BAGHDAD, Iraq — A roadside bomb thought to contain deadly sarin nerve agent exploded near a U.S. military convoy, the U.S. military said Monday. It was believed to be the first confirmed discovery of any of the banned weapons that the United States cited in making its case for the Iraq war.
Two members of a military bomb squad were treated for “minor exposure,” but no serious injuries were reported.
The chemicals were inside an artillery shell dating to the Saddam Hussein era that had been rigged as a bomb in Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq.
Early indications suggest that two chemical components in the shell, which are designed to combine and create sarin during flight, did not mix properly or completely upon detonation, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Kimmitt, however, said a small amount of the nerve agent was released.
Field-test results could be in error
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the results were from a field test, which can be imperfect, and more analysis needed to be done. “We have to be careful,” he told an audience in Washington Monday afternoon.
Rumsfeld said it may take some time to determine precisely what the chemical was.
Two former weapons inspectors — Hans Blix and David Kay — said the shell was likely a stray weapon that had been scavenged by militants and did not signify that Iraq had large stockpiles of such weapons.
Kimmitt said he believed that insurgents who planted the explosive didn’t know it contained the nerve agent.
‘Very small dispersal’
He said the bomb exploded “a couple of days ago” in the Iraqi capital and resulted in “very small dispersal” of the nerve agent.
“The Iraqi Survey Group confirmed today that a 155-millimeter artillery round containing sarin nerve agent had been found,” said Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq. “The round had been rigged as an IED [improvised explosive device] which was discovered by a U.S. force convoy.
Video: Expert talks about sarin's effect “A detonation occurred before the IED could be rendered inoperable,” he said.
U.S. soldiers who later transported the round did experience symptoms consistent with low-level nerve agent exposure, said a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Fear of other devices
U.S. officials said Monday they are concerned that other sarin-filled munitions may still exist in Iraq — and may not be well marked. They're also concerned that, because Saddam’s government never declared that any sarin or sarin-filled shells still remained, the discovery of the sarin shell is significant, the U.S. official said.
Because the old “binary-type” artillery shell requires the mixing of two chemical components in separate sections of the cell to produce the sarin, it is likely that the insurgents who rigged it as a roadside bomb were unaware that it contained chemicals for producing the nerve agent rather than explosives, Kimmitt said.
Use in roadside bomb called ‘virtually ineffective’
“The cell is designed to work after being fired from an artillery piece,” he said, adding that dispersing the substance from a device such as the homemade bomb "is virtually ineffective as a chemical weapon."
He said two U.S. soldiers were treated for exposure to the gas as a result of what he called a “partial detonation” of the round that resulted in “very small dispersal” of the nerve agent.
The source of the sarin was not immediately clear.
“I’ll leave it up to the (Iraqi) Survey Group to determine” where it came from, Kimmitt said, referring to the group leading the search for weapons of mass destruction that the United States said Saddam possessed.
Iraq had the deadly nerve agent in its stockpile but had declared its arsenal destroyed after the Gulf War.
The chem-bio threatBut Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, said the discovery does not provide evidence that Saddam was secretly producing weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War, as alleged by the Bush administration to justify the war that removed him from power.
May be pre-Gulf War leftover
“I think all of us have known that because of the sheer volume of artillery [containing agents like sarin that were in the Iraqi arsenal prior to the Gulf War] ... that there were likely to be some of these still around Iraq,” he told MSNBC TV. “But [the discovery] doesn't speak to the issue of whether weapons of mass destruction were still being produced in Iraq in the mid-1990s.”
In 1995, Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed sarin gas in Tokyo's subways, killing 12 people and sickening thousands. In February of this year, Japanese courts convicted the cult's former leader, Shoko Asahara, and sentenced him to be executed.
Developed in the mid-1930s by Nazi scientists, a single drop of sarin can cause a quick, agonizing choking death. There are no known instances of the Nazis actually using the gas.
Nerve gases work by inhibiting key enzymes in the nervous system, blocking their transmission. Small exposures can be treated with antidotes, if administered quickly.
Antidotes to nerve gases similar to sarin are so effective that top poison-gas researchers predict they eventually will cease to be a war threat.
The Bush administration cited allegations that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction as a main reason for launching the war in Iraq last year.
Frustrated survey group
The Iraq Survey Group, made up of dozens of teams, has been conducting a secretive and largely fruitless weapons hunt across Iraq for more than a year. The survey group combines members of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. military special forces and others.
The team has run into a number of dead ends. In January, for example, field tests on discovered mortar shells near Qurnah in southern Iraq indicated a blister agent was in the shells. But followup tests indicated that the munitions did not contain the agents, though U.S. officials said Saddam had such agents in the early to mid-1990s.
Blix, the former U.N. weapons inspector, said in Sweden on Monday that before the war, his team found 16 empty warheads that were marked for use with sarin.
He said it was likely the sarin gas used could have been from a leftover shell found in a chemical dump. “It doesn’t sound absurd at all. There can be debris from the past, and that’s a very different thing from have stocks and supplies,” he said.
U.N.: 20 percent of Saddam chemical weapons sarin-linked
According to U.N. weapons inspectors, sarin-type agents constituted about 20 percent of all chemical weapons agents that Saddam’s government declared it had produced.
The accounting for sarin was one of a dozen remaining disarmament tasks that inspectors submitted to the U.N. Security Council in March 2003, said Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the U.N. inspectors.
“Iraq was known to possess a lot of this material, and there were questions about the accounting,” Buchanan said.
Iraq declared that between 1984 and 1990, it produced 795 tons of sarin-type agents. About 732 tons was put in bombs, rockets and missile warheads. Iraq further declared that about 650 tons was consumed during the period 1985 to 1988, which included the Iran-Iraq war, and 35 tons was destroyed through aerial bombardment during the Gulf War in 1991.
Iraq destroyed 127 tons of sarin-type agents under U.N. supervision, including 76 tons in bulk and 51 tons from munitions.
MSNBC.com's Mike Brunker, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.