Iraq: May 26, 2004


Laboratory tests have confirmed that the artillery shell detonated by American combat engineers on May 15 was a binary type nerve gas shell containing Sarin nerve agent. There were no markings on the shell to indicate it contained chemical weapons, nor its date of manufacture. Therefore, the shell may have been from the 1980s, when Iraq was buying billions of dollars in weapons and military technology from Russia, France and Germany. Russia had binary nerve gas shell technology, but it was always believed that Iraq got most of its nerve gas technology from Germany (in the form of dual use chemical manufacturing equipment, as nerve gas is simply a form of insecticide tweaked to work on mammals instead of insects.) 

Since the 1980s, Iraq has been manufacturing its own artillery ammunition. In 1995, after the defection of the head of Iraqs chemical weapons program. Iraq admitted that it manufactured a small batch of 170 Sarin binary shells for testing. These were supposed to have been destroyed, but Iraq never offered any conclusive proof.  The shell in question was unmarked and apparently used as part of a roadside bomb by Iraqis unaware that it contained only a small amount of explosives (and thus not much good for a roadside bomb), and two chemicals that would form only a minute amount of Sarin (not enough to cause much, if any, injury.) A binary chemical shell has two chambers inside, each filled with a non-lethal (but still somewhat toxic) liquid. When the shell is fired, the tremendous spin of the shell breaks down the partition between the two chambers, thoroughly mixing the two chemicals and creating Sarin nerve gas. When the shell lands, a small explosive charge disperses the Sarin and kills anyone who gets some of it on their skin. Thus a cache of unmarked Sarin binary shells poses no threat unless you can find a 155mm howitzer to fire it from, and you somehow know how to identify the shell (which could probably be done by an expert in artillery ammunition.) There might be a few hundred such experts in Iraq, including ordnance (ammunition and weapons) officers and technicians, and plant supervisors and workers involved in manufacturing the shells. 

Thus the Sarin story is another of those pointless headlines the media loves to chase. Perhaps the most important story in Iraq is hardly covered at all, and that is the growth and professionalism of the new Iraqi police force and army. These are the guys who are going to hold the country together once coalition troops depart. Iraq has never had a professional (in the Western sense) police department before. The real enforcers of law and order were the secret police, intelligence agencies and volunteer vigilantes who served the Baath Party, not Iraq. These guys are all out of a job now, although many are still involved in terrorizing Iraqis and attacking coalition troops (they are doing far more of the former than the latter.) 

Selecting and training a new police force has not been easy. That's because the effort has run into another major problem in Iraq; corruption. Too many people are too willing to put everything, including justice, up for sale. One of the benefits of democracy is that it reduces corruption (you can vote crooked politicians out of office.) But that's why many Middle Eastern democracies are that in name only, because those in power realize an honest vote would put their corrupt butts out on the street. You can't have honest elections without honest cops to guard the polling places and keep partisan thugs in check. This is the story about Iraq's future, but you hear nothing. True, it's not very exciting to follow Iraqi cops around to see how they deal with the people they are supposed to be serving. Reports from Civil Affairs, and other troops, indicates that the quality of Iraqi cops is improving, but that it is uneven. Much still depends, as one would expect, on the local commanders. A lot of effort has gone into selecting and training a new generation of police commanders. Jordan, which has one of the most efficient police forces in the Arab world, is training hundreds of new Iraqi police commanders at a time. Iraqi police commanders who speak other languages are being sent to other countries as well for training. In the meantime, many of the police, and police commanders, from the old days have been rehired, given brief training, and put to work. These are the ones who often revert to the bad old ways (taking payoffs and beating prisoners, including many picked up for no real reason.) The coalition has an unofficial "police quality control" force that tries to stay on top of the bad cops, and remove them, but it's a tough job until enough honest and efficient police can be trained and put to work. At the moment, the efforts appears to be one of "clean up the cops one precinct at a time."

One bright spot is northern Iraq, where the Kurds have been free of the Baath Party and Saddam for over a decade. The police up there are, as a result, pretty efficient and uncorrupt. The Kurds will insist that it's mainly because they are Kurds, and not Arabs. But centuries of living with Arabs have eliminated any real distinctions when it comes to bad cops. The Kurds simply had a chance to clean up their police force, and they did. The rest of Iraq can do the same, in time. The big question right now is, how much time will be needed?



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