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US Concerned Over Iraqi Effort to Buy Nerve Gas Antidote - 2002-11-12

Iraq is said to be trying to buy, from Turkish and other suppliers, more than a million doses of atropine, a drug used to counter the effects of nerve gas. Bush administration officials say the United States is talking to Turkey about the Iraqi effort.

Atropine is a drug in common use and is not barred for sale to Iraq under Gulf War U.N. sanctions. However, U.S. officials say the Iraqis are trying to acquire one and a quarter million doses of the drug, in a self-injector kit normally carried by soldiers. They say they are concerned this may indicate an inclination by Iraq to use nerve gas against U-S and allied soldiers who might intervene to enforce U.N. disarmament resolutions.

Iraq's effort to buy the atropine was first reported by the New York Times, which said Tuesday the number of injector kits being sought would far outstrip what Iraq might conceivably need for normal hospital use. Atropine, which the U.S. Army has long provided to its own troops in the field, is effective in blocking the effects of both sarin and VX nerve gases, both of which Iraq has acknowledged having manufactured.

Though Iraq has told the United Nations it destroyed its nerve gas stockpiles several years ago, U.S. officials are skeptical of claims it no longer has such weapons. At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States and Turkey "share a concern about Iraq's intentions" with regard to the atropine, given Saddam Hussein's past use of weapons of mass destruction.

"This is a drug that has wide medical use, including in the treatment of heart conditions and pesticide poisoning. Nonetheless, any Iraqi orders for more atropine than needed to meet normal humanitarian requirements, would be of concern since that could indicate preparations to use chemical weapons by preparing to protect their own forces from the consequences of such use," he said.

Iraq used chemical weapons at various times in its war with Iran in the 1980's, and also against rebellious Kurds in March, 1988 in the notorious air attack against the northern town of Halabja, that killed an estimated five thousand people and injured thousands more.

Officials here say Iraq placed orders for the atropine with a private Turkish manufacturer and also applied for U.N. permission to buy the drug. The officials gave no details of U.S. contacts with Turkey on the issue. But the New York Times said the Bush administration asked authorities in Ankara to block the sales two months ago and that Turkey agreed to consider the request.