WASHINGTON — UNITED Nations chemical-weapons inspectors recently made a disturbing discovery about Iraq's attitude toward environmental protection.
While poking about storage sites last April, they confirmed that Iraqi officials had already gotten rid of large quantities of chemical agent precursors by simply dumping them into the ground.
Some of the stuff had been poured into a dry stream bed only a few kilometers from a village. In other spots "these eco-vandals took a poison gas precursor and poured it into standing water," says United States Army Maj. Karen Jansen, a member of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) investigating Iraq's chemical warfare program.
Such laxity might be expected, considering that at Iraq's main chemical complex barrels of nerve agent were left outdoors to rust and dry in the sun.
Whatever threat the Iraqi chemicals posed to US troops, UN teams since the war have found a poison program that was clearly a danger to its own handlers.
Today Iraq's chemical weapons stocks could not possibly be called a military asset, according to UN officials. Some believe Iraq has truly decided to get out of the poison gas business. "They have taken a decision to cooperate in this field, perhaps ... with the aim of trying to gain credibility," concluded Johan Molander, a former special adviser to the UNSCOM chairman.
Findings of the UN chemical and biological weapon inspection teams in Iraq haven't gotten quite the attention of their nuclear counterparts. While the Iraqis have been generally cooperative in the chemical area, there have been some rough spots, too. Last January, the Iraqi police looked the other way while a crowd of "demonstrators" pinned Major Jansen against a wall in a Baghdad hotel.
Having spent the last year rooting out and inspecting chemical and biological stocks and sites, the UN teams are turning their focus to destruction. Full-scale elimination of poison stocks is slated to begin in mid-July at the huge al Muthanna chemical weapons site at Samarra.
Mustard gas is to be burned in an incinerator that is nearing completion. But Iraqi nerve agent is of too low a quality to be burned, so it will be neutralized by hydrolysis. The whole process could take up to a year and a half.
In April, a UN team confirmed Iraq's admission that it had unilaterally destroyed chemical munitions and stocks that it had sought to hide in the wake of the Gulf war defeat. That is when inspectors found that lethal substances simply had been been poured into holes and standing ponds, or burned.
With many Iraqi munitions leaking chemicals and becoming dangerously unstable, the UN itself has had to carry out some on-the-spot destruction. At the Khamissiyah Storage Site south of Baghdad some 400 rocket warheads filled with sarin, a nerve agent, were blown open and ignited in a pit.
Equipment for detecting chemical agents was set up around the Khamissiyah site by UN officials. "Continuous monitoring showed no air contamination," concludes a UN document.
After a number of inspection trips into Iraq, Jansen isn't entirely convinced that the Iraqis are coming clean about their program. Last year, inspectors discovered some munitions-making equipment hidden at a sugar factory in Mosul. It was obvious what the machinery was, says Jansen, or else why would a sugar plant need gear for attaching fins to bomb-shaped cylinders?
DESPITE the presence of vast stocks of chemical-filled bombs, rockets, and shells, Iraqi military officials have refused to talk about any operational details regarding the program. "They deny they ever used them in the Iran-Iraq war," says Jansen, who described her experiences recently for a small group of Washington chemical-weapons experts.
Even more shadowy than the chemical program is Iraq's germ- warfare effort. Equipment and documents were removed from the primary biological warfare research center, Salman Pak, before the Gulf war began. The site had been widely mentioned in the Western press, and Iraqi leaders presumably knew it would be heavily bombed.
On biological warfare, "we'll never really know more than what they've declared," says Jansen. Iraq has admitted such a program, saying it was focused on defense purposes, and provided UN officials with seed stocks of bacteria they used.
Jansen says that her conversations have convinced her that the program was clearly oriented toward developing germ wea-pons. "When you look at the kind of studies they did, it was the kind that would have been pursued if the program were offensive," she says. "There was no vaccine work, no protective work."
UN teams said one site, supposedly for production of animal- feed supplements, heightened their suspicions. Brand new, the site had a number of dummy, bunker-like warehouses, as if for camouflage.
Jansen noted that, if you have an offensive biological warfare program, "surely you're going to plan for the production phase. This place would have been ideal."