Curbing chemical weapons

CONGRESS is right in voting sanctions against Iraq for using chemical munitions against Kurdish rebels. Though the effect on Iraq is likely to be minimal, the credibility of United States policy on the spread of chemical weapons requires more than verbal condemnation. President Reagan's call Monday for a global conference on chemical munitions is a stopgap measure to stem erosion of the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning their use in international conflicts.

Secretary of State George Shultz says the US has conclusive evidence that Iraq used chemical munitions against its Kurds. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff reached a similar conclusion. Further attempts to document Iraq's use of gas have been shaky. Turkey insists that it has found no physical evidence of chemical munitions use among the 70,000 Kurdish refugees it has harbored. Iraq has refused to allow United Nations observers into the country for an on-site investigation.

The picture is further complicated by the Geneva Protocol's silence on the use of chemical munitions within a country. Moreover, Iraq has not signed the protocol banning the use of biological weapons.

The Senate would immediately shut off US oil imports from Iraq, ban US military sales and credits to Baghdad, and require the US to vote against loans to Iraq from international lending institutions. The House version parallels the Senate's but would give the president more discretion in applying sanctions.

Iraq, however, has alternative sources and outlets for nearly everything on the list. Such sanctions would hit harder if the Soviet Union and Western Europe joined the effort. But that's unlikely.

At best, the sanctions signal a high-profile holding action. In a fight for survival, it may be possible to deter a country from using chemical munitions. But world pressure must be maintained to minimize resorting to them.

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