WARSAW (Reuters) – Artillery shells found by Polish troops in Iraq definitely contained the deadly nerve agent cyclosarin, the Polish army says.
The threat of weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein’s now toppled regime was the main justification used by Washington to go to war against Iraq last year, but U.S.-led forces have only found small amounts of banned weapons.
Poland said on Friday its soldiers found 17 Grad rockets and two mortar shells in late June and said U.S. experts had carried out tests on the weapons.
“Tests conducted showed that there was cyclosarin in the rocket heads,” General Marek Dukaczewski, the head of army intelligence, told a news conference.
But the U.S. military said only two of the rockets had tested positive for sarin gas, and another 16 of the rockets found by the Poles had contained no chemical agents. The reason for the discrepancy in numbers was unclear.
Polish Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said the discovery of the rockets showed Saddam had failed to account for banned munitions held by Iraq.
“Our predictions and reports that Saddam Hussein did not come clean with a large sum of weapons, artillery shells and of weapons of mass destruction were proven true,” he said.
“Some of those warheads were old but it could not be ruled out some could still be used,” Szmajdzinski said.
Poland said in a statement from Iraq that “beyond doubt the shells were from the 1980-1988 period, of the type used against Kurds and during the Iraq-Iran war.”
In Baghdad, the U.S. military issued a statement saying that two 122 mm rockets found by Polish forces had tested positive for sarin gas and confirmed that they were left over from the Iran-Iraq war, but said they posed little danger.
The statement said an Iraqi civilian had led the soldiers to the rockets in the town of Hilla, 100 km (62 miles) south of Baghdad on June 16.
“Due to the deteriorated state of the rounds and small quantity of remaining agent, these rounds were determined to have limited to no impact if used by insurgents against Coalition Forces,” the statement said.
The Iraqi showed the Polish troops 16 more 122 mm rockets from June 23 to 26, which were all empty and tested negative for any type of chemicals, the U.S. statement said.
Poland said it “purchased” the shells through individuals who contacted army officials in its military zone in south-central Iraq.
“We bought all the shells available … Terrorists are seeking these missiles on the black market, offering a price of around $5,000 per warhead,” Dukaczewski said, adding that Poland had no evidence that any chemical weapons fell into such hands.
Iraq said it produced cyclosarin munitions in the 1980s to fight Iran but was committed to destroying stocks and ceasing production by U.N. resolutions following the 1991 Gulf War.
After inconclusive searches by international inspectors, U.S. President George W. Bush accused then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of failing to give up chemical and biological weapons and invaded Iraq last year to depose him.
“The intelligence we received suggested that these missiles had probably been hidden from United Nations inspectors,” Dukaczewski said.