"Smoking gun" WMD site in Iraq turns out to contain pesticide

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq (AFP)—A facility near Baghdad that a US officer had said might finally be "smoking gun" evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons production turned out to contain pesticide, not sarin gas as feared.

A military intelligence officer for the US 101st Airborne Division's aviation brigade, Captain Adam Mastrianni, told AFP that comprehensive tests determined the presence of the pesticide compounds.

Initial tests had reportedly detected traces of sarin—a powerful toxin that quickly affects the nervous system—after US soldiers guarding the facility near Hindiyah, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, fell ill.

Mastrianni said: "They thought it was a nerve agent. That's what it tested. But it is pesticide."

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  1. They appear to be desperate to find some WMD – or at least the breathless reportage creates that appearance.

    What happens if they find no WMD, or very little?

  2. Don’t be so quick to judge. More than one report is coming in. I don’t see desperation at all. I see the chaos of war — what does anyone expect, precision-guided reporting out there? 🙂

  3. Though Gary makes a valid point about what will happen if no WMD are found (personally, I think it would/will be a diplomatic disaster), there is something worth pointing out here…

    “Nerve agent” and “pesticide” are not chemical classifications. They are terms that indicate what a chemical is used for. Some cholinergic toxins of the organophosphate variety were originally used as pesticides but were later used as chemical weapons in WWI.

    I don’t know that DDT has ever been used as a weapon…it certainly isn’t as toxic as sarin…but according to the CDC, “the substance may cause effects on the central nervous system, resulting in convulsions and respiratory failure.” Thus, it is not inconcievable that it could be used as a weapon.

    Of course, this could play out both ways: the Iraqis can claim that they just have pesticides, and the US can claim that pesticides are intended for use as chemical weapons.

  4. Sorry…I mistyped the CDC link. Try this if you are interested.

  5. Dammit! That doesn’t work either. You can look it up yourself…

    Sorry for the extraneous posts.

  6. Also, what of the reports of artilery shells or rockets found with the chemicals? I am no expert, I doubt that rockets are the normal method of deploying pesticides.

  7. “I doubt that rockets are the normal method of deploying pesticides.”

    Ah, but what if you need to kill off a very large number of “pests” all at once, especially if those “pests” reside in another country? I’m sure there are plenty of Israelis whom the Iraqi (ex-?)government regards as “pests.”

  8. That’s another thing. The only report of “rockets” that I’ve noticed is NPR’s report, picked up by Yahoo. I heard it in the car this morning. For awhile this afternoon I was trying to figure out if we were dealing with two reports or one. The reason not to take the NPR report as authoritative SO FAR is that it’s a “game of telephone” report. NPR said marine officers (or one officer) told its reporter John Burnett that the 101st Airborne found rockets. NPR did not offer confirmation from the 101st Airborne itself. It’s still a rumor so long as its some guy telling us what he heard from another guy.

  9. I remember in the 1980s when Tariq Aziz and the like were making the case to Europe and the US to aid Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war that these representatives of Iraq would boast about them being the first line of defense for Israel. Didn’t one of them parade about some scarf during these meetings which had been taken from a dead Iranian that said “Death to Israel?”

  10. Well, like it matters. Operation Shifting Rationale makes the actual discovery of WMDs totally extraneous. 60% of Americans, according to the LA Times, thinks Saddam had something to do with 9/11. I’ll bet that 80% think Iraq has fired scuds in this conflict. I think 5-6 false WMD stories definitely add up to one actual WMD story in the American psyche.

    We’ve got better things to think about, like how to reconstruct Iraq (national attention span: 2 days, judging from Afghanistan), and whether we can get Kirsten Dunst to play PFC Lynch.

  11. The “nerve agents” Sarin and Tabun are essentially organophosphate (OP) acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. DDT is a chlorinated hydrocarbon (CHC) that has some neurological effects, but is in a different class, cheimcal and physiological-response-wise than the OPs. Materials like parathion, azinphos-methyl and TEPP are OPs, TEPP being one of the most toxic OPs, on par with the military gasses. I would not be surprised that the testing for nerve gasses gives a false positive from pesticide OPs. But likewise, until the material is actually shot on the GC or HPLC, we can’t be too sure it aint nerve gas residue either.


  12. Field tests for nerve agents will always come up positive in the presence of Raid because they are substantially the same thing. No great surprise then at the confusion. What gets me here is the snarky attitude of the war skeptics who seem to hold all positive war news to a much harsher standard than any applied to the Iraqi Information Ministry. A few weeks ago I would have called this shocking. Now, it’s just dumb

  13. The major news outlets seem to be waiting this one out. AFP is the only source saying this is “just pesticide.”

    So I guess you can just choose which kind of bias you want to believe. Are the American media so hungry to find WMD that they’re turning a blind eye to this story?

    Or is the French press so desperate to undermine our rationale for war that they’re willing to rush this story out before the tests have been completed?

    It’s a big fat question mark now, but the amateur pundits have already started writing their stories.

  14. I’m assuming the Iraqi military needed pesticides because it was branching out into agriculture. Maybe Sam Brownback can find a use for them.

  15. As of Tuesday morning, NPR is referring to the site where this nerve gas/pesticide was found as an “agricultural” site, contradicting earlier “reports” that it was a military site.

  16. DDT would make a poor weapon as it is arguable the most human safe pesticide ever used. They used to literally hose people down with it in order to kill typhoid carrying lice and other parasites. Its safety contributed to its over use. Dispensers largely had to consider only cost and could largly ignore exposure when measuring it out.

    The quickest way to kill a human with DDT would be to beat them to death with a bag of it.

  17. what is the insight here? that the media isn’t omniscient.

    gee that is real news

  18. For troops in the field, there are a lot of false alarms with respect to chemical weapons. The detection devices – sniffers, reactive tape worn on the outside of the clothing, rudimentary test kits – give more false positives than false negatives. There are two good reasons for this. First, you don’t want false negatives when you are dealing with blister or blood agent, or the like. You would rather have a false alarm, get the troops in MOPP gear, and then find out it was a false positive — than watch your troops die incredibly painful deaths. Second, detection devices and field test kits are somewhat unreliable because lab conditions can’t be duplicated in the field. For instance, certain petroleum products will give a false positive on one kind of reactive tape worn on the uniform. Pesticides may set off sniffers.

    The military is also in an awful, paradoxical situation on announcing these finds. It can try to keep quiet about the potential WMD finds, let reporters and troops root around in the stuff, and then as people start dying, let everyone in on the secret. “Well, the lab reports aren’t back, but judging from the way Private Snuffy and Walter Cronkite are choking on the blood pouring out of their lungs, I’d say we have a blood agent here.” Sure, lots of people would die, but we would avoid all these recriminations about how desparate the Bushies are to find WMD. That would be the politically expedient thing to do.

    The alternative is to release the information each time a positive field test occurs, and to debunk it or confirm it when the information becomes available. Of course the military winds up looking like a bunch of nervous nellies, and we all hatch conspiracy theories about it.

    If you aren’t actually standing there looking at the drums with the skulls and warnings painted on the side (in French), the best course is to withhold judgement.

  19. A French news service is quoted making false conclusive claims about this incident. Why???

    A US soldier on the ground would never, ever make
    such conclusive claims.

    The Pentagon has been extremely careful to
    downplay these discoveries until comprehensive
    tests are complete.

    Mr.Gillespie, why not just drop all pretense
    and quote Mr. al-Sahhaf.

  20. Michael Duff,

    The AFP is pretty much a straight shooter from my experience. As far as I can tell, there is a “gotcha” quality to all of this, and soldiers, reporters, etc. are likely identifying anything that smells funny as potentially a WMD. Given the woeful reporting we’ve seen so far, I am skeptical of any claim until there have been multiple tests, by multiple parties, etc.

  21. If 3 drops of parathion concentrate, on one’s skin ,is FATAL, I’d say that qualifies as WMD. Think “low tech”. Parathion is a COMMON contact insecticide. Ton and Tons and Tons are used by farmers/cropdusters. Load a Thrush turbine with a 300 gallon hopper full of parathion concentrate, employ a good cropduster, fly over the Rose Parade in Pasadena, and the whole crowd would be dead in an hour. Does that qualify as a WMD?

  22. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/20/2004 09:24:41
    There is no great genius without some touch of madness.

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