iraqi counterpart 10 days ago that the US interpreted the statement to say that Iraq would not use chemical weapons against Kurds or other internal parties, as well as against other states. The Iraqi replied that this was correct, US officials say, and did not object when told the US intended to publicize this understanding.
The US has no evidence that Iraq has used chemical weapons since the alleged attacks on Kurdish dissidents Aug. 25-28, says one official. ``We will still be watching them like hawks,'' but the assurances are a big step forward which unilateral sanctions could erase, he says.
Informed congressional aides acknowledge that once you get Congress rolling on a ``moral'' issue like this, it's hard to stop it. As one says of the current debate on sanctions, ``What is a very good idea as a threat is not as good as reality.'' But he adds that the proposed legislation will allow the President to waive the sanctions if he is willing to certify that Iraq is not using chemical weapons, that it has provided assurances against future use, and that those assurances can be verified.