Damp-Squib Chemical Weapons Find in Iraq

It seems that Danish troops over the past weekend uncovered in southern Iraq some artillery shells that quite likely were filled with the “blister agent” chemical weapon. I was first alerted to this by an entry in Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo site, where he also linked to a BBC report on the find. Naturally, this sort of thing called for a search on in the Danish press for word of what had gone on, and what it might mean. The answer: not that much.

In the first place, even the Danish sources of information were limited since all of this took place in an area (on the banks of the Tigris, some 20km north of the Iraqi city of Qurnah) both obscure and, once the find was made, certainly not easily-accessible any longer to representatives of the press. Of the main Danish dailies, the reporting from both Berlingske Tidende (original story: Danish Find in Iraq is Possibly Chemical Weapons; follow-up: Most Dangerous Danish Weapon-Discovery in Iraq Yet) and Jyllands Posten (original story; follow-up, both with essentially the same titles as the BT articles, but subscription required) is very similar, extending even to identical language used, apparently because both newspapers used accounts from reporters working for the Danish press agency Ritzau. Only thirty-six shells were discovered initially, although Colonel Henrik Friis, commander of Danish forces in Iraq, estimates that another 100 to 200 remain buried at the site, and further estimates that they all have been buried there for at least ten years. Actually, they are not even artillery shells, but mortar shells. When the thirty-six were first discovered, some of which were leaking a suspicious fluid, a British ABC (Atomic, Biological, Chemical) team was called in to run preliminary tests on them, which indicated that they were indeed loaded with blister agent. Definitive identification, however, must await laboratory analysis by an American team called down from Baghdad, due to take place Monday evening (12 January) at the earliest. The Danes themselves can’t perform any of these tests, by the way, because they don’t have the capability: chemical weapons form no part of the Danish military arsenal, you see.

The counterpart newspaper Politiken, while using the Ritzau reports as a base, also succeeded in a couple of reports of digging out some information on its own. The most interesting is probably Specialists Investigate Danish Find of Poison Shells. The find was made in the first place by a Danish patrol on a dike alongside the Tigris river because of recent heavy rains that washed away enough earth to uncover the shells; and Colonel Friis maintained that, although having lain buried for at least a decade, the shells were still as dangerous as ever, although there was little risk of an uncontrolled explosion. He also noted that the inhabitants of an Iraqi village only 250 meters from the find-site were informed of this. (Presumably this was just as they were being evacuated; naturally, after the suspicious find was made, a wide area around the site was cordoned off.)


The Politiken article also sampled reaction from Danish political figures. The top foreign affairs guy himself, Danish foreign minister Per Stig Møller, advocated waiting for the definitive tests on the shells before drawing any conclusions, but a couple of his colleagues in the Folketing (that’s the Danish unicameral parliament) were ready to go right ahead anyway. Radical Party leader Marianne Jelved: “In my view these are not the weapons of mass destruction that the USA and its allies have been hunting for.” (Indeed, in this other Politiken article U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt is quoted as stating that these shells were likely there for use during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.) And Social Democrat Frank Jensen provided a nice typically-Danish green perspective on things: “One should really do everything to clean that trash up, so that the environmental problem doesn’t become any worse for the Iraqis.”

Speaking of typically-Danish perspective . . . the commentary paper Information follows the incident up today with Charlotte Aagaard’s article Denmark Sold Shell-Plant to Iraq. Yes, Danish firms (specifically here the “Danish Industry Syndicate,” or DISA) took part in the earlier weapons-selling-to-Iraq bonanza, providing Saddam Hussein in 1986 with a manufacturing plant near Baghdad, worth some 200 million Danish kroner (that’s around €27 million these days, or $34 million) for the production of such ammunition – of both the conventional type and the sort of chemical weapons that Danish troops seem to have just run across. According to Richard Guthrie, a WMD expert from the Swedish peace-research institute SIPRI, this was part of Saddam’s typical strategy, namely to out-source the components of his weapons-producing industries to many companies, from various countries, so that observers outside Iraq would be less likely to be able to put together the “big picture” of the capabilities he was building up.

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