From two years ago:
According to UNMOVIC's Working Document of March 6, 2003:
Iraq primarily filled 155-mm projectiles [the same caliber as the IED in question] with high purity Mustard that remained stable during long-term storage. However, Iraq also provided some information and documents on the development and tests of 155-mm binary nerve agent (Sarin and Cycolosarin) projectiles. UNSCOM found several examples of these munitions at the Muthanna State Establishment. Iraq stated that, despite positive test results, no industrial-scale production of binary 155-mm projectiles occurred. . . . Iraq has provided a number of explanations regarding the disposition of approximately 550 unaccounted for Mustard filled 155-mm projectiles. UNSCOM, having determined that the Mustard . . . was likely to remain stable for a long period treated this issue as a serious matter.
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The UNMOVIC document makes clear that Iraq had provided no evidence to support its claim that its binary nerve agent projectile--the exact type detonated in Baghdad--had not been moved to large-scale production. If UNMOVIC suspected the Iraqis of lying about moving their binary projectiles into large-scale production, should we simply assume these shells, and at least 550 high purity Mustard shells, were merely lost in the process of a preemptive large-scale destruction? Furthermore, besides UNMOVIC's clear concern for the potency and long shelf-life of Iraq's Mustard gas, the only purpose of designing a binary projectile is to improve shelf-life by separating the nerve agent into two stable precursors. After consulting with U.N. experts, Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for UNMOVIC, was not comfortable speculating on the shelf-life of such shells--shouldn't the Times be uncomfortable as well?
STILL, the foolishness at the Times pales in comparison to that displayed by everyone's favorite arms inspector, Scott Ritter (for background on "Saddam Hussein's American Apologist," see Stephen F. Hayes's cover story in the November 19, 2001 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD). Ritter has his own theory on the source of the sarin shell, which he outlined in the Christian Science Monitor on May 21, 2004:
Iraq declared that it had produced 170 of these base-bleed [binary] sarin artillery shells as part of a research and development program that never led to production. Ten of these shells were tested using inert fill--oil and colored water. Ten others were tested in simulated firing using the sarin precursors.
And 150 of these shells, filled with Sarin precursors, were live-fired at an artillery range south of Baghdad. A 10 percent dud rate among artillery shells isn't unheard of--and even greater percentages can occur. So there is a good possibility that at least 15 of these sarin artillery shells failed and lie forgotten in the Iraq desert, waiting to be picked up by any unsuspecting insurgent looking for raw material from which to construct an IED [improvised explosive device].
Ritter's theory is as bizarre as it is illogical. For one thing, it is contingent upon absolute faith in the word of the Iraqis. In other words, if they said they only produced 170 shells, then they only produced 170. On matters of national security, as President Reagan famously said, trust, but verify. UNMOVIC and UNSCOM were never able to verify these numbers. Ritter treats them as if they had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Ritter then claims that a likely 10 percent dud rate would leave approximately 15 unexploded shells in the desert. This scenario seems implausible for two reasons. Out of 15 duds, most would surely penetrate the soft sand and dirt of the desert, the impact craters covered over by the winds of time so that they would not be "waiting to be picked up." But say a few were not immediately swallowed by the desert. If the assumption is that these 150 shells were being tested, surely the scientists and technicians would be curious as to why the duds had malfunctioned. Would they have not ventured out to discover the outcome of their tests? A well-placed source with the U.S. military in Iraq confirmed that the shell had, in fact, not been fired, but was almost certainly removed from one of the dozens of unsecured arms caches that dot the country. If the shell wasn't fired, then it wasn't a dud. Ritter's theory, based in his unwavering faith in the Iraqi military and the off-chance that insurgents, combing the desert for duds rather than harvesting the country's overflowing arms caches, stumbled upon this magic shell, is suspect.
The detonation of the sarin shell should not be dismissed. It may yet be proved that Saddam's biological and chemical weapons programs were, in 2003, too diminished to be considered a major threat to national security. But, at present, such conclusions are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. If this shell really was the only WMD in Iraq, it will be a welcome blessing.
Michael Goldfarb is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.
Ritter's position is neither bizarre nor illogical. It is the position of a man who is undergoing blackmail, or who has been paid off.