French tests appear to have found traces of chemicals linked to the nerve gas VX on Iraqi warheads, according to several weapons experts who said this would confirm earlier American test results.
Several diplomats also charged that the French had delayed releasing the final results because they did not want to undermine Iraq's push at the United Nations this week to lift economic sanctions.French officials denied that they were deliberately withholding test results, and a French diplomat said on Tuesday that the results are expected to be "completely consistent" with the earlier tests that found no traces of the chemical.
Tension is mounting between the United Nations and Iraq, which has refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and has sent a high-level team to the United Nations to argue that Iraq has released enough information about its weapons program to justify lifting sanctions.
Iraq, which has denied putting VX on weapons, disputed earlier American test results finding traces of VX on warheads and asked for further tests, conducted in France and Switzerland over the summer. Preliminary French and Swiss test results found no traces of VX.
But if final French tests do find VX components on the warheads, Iraq's credibility and case for lifting sanctions would be further weakened. France, which like Russia has considerable commercial interests in Iraq, has argued that the United Nations should move faster to ease sanctions imposed after the gulf war.
To begin lifting sanctions, all Iraqi biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, as well as certain missile systems, must be destroyed, and inspectors must be confident Iraq could not rebuild them.
Several weapons experts said that during a technical meeting in September of international weapons specialists, French technical experts had said that four or five of the samples taken from chemical warheads had VX components on them. But at higher-level meetings later that month, these results were not discussed, according to diplomats and weapons inspectors. According to several diplomats, French Defense Ministry officials told European officials that this was too sensitive a time to publicize results that would be damaging to the Iraqis.
The Iraqis, led by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, say that there are no more prohibited weapons of any kind to be found and that the Security Council has a "legal and moral" obligation to lift sanctions. Inspectors reply that there are too many outstanding questions, and missing documentation, on issues like VX and a host of biological compounds to justify relaxing restrictions on President Saddam Hussein.
On Tuesday, Aziz angrily lashed out at the United States and the weapons inspection system, suggesting that he was meeting resistance in both the secretary general's office and the Security Council in his demands for a new look at sanctions in return for Iraq permitting the resumption of on-site arms inspections, which Baghdad ended on Aug. 5.
In a six-month report sent to the Security Council on Tuesday, Richard Butler, the chief of the program to inspect Iraqi, said that the Iraqis were close to meeting requirements in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs. But it noted that "the level of verification of precisely how much VX was pro-duced by Iraq is not satisfactory." The report also noted that Baghdad continues to deny that it loaded warheads with VX, contrary to mounting evidence.
The United States also has not submitted a second final report on the warhead samples, according to officials of the United Nations Special Commission, which is responsible for disarming Iraq and preventing it from rebuilding its weapons programs.
It was the first American report, in June, that revealed the presence of components found in decomposed VX in missile warheads destroyed by Iraq and dug up in April by U.N. weapons inspectors. That report led to Iraqi demands for laboratory studies outside the United States. Tests in France and Switzerland followed in the summer. The Swiss tests, all agree, appear to be negative, with no traces of VX components found.
Weapons experts and diplomats said on Tuesday that a technical team assembled in New York two weeks ago by the Special Commission, known as UNSCOM, expected to be able to discuss final results from Switzerland, the Untied States and France. The Americans and the French did not have results ready.
Some diplomats accuse the United States of also withholding information because its scientists did not find VX components on its second batch of samples, so as not to cast doubt on its first tests.
France told the UNSCOM technical experts that it had four or five more samples to test. On Tuesday, experts said that there is strong evidence that those outstanding samples had revealed two chemicals found in VX - though not only in VX. But the Iraqis would be hard-pressed to explain what the chemicals were doing on warheads that Iraq said contained other substances.
The Iraqis used Sarin gas in the 1980s in attacks on Iran and on their own Kurdish population. The French say that the results may be known in a matter of days.
The Iraqi warheads being studied were discovered at a weapons-demolition site north of Baghdad. Commission officials haggled with Iraqis for weeks before being allowed to take some metal fragments from the shells out of the country in May for testing in the United States.