Chemical arms: simple, cheap - and spreading

Why am I concerned? Simple. Because these weapons are being used. Nuclear weapons aren't. -Senior US government official CHEMICAL weapons have made a comeback. In recent years, country after country has acquired the means to wage chemical warfare, often with the aid of Western companies. Some countries - most recently Iraq - have used the weapons, to devastating effect.

The reason is clear: Chemical weapons are simple and cheap. With a midsize factory of appropriate design, chemicals available on world markets, and the right kinds of bombs or shells, any country can inflict massive casualties on an unprotected enemy.

What's more, a country's true intentions and capabilities can be masked, since chemical arms can be produced in commercial plants almost as easily as in a military facility.

``Every pharmaceutical plant, every brewery, every fertilizer plant, is potentially a chemical weapons plant,'' says Gen. Howard Eggleston, head of the United States Army's Space and Special Weapons Directorate.

It's no wonder, then, that chemical weapons are widely known as ``the poor man's nuclear bomb.'' As this century draws to a close, a new chemical arms race looms as a real possibility, especially in the third world.

These poisons of war - like mustard gas, phosgene, and nerve agents - were the first weapons of mass destruction, and the first armaments controlled by international treaty.

In 1925, horrified by the 1.3 million gas casualties of World War I, 29 nations declared the use of chemical weapons beyond the pale of civilized conduct. The number of signatory nations has since swelled to more than 100.

The ban has been breached over the decades since World War I, but never so flagrantly as in the past two. During that period, the list of ``possessor states'' has spiraled upward. So has the list of alleged and documented uses: ``yellow rain'' in Southeast Asia, killing winds in Afghanistan, poison clouds in Iraq and Iran.

President Reagan warns that the use of chemical weapons is now an ``ominous terror'' facing all mankind.

Secretary of State George Shultz puts it more bluntly: After years of keeping the chemical ``genie'' bottled up, ``that genie is now out.''

The sense of urgency about putting the genie back in is growing. Next month, diplomats from around the world will convene in Paris to discuss the 1925 Geneva Protocol and seek better ways to halt the spread of chemical weapons. The French government has invited every United Nations member-state.

Today, a four-part series begins with a look at how countries acquire chemical war-fighting capability. Tomorrow, the Monitor focuses on the massive Soviet and US chemical arsenals. Thursday's installment examines the possibility of new kinds of chemical and biological weapons arising from breakthroughs in scientific research. Friday, the series concludes with a look at what can be done to diminish the danger posed not only to soldiers, but also to civilians.

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