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Swiss, French Find no VX on Iraqi Weapons, Contrary to U.S. Findings

By Craig Turner
Los Angeles Times

Swiss and French analysts have reported finding no evidence of VX nerve gas on Iraqi missile parts recovered by U.N. weapons inspectors, contrary to findings by a U.S. Army laboratory, a U.N. official familiar with the results said Monday.

The European test results, which are unofficial and expected to be made public Thursday, represent a diplomatic setback for the United States and the weapons inspectors, who had described the earlier U.S. findings as incontrovertible proof that Iraq lied in repeated assertions that it had never loaded the swift-killing nerve agent into missile warheads.

When he presented the U.S. test results to the U.N. Security Council in June, chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler described them as "utterly unambiguous" evidence that before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq had loaded missiles with VX, which can kill a person within minutes of exposure. The findings bolstered the U.S. and British hard-line position on Iraq and unnerved Iraqi sympathizers such as France.

The U.N. official on Monday said Butler is unlikely to back off of his earlier statement, since the Swiss and French did not test the same missile fragments as did the U.S. Army laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The material tested by the Maryland lab - sections of warheads destroyed by Iraq after the Gulf War - still is in the United States. The missile parts tested in Switzerland and France were taken from the same weapons dump in the Iraqi desert, according to the United Nations.

"This doesn't mean the U.S. tests were wrong; it just means that there wasn't any (VX) on the bits tested in Europe," said the U.N. official, who requested anonymity.

U.S. and U.N. officials had confidently predicted that the European tests would confirm the earlier findings and provide further evidence of Iraqi mendacity.

Instead, the new results play into the hands of the Iraqis, who have asserted that the U.S. findings were an error or a lie intended to cultivate anti-Iraqi sentiment on the Security Council.

The additional tests were scheduled at the request of the Iraqi government, which demanded analysis in a "neutral country." The Swiss analysis was described as complete. French testing was said to be nearly done and not expected to find any evidence of VX. The London-based Arabic language newspaper Al Hayat last week quoted French officials as saying there was no evidence of the nerve agent.

The timing of the test results presents additional difficulty for the United States, which has been seeking support on the Security Council for a tougher stance against Iraq, including the possible use of force, in response to the Iraqis' decision in August to block most activities by the U.N. weapons inspectors.

Failure of the European analysts to find VX is expected to be trumpeted by the government of President Saddam Hussein as a vindication of Iraqi claims that the inspectors are manipulated by the United States.