Both Iran and Iraq used chemical weapons against each other last month, United States officials say, and unconfirmed reports indicate such use continues. ``It looks like Iran used its chemical weapons against military targets, while Iraq used them against troops and civilians,'' a high-ranking US official says. ``So there is some distinction between the two. But no one is supposed to use these weapons ever, under international treaties.''
The chemical weapons were used in the Kurdish area of Iraq during a successful Iranian offensive. Iran is highly publicizing Iraq's use of mustard and cyanide gas dropped from planes on the Iraqi town of Halabja. Iranians claim up to 5,000 civilians were killed.
But US officials say they have good intelligence indicating that Iran used artillery-delivered cyanide gas against Iraqi troops about the same time as part of its offensive. This finding has undermined the propaganda advantage that Iran has tried to gain by publicizing Iraq's attacks, they say.
Specialists say cyanide disperses relatively quickly and can be useful if one wants to send friendly troops into an area soon after its use, while mustard gas often lingers and can be useful for blunting an offensive.
The Iranians deny their forces use such weapons and claim Iraq continues to use chemical weapons as Iranian forces advance in the north.
US officials say they have no doubt that Iraq will use such weapons again if its troops are in danger of being overrun, while there is also little to suggest that Iran will refrain from such use in this tit-for-tat war.
Both sides' use of chemical weapons points up the need for ending the war, US officials say. More broadly, it underlines the need for tighter controls over the spread of chemical-weapons-related technology.
US officials have compiled information, for example, that West German technology and possibly supplies are key elements in both Iran's and Iraq's chemical-weapons arsenals. One example of US concern is a German toolmaking firm, Fritz Werner. Press reports suggest that this firm exported ammunition-making equipment to Iran and Iraq in 1986 against West German regulations. US intelligence sources say they believe some of this equipment has been involved in chemical-weapons programs. They say the Fritz Werner company is also active in Burma's military supply program, and intelligence reaching Washington suggests it has played an important role in building Burma's chemical-weapons capability.
The US has privately raised these concerns with the West German government in recent years, but US officials are not certain all sales have stopped. They say there is no suspicion that the German government knowingly permits sales related to chemical weapons, but that German companies sold equipment, supplies, and possibly know-how under the guise of standard commercial sales.
The West German government investigated reports of chemical-weapons-related sales to Iraq in 1984 and '87, German officials say. In 1984 they imposed tighter export controls. A criminal investigation is underway against a West German company for the reported 1987 sale to Iraq, they say.