- WASHINGTON - Say the phrase ''chemical weapons'' and most Americans think
of such black-hat countries as Iraq and North Korea - closed societies
run by scary dictators.
- In fact, when it comes to chemical and
biological agents of death, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad
- The United States and several close allies
are sitting on huge stockpiles of lethal gases, plagues and poisons, these
nations concede under the terms of a new treaty. Even with the best of
intentions, it's going to be tough to keep some countries' stockpiles out
of the hands of terrorists, criminal gangs or rival nations.
- American officials make an international
brouhaha out of suspicions that Iraq has a chemical and biological weapons
program, but say very little - at least out loud - about friendly nations
such as Israel that are suspected of having similar programs.
- ''This is all part of a larger geopolitical
process,'' said Javed Ali, author of a recent book on the worldwide spread
of chemical and biological weapons. ''We make a big deal about Iraq, but
we don't bang on the heads of other countries as much. We have different
political relationships with them.''
- According to U.S. intelligence sources,
about 20 countries around the world probably have, or are developing, chemical
weapons, mostly gases that attack the lungs, bloodstream or nervous system.
Seven powerful countries - the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France,
India, China and Japan - have admitted having such weapons.
- Countries around the world are hurrying
to comply with the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which went
into effect in April. The treaty, signed by 167 countries and fully in
effect in 104 of them, requires the countries that take part to disclose
their chemical weapons stockpiles, get rid of them, close down the plants
where they were made, and submit to rigorous international inspections.
- Why would a country like Iran, which
signed up this month, submit to such a deal? Because the treaty has a powerful
incentive: Any country that has not ratified the chemical weapons convention
by May 2000 will be barred from importing or exporting the chemicals used
to make them.
- Some of the ingredients to be banned
are obscure substances that have no known use except to sicken or kill
plants, animals and people. But others are the basic ingredients of everything
from fertilizer to makeup and ink.
- No country can do without chemicals such
as phosphorus, chlorine and sulfur, said weapons expert Amy Smithson of
the nonprofit Stimson Institute, a defense think tank in Washington. Developing
countries can't make all the chemicals they need and have to buy them;
developed nations have huge industries devoted to exporting them.
- Biological weapons are even harder to
control. A treaty that bans their use has been on the books since 1972.
But experts say it's toothless because it doesn't make any provisions for
enforcement. And it contains a big loophole: Any nation can do whatever
it takes to defend itself against biological or chemical attack.
- ''There's no way to tell whether you're
manufacturing something for offensive or defensive purposes,'' Ali said.
''It's only when you get to the weapon-building stage that you can tell
the difference. And even then it's impossible to tell by satellite surveillance.
You need to have someone in the lab or the weapons plant.
- ''There's really no way to verify whether
a country is cheating.''
- The club of nations suspected of making
biological weapons is confined to Asia and the Middle East. China, Taiwan
and North Korea are commonly cited in congressional testimony and government
reports. So are Egypt, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya.