27 July 1999
(Moscow's objections delayed closing of UNSCOM lab) (430) By Judy Aita USIA United Nations Correspondent United Nations -- After a week of lengthy closed-door debate, the Security Council July 27 agreed to allow seven vials of the deadly nerve gas VX in a U.N. lab in Baghdad to be destroyed. The U.N. Special Commission overseeing the destruction of Iraqi weapons (UNSCOM) had asked for permission to destroy the VX along with test samples of mustard gas, sarin, Tabun and precursor chemicals used to manufacture them at its Baghdad laboratory before summer power shortages. However UNSCOM arms inspectors, accused by Baghdad of being spies, had not been allowed in the country since December. Therefore the United Nations asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) based in The Hague to organize a team of experts to dismantle the UNSCOM lab. The OPCW team was to complete its work on July 25, but stayed behind waiting for the council decision. Russia, backed at times by France and China, has opposed the destruction of the vials, arguing that the samples should be preserved in order to determine whether UNSCOM arms inspectors contaminated Iraqi warheads with the samples in an attempt to plant evidence against Iraq. The three complained that UNSCOM had hidden the fact that the seven VX vials were in the laboratory and three of them were opened. (Iraq admitted producing almost 4 tons of VX, but said it unilaterally destroyed the nerve gas. In 1998 a U.S. laboratory found VX traces on warhead fragments. Subsequent tests by other laboratories in Europe failed to conclusively end the debate over whether Iraq had armed any warheads with VX.) An UNSCOM chemical weapons expert told the council that the chemicals at the laboratory were used as test standards to calibrate testing equipment and that the quantity in the vials was too little to contaminate Iraqi warheads. UNSCOM officials also said that there was no way the VX samples in the UNSCOM lab could be matched to VX found anywhere else in Iraq. A majority of the council agreed with UNSCOM and Council President Agam Hasmy of Malaysia decided there was not enough support in the council to change the decision to destroy the samples. The council made no public announcement that the debate had been resolved. Diplomats said that Russia dropped its opposition to the destruction of the chemical weapons samples after other council members agreed that UNSCOM officials would answer questions about the laboratory.