Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 146

Russia suffered a minor diplomatic setback yesterday when an international team of arms experts destroyed samples of VX nerve gas and other toxic materials left in a UN laboratory in Baghdad. The arms destruction operation, which brought to an end a long and acrimonious dispute over the disposition of the toxic materials, served only to highlight the deep gulf that continues to divide UN Security Council members on the subject of Iraq. Moscow, with some support from China and France, had opposed destruction of the materials and had managed to delay the team of arms experts sent to Baghdad for that purpose. Ultimately, however, the majority of Security Council members dismissed the Russian objections and gave the arms experts the go-ahead to do their job.

The brouhaha over the toxic materials symbolizes the degree to which even the most minor issues relative to Iraq have been politicized and transformed by Security Council members into points of heated confrontation. The conflict over the toxic agents began in earnest on June 1, when Russia called an emergency session of the Security Council to accuse the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) of having left dangerous “chemical substances” in its laboratory in Baghdad. The toxic materials had been left behind in a special UNSCOM lab when UN arms inspectors beat a hasty retreat from Baghdad just before the start of U.S. and British airstrikes on Iraq last December. UNSCOM chairman Richard Butler and other UNSCOM officials told council members that the substances–used to calibrate testing equipment and present in only minuscule amounts–posed no danger but needed nevertheless to be removed. UNSCOM said that it had not dismantled the laboratory because it expected to return to Iraq following the end of the air strikes. In the event, however, Baghdad refused to allow UNSCOM personnel back into the country.

Although the issue seemed minor, Russia–together with China and France–tried to use it to discredit UNSCOM. Under pressure from these three countries and Iraq, the UN turned to the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to recruit a new team of scientists that would be tasked with shutting down the UNSCOM lab. Meanwhile, Russia and the other UN Security Council members sympathetic to Iraq found yet another issue by which to cast suspicions at UNSCOM: the presence in the Baghdad lab of a tiny amount of VX nerve gas among the other testing agents there. Russian officials accused UNSCOM of trying to hide the VX from the council. Moscow also intimated that UNSCOM personnel may have used the VX samples in the lab to fabricate evidence against Iraq. The issue is an important one. Butler had announced last June that VX was found on fragments of Iraqi missile warheads. Baghdad has admitted to producing nearly four tons of VX agent, but had denied that it loaded the substance onto warheads.

Because of the dispute over the VX gas, the team of arms experts sent to Baghdad to destroy the toxic substances saw their stay in the Iraqi capital extended. Wrangling in the Security Council pitted Russia, China and France against, apparently, the remainder of the council’s members. The first group wanted to preserve the samples of VX gas in Baghdad on the chance that they might ultimately prove UNSCOM had indeed fabricated evidence against Baghdad. Other Security Council members argued, however, that the amount of VX present in Baghdad was insufficient to contaminate missile fragments. In addition, they said, there was no possible way to trace the source of any VX which might have been found on the missile fragments. After more than four hours of consultations on July 26, France and China agreed to a compromise which would allow the experts in Baghdad to destroy the VX, but would also commit UNSCOM experts to answer more questions about the nerve gas samples. Russia initially held out, but followed suit the next day and agreed to the compromise (Reuters, AP, July 16-28).