ShareThis Page
U.S./World

Iran is suspected source of chemical-weapon shells

| Monday, Nov. 21, 2011

The Obama administration is investigating whether Iran supplied the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi with hundreds of special artillery shells for chemical weapons that Libya kept secret for decades, U.S. officials said.

The shells, which Libya filled with highly toxic mustard agent, were uncovered in recent weeks by revolutionary fighters at two sites in central Libya. Both are under heavy guard and round-the-clock surveillance by drones, U.S. and Libyan officials said.

The discovery of the shells has prompted a probe, led by U.S. intelligence, into how the Libyans obtained them; several sources said early suspicion had fallen on Iran. "We are pretty sure we know" the shells were custom-designed and produced in Iran for Libya, said a senior U.S. official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the accusation.

A U.S. official with access to classified information confirmed that there were "serious concerns" that Iran had provided the shells, albeit some years ago. In recent weeks, U.N. inspectors have released new information indicating that Iran has the capability to develop a nuclear bomb, a charge Iranian officials have long rejected. Confirmed evidence of Iran's provision of the specialized shells may exacerbate international tensions over the country's alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Mohammed Javad Larijani, an adviser to Iran's supreme leader. "I believe such comments are being fabricated by the U.S. to complete their project of Iranophobia in the region and all through the world. Surely this is another baseless story for demonizing (the) Islamic Republic of Iran," he said.

The stockpile's existence violates Gadhafi's promises in 2004 to the United States, Britain and the United Nations to declare and begin destruction of all of Libya's chemical arms, and it raises new questions about the ability of the world's most powerful nations to police such pledges in tightly closed societies.

Gadhafi's government was "sitting on stuff that was not secure, and the world did not know about it," a third U.S. official said. "There were no seals and no inventories" by international inspectors, the official added.

During the recent civil conflict, some foreign powers and Libyan rebels worried that Gadhafi might use chemical weapons, but they were aware only of a previously declared stockpile of mustard agent in bulk storage at a remote desert site. They were unaware of the filled artillery shells, which posed a much greater threat.

This newly discovered stockpile will need to be protected from theft by militia groups or others in the politically unsettled nation. Disposal of the munitions poses an additional challenge for Libya's new government and allied Western powers, because the chemical-filled shells cannot be readily relocated and, according to some estimates, may take as long as a year to destroy in place.

British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged the discovery in a speech Tuesday, saying that "in the last few days, we have learned that the new Libyan authorities have found chemical weapons that were kept hidden from the world."

A senior U.S. official said the White House first heard in September about the presence of the chemical-filled shells at weapons storage depots in the desert; others said the locations were Houn and Sabha.

One U.S. official said Iran may have sold the shells to Libya after the end of its eight-year war with Iraq, in which the Iraqis used mustard and nerve agents against tens of thousands of Iranian troops.

"These were acquired over many years" by the Libyans, another U.S. official said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me