US looks for a sign from European allies on chemical arms production

A long-simmering debate within the NATO alliance over the renewed production of chemical weapons by the United States is likely to come to a head later this month, according to sources here. At two high-level NATO meetings in Brussels, several West European countries will express their serious concern over a US plan to produce chemical weapons, approved by Congress late last year, the sources said. The issue is due to be discussed by NATO ambassadors this Thursday, then by NATO defense ministers at a meeting on May 22.

At both sessions, according to well-informed sources, the Danish, Dutch, and Italian representatives are expected to voice opposition to the US plan. The West German government may also oppose it. Some British officials, however, have already come out in favor of the plan.

This month's developments will be watched closely by the US Congress, which approved government spending on the production of chemical weapons beginning later this year -- provided the plan was supported by the US's NATO allies. Under NATO procedures, however, no country has the power to veto another nation's ``force goal'' proposals.

``It's up to Congress,'' said one NATO official, ``whether it wants to interpret this month's meetings as signaling allied approval or rejection of the US plan.''

Last month, US NATO Ambassador David M. Abshire defended the plan before a Senate armed services subcommittee, saying that the Soviet chemical-weapons stockpile is ``several times'' greater than the useable portion of the current US inventory. Ambassador Abshire acknowledged that many people have ``moral problems'' with the production of chemical weapons, which was halted by former President Richard Nixon in 1969. ``But,'' he said, ``I, for one, have a much worse moral problem by far in supporting a strategy that would offer nuclear war as an answer to Soviet selective use of chemical weapons.''

He said allied leaders supported the US plan, which would commit $1.1 billion to the production of chemical weapons for fiscal year 1987, which begins on Oct. 1.

In Western Europe, the issue has elicited nothing more than what the moderate West German daily Die Zeit called an ``eloquent silence'' from government leaders. That is so, according to the newspaper, because ``an enormous political burden'' would weigh on America's European allies if they were confronted with making a decision to station chemical weapons on their territory.

For that reason, the US is reportedly considering basing the new weapons in the US or on board ships at sea.

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