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Tuesday, June 23, 1998 Published at 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK

World: Middle East

Iraq 'produced nerve gas warheads'

Inspectors spent years trying to find the truth about Iraq's programme

The United States ambassador to the United Nations has warned that new allegations regarding Iraq's chemical weapons capabilities could set back Baghdad's campaign to have UN sanctions lifted.

BBC correspondent Nick Childs tells how the evidence came to light
Sources close to UN weapons inspectors in Iraq have confirmed to the BBC that they have uncovered evidence which casts doubt over Iraq's declarations that it never produced weapons filled with the deadly VX nerve agent.

Iraqi denial

Iraq has rejected the allegations. An official in Baghdad said Iraq had never produced VX weapons and suggested the test results had been faked.

The Iraqis question the reliability of tests carried out in an American laboratory and point to the leaking of the results to an Iraqi opposition group to back up their complaints.

[ image: Bill Clinton reacts to the allegations]
Bill Clinton reacts to the allegations
Weapons inspectors have been digging in the Iraqi desert for missing Iraqi Scud missile warheads, and tests of warhead fragments found at one site have, according to the inspectors, revealed evidence that Iraq filled at least some of them with the deadly gas.

These findings appear to be a blow to renewed hopes following the last Gulf crisis that quick progress can now be made on Iraqi disarmament. They could mean the inspectors have to make a major reassessment of Iraq's VX programme.

Bill Clinton: "Our position vindicated"
Both the US and Britain have immediately seized on the findings, saying they demonstrate Iraq is not to be trusted and that UN inspections must continue.

Bill Richardson: allegations could delay lifting of sanctions
The US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, warned that the allegations could delay the lifting of sanctions.

"Iraq is making a very bad case for lifting sanctions," Mr Richardson said.

[ image: Bill Richardson: doubts about Iraq's commitment to disarmament]
Bill Richardson: doubts about Iraq's commitment to disarmament
"If this allegation is correct, that will set back Iraq's efforts to try to lift sanctions - it shows that they've been deceiving, that they've been concealing, that they've been lying, and it calls into question their commitment to disarmament."

A BBC correspondent in Baghdad says UN weapons inspectors have always been sceptical of Iraq's denials, and believe they now have new evidence to back up their claims.

However, Iraq says these claims are reminiscent of past ones by the UN weapons inspectors which it says have been shown to be mere fabrications.

These latest developments show that despite an agreement reached earlier this month between the weapons inspectors and Iraq on a mechanism to sort out their differences, they remain at loggerheads over key disarmament issues.

Security Council divisions likely

BBC correspondent Rob Watson: evidence will emphasise divisions in Security Council
The BBC UN correspondent says the allegations are certain to provoke the usual divisions within the Security Council when it takes up the issue on Wednesday, with France, Russia and China all likely to take Iraq's side against the weapons inspectors.

US officials say the discovery will strengthen their hand in maintaining tough economic sanctions on Iraq. State Department spokesman James Rubin said the report demonstrated "how important it is for sanctions to remain in place until Iraq cooperates with UNSCOM".

Unnamed UN sources, quoted by the Associated Press news agency, said Richard Butler, chief of the UN inspection team, reported to the council last week that Iraq had been told about "the preliminary results of the chemical analysis of certain excavated remnants of special warheads".

Iraq's admission

[ image: Tariq Aziz: 'VX not used in weapons']
Tariq Aziz: 'VX not used in weapons'
In Baghdad, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said Iraqi scientists had experimented with VX but were unable to turn it into a weapon.

He said in a letter to the Security Council last week that 1.7 tons of the agent had been produced but was not of weapons grade.

According to the Washington Post, where the report originated, the information on the nerve gas is included in a confidential US Army laboratory analysis of warhead fragments taken from a pit at Taji, Iraq, in March.

The newspaper said it obtained a copy of the report from the Iraqi National Congress, the principal Iraqi exile group, and confirmed the findings with diplomatic sources.

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