NEW YORK – Iraq, facing "serious consequences" if it does not comply with a U.N. resolution to admit weapons inspectors, has ordered unusually large amounts of a drug often used to counter the effects of nerve gas, Fox News has confirmed.
The purchases, first reported in The New York Times, are coming from a supplier in Turkey, although the supplier's name is not known. The United States is pressuring the supplier to halt the sales, according to senior Bush administration officials.
"It is definitely raising some eyebrows around here," one U.S. official told Fox News. "If it really means something, we don't know yet, but one can make an assumption."
Such a large quantity of atropine — 1.25 million doses, to be exact, along with an unspecified number of autoinjectors — could be used by Iraq to protect its soldiers and people from an enemy nerve-gas attack.
But the more likely reason, officials said, is that Iraq wants to stockpile the antidote to protect its own citizens in the event that it uses nerve gas itself.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday that "any Iraqi order of more [atropine] than is necessary would be alarming because it could indicate a plan to use chemical weapons."
Turkish officials deny that a domestic manufacturer has received the Iraqi order, and U.S. officials say there is no proof the order has actually been filled.
"There hasn't been a transfer that we know of," said one U.S. official.
"If the Iraqis were going to use nerve agents, they would want to take steps to protect their own soldiers, if not their population," one administration official told the Times. "This is something that U.S. intelligence is mindful of and very concerned about."
"I would remind everybody that during the Gulf War, there was an attempt by the Iraqi regime to acquire these kind of materials," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday afternoon. "Certainly that is something that we would look into very closely."
"We do not need any more proof that Saddam Hussein possesses and is willing to use chemical and biological weapons," McClellan added. "He has already used them on his own people. ... I can assure you that the Department of Defense is going to do everything they can to protect our troops."
U.S. soldiers carry atropine and autoinjectors in first-aid kits in case of a nerve-gas attack.
President Bush, asked by reporters Tuesday if he had any comment on the antidote reports, answered, "No response right now."
Former Green Beret Maj. Bob Bevelacqua, a Fox News contributor, said the reports fit American perceptions of the Baghdad regime.
"I think what he's doing is he's just confirming all the suspicions that we have," Bevelacqua said Tuesday.
Marc Ginsberg, another Fox News contributor, said Tuesday, "[Iraq] intend to continue to stockpile" nerve gases such as sarin and VX, both of which atropine protects against.
"They have been able to weaponize this," Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco and Carter administration Middle East adviser, added. "They know there's a possibility in an open battlefield" that nerve gas could drift back into Iraqi forces.
"Given the level and magnitude of the order, it's clear this may be used for military uses," Ginsberg said.
Sarin was the nerve gas released in the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult in 1995, killing 12 commuters and injuring over 5,500.
The deadly substance was concealed in lunch boxes and soft-drink containers, then placed on subway-car floors and finally released as cult members punctured the containers with umbrellas before leaving the trains.
VX gas, invented in the 1950s by the British military, is cheaper, easier to make and far more toxic than sarin.
Nerve gases penetrate the skin and disrupt the transmission of nerve impulses. At high concentrations, symptoms progress from coughing to increased perspiration, vomiting and finally death by suffocation.
The toxic agent attacks both the muscles around the lungs and the respiratory part of the central nervous system. In liquid form, a drop the size of a pinhead is lethal.
Hospitals and clinics stock up on atropine to resuscitate patients who have had heart attacks, although the amount that would be needed for this is far less than the amount ordered by Iraq.
Because of this legitimate civilian use, atropine was not placed on a U.N. list of "dual use" items that weapons inspectors must look for in shipments to Iraq.
The United States wanted the U.N. watch list to be as comprehensive as possible, but Russia and France, both large exporters to Iraq, lobbied for a shorter list.
The United States renounced the use of nerve agents and other chemical weapons when it ratified the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Iraq has not done so.
Baghdad, with some covert American assistance, used chemical weapons several times during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, and against rebellious Kurds after the cease-fire ending hostilities with Teheran.
On August 25, 1988, witnesses said Iraqi warplanes dropped three clusters each of four bombs on the Kurdish village of Birjinni. Observers recalled seeing black, then yellowish smoke, followed by a not-unpleasant odor similar to fertilizer, and also a smell like rotten garlic, according to Physicians for Human Rights.
Shortly afterward, villagers began having trouble breathing, their eyes watered, their skin blistered and many vomited. Some of them died.
Humans-rights groups concluded that the bombs contained mustard gas and at least one nerve agent.
The Times reported that the State Department, in the past two months, has been trying to convince the Turkish supplier to halt sales of the drugs to Iraq. Turkey is considered a strong U.S. ally, and is a NATO member. The country reportedly has agreed to review the orders and consider the U.S. request.
Iraq reportedly also ordered another antidote against chemical weapons, called obidoxime chloride, which may be given as an adjunct to, but not a substitute for, atropine.
The U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which monitored and dismantled Iraq's weapons of mass destruction from 1991 until 1998, was unable to verify Baghdad's claims that it had destroyed all such weapons or related equipment.
The fate of 31,600 chemical munitions, 550 mustard gas bombs and 4,000 tons of chemical precursors remain unknown, according to Congressional Research Services.
The primary remaining questions center on VX. By 1995, UNSCOM uncovered enough evidence that Iraq admitted producing about 4 tons of VX, but UNSCOM thought the country had imported enough material to actually produce 200 tons, according to CRS.
In late June 1998, UNSCOM said some unearthed warheads, tested in a U.S. Army lab, contained traces of VX. Recent U.S. government reports, including a CIA report to Congress on Jan. 31, have said Iraq has rebuilt some facilities that could easily be converted to chemical weapons production.
Ginsberg said the "real trick" for weapons inspectors when they re-enter Baghdad later this month under the U.N. resolution passed unanimously last week would be "to get hold of the paper work" to get an idea of what chemicals have been produced and where since 1998.
Former U.S. arms negotiator Kenneth Adelman agreed and told Fox News that looking for the actual facilities may be fruitless for the weapons inspectors.
"It really takes an insistence that you really focus on the people" involved, because "you'll get lost in the facilities," he said, adding that because manufacturing chemical weapons is so labor intensive, it's the human manufacturers themselves that can provide the greatest information.
The Monitoring Group on Afghanistan, a committee of the U.N. Security Council, said in a report to the Security Council in January 2002 that the Taliban had amassed stockpiles of chemical shells, sarin and VX gas projectiles which could be fired by artillery.
At the time of the report’s release, the group has not been able to verify the locations or quantities of those weapons.