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Iraq sarin shell is not part of a secret cache

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In the mid-1980s I served as the intelligence officer for a Marine artillery battalion. Stationed in Twentynine Palms, Calif., I would often find myself deployed in the field, on exercises where thousands of live artillery rounds were fired downrange.

In keeping with the Marine artillery motto of "shoot, move, communicate," we were always moving from one firing location to another to simulate modern war. This mobility had us often passing through live-fire impact areas. One thing you quickly learned was not to touch anything lying on the ground, because modern artillery shells had a high "dud" rate, meaning they didn't always function the way they were intended. Tens of thousands of these "duds" were scattered across the desert terrain, not unlike those found in Iraq.

What makes this relevant now is the ongoing speculation about the source of the sarin chemical artillery shell that the US military found rigged as an improvised explosive device (IED) last week in Baghdad. If the 155-mm shell was a "dud" fired long ago - which is highly likely - then it would not be evidence of the secret stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that the Bush administration used as justification to invade Iraq.As a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, I know that the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the US-led unit now responsible for investigating WMD in Iraq, could quite easily determine whether this shell had been fired long ago or not. Given the trouble the administration has had in documenting its past allegations about WMD, releasing the news of last week's sarin shell without the key information about the state of the shell itself seems disingenuous.


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