The Means to Make the Poisons Came From the West

The New York Times
Week in Review
April 13, 2003, pp. wk 5

As allied troops interview Iraqi scientists, the chances grow of finding the chemical weaponry that Western governments believe Saddam Hussein was hiding since the gulf war of 1991. If the troops do find it, they will also find something else: that the means for making it came primarily from Western companies years ago.

Below is a picture of the origins of what Iraq said it imported for its chemical weapon effort. The data was given to United Nations inspectors in the late 1990’s, and was reconfirmed in Iraq’s 12,000-page declaration last fall. But the statistical material on which it is based remained confidential until recently.

The data reveals that firms in Germany and France outstripped all others in selling the most important thing – specialized chemical-industry equipment that is particularly useful for producing poison gas. Without this equipment, none of the other imports would have been of much use.

Iraq didn’t declare everything it bought, so the data is incomplete. But they can be presumed to be reliable as far as they go. In general, the pattern of Iraqi behavior with United Nations inspectors was to admit buying something only after learning that the inspectors already knew about it. Thus, it seems logical to assume that the admitted imports actually occurred.

Iraq sometimes lied about the quantities of ingredients or munitions to protect suppliers or to conceal stocks remaining on hand. Equipment, on the other hand, was listed in discrete units, so those quantities seem to be reliable.

The countries of origin are compiled based on the exporter, not the manufacturer, because it was the exporter who decided to sell a sensitive item to Iraq. Most of the equipment described in the report is restricted for export today, even though it also has civilian uses, but it was probably not restricted when it was sold in the 1980’s.

While individual items may have had innocuous uses, the usefulness of a combination of items on an order for making poison gas could have tipped off a seller. A former United Nations inspector, citing one case, said: “anyone looking at the order could see that all the chemicals were for sarin.”

The absence of American firms from this picture does not mean that none supplied Mr. Hussein’s mass-destruction weapons programs.

American firms show up on lists of suppliers of anthrax strains to Iraq, and of advanced electronics for nuclear and missile sites.

Gary Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project, a research group in Washington that tracks mass destruction weapons. Kelly Motz is associate director, and Arthur Shulman, is a research associate, contributed to this project.