For the first time since returning to Iraq, United Nations chemical weapons inspectors went to a facility to begin the destruction of banned artillery shells and a supply of deadly chemicals, leftover from previous inspections about four years ago.
A team of Iraqi officials and U.N. inspectors will take several days to destroy the 10 chemical weapons artillery shells and several containers of mustard gas. Inspectors relocated the shells at the al Muthanna State Establishment about 65 kilometers outside Baghdad shortly after they returned to the country in November.
The facility was said to be one of Iraq's most important chemical weapons factories two decades ago. Alhough the shells were previously listed on an official inventory, they were not destroyed before the U.N. monitoring program collapsed in 1998.
The vaporous mustard gas is a lethal substance that causes burning and blistering of the skin, and damages the respiratory system if inhaled.
This is the first time a controlled destruction of banned weapons has been done since the inspectors returned after a four-year break. U.N. inspectors destroyed the bulk of Iraq's known supply of banned weapons before they left the country.
Meanwhile, a special envoy of Pope John Paul II arrived in Baghdad to urge President Saddam Hussein to work closely with inspectors to avoid war. French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray met with Iraq's prime minister and vice president.
The cardinal is also expected to meet President Saddam Hussein, but no appointment has been confirmed.