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TWELVE RUSTED PIPES

John Chuckman

My head turned when I heard on the radio that a number of chemical warheads had been discovered in Iraq, the words “chemical warheads” evoking powerful suggestions and images. Shortly after first reports, one of Mr. Bush’s spokespeople termed it “significant.” Within a day, restraint was thrown to the wind, and Mr. Bush claimed the find was solid “proof” of Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with arms inspectors.

I found a picture on the Internet of the U.N. inspectors in chemical-protective suits with their discovery spread on the ground in front of them. The “chemical warheads” resembled twelve rusted, 8-inch pipes, exactly the kind of junk you could find strewn in yards piled with corroded ’49 Ford transmissions, World War II relics, winches, and bedsprings on countless rural roads across America.

The “warheads” are the remains of 122mm Katyusha-style rockets (the same type of inaccurate and relatively ineffective small rockets used sporadically against northern Israel during the bloody occupation of Lebanon) that had been designed to deliver chemical weapons.

Of course, if you’ve been conditioned by Monty Python performances like former Secretary of Defense Cohen holding up a 5-pound bag of sugar on national television and asserting its volume represented all that was necessary to wipe out a country, you might still be concerned. His presentation came around the time when the seemingly custom-minted expression “weapons of mass destruction” was introduced to blur the immense differences between chemical/biological weapons and nuclear ones.

To put the “warhead” discovery into perspective, some 20,000 such munitions were surrendered by Iraq after Desert Storm a dozen years ago. I have no idea how many artillery rounds and rockets, of 122mm and greater size, were fired by U.S. forces during that brief war, but a hundred thousand is likely a modest estimate.
The American munitions weren’t loaded with chemicals, but in their accuracy and destructive power plus the hideous aftereffects of tons of vaporized uranium left for civilians to breathe, they likely were far more lethal than the Iraqi rockets of twelve years ago could ever have been. I say this because such rockets have a very limited range and very poor accuracy. The chemicals they contain also are subject to such untoward events as sudden wind shifts blowing the stuff back onto your own troops. Moreover, any modern army is equipped to avoid contact with such material.

Even in mint condition and in the substantial numbers of pre-Desert Storm days, such rockets represent a very limited threat. Any army general would trade them all for one American W-88 thermonuclear warhead with its guaranteed ability to obliterate instantly a city or an army and render a large area uninhabitable for weeks.

But of course, these weren’t 20,000 new munitions, they were twelve rusted remnants containing nothing – threatening stuff indeed.

Iraq has experienced two furious conflicts over the last two decades. Undoubtedly, there is tons of rusted war materiel scattered over the landscape, stuff that no one has records of or cares about. And Iraqis do have other things to occupy them, things like sheer survival under America’s horrific embargo and with much of their country’s basic infrastructure still in ruins.

Whether Bush’s statements reflect careless, offhand remarks or deliberate misrepresentations, they starkly highlight why he is neither trusted nor believed by millions of thoughtful people around the world. At his level of responsibility, and with the gravest consequences of war hinging on his words, it is reprehensible of him to twist language so that rusted pipes become proof of vast destructive plots.

Not long after the pipes’ discovery, there were revelations in The Daily Telegraph and The Times (of London) that three thousand pages of documents dealing with nuclear weapons had been found in the home of an Iraqi scientist.

This information, probably leaked to re-focus public concern after the rusted-pipe caper, made attention-getting headlines, but the details proved rather pathetic reading. As it turned out, the documents concern the project for producing fissile material that the entire world knows existed before Desert Storm, a costly project that according to Mr. Scott Ritter, former chief arms inspector, was destroyed by his technicians.

It does seem that Mr. Bush is willing to grab at any flimsy argument for war, and Britain’s Mr. Blair – the leak to the British papers almost certainly coming from his government – is never far behind in making sweeping claims that he cannot support.

When I think of the situation in Iraq, I have the painful image of a huge scab that has just barely closed over a terrible, bloody wound. Mr. Bush keeps telling us that rather than let the doctors keep the wound under examination, he wants to rip away the massive scab and slash still more deeply into the remaining flesh to make sure there is no infection.

Well, I have about the same trust in Mr. Bush as surgeon as I do as statesman. Let Mr. Blix’s experts carry on with inspections, and let the man who sniggered at souls waiting on death row keep his mouth closed until the full evidence is in.

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