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Ghosts of Iraq haunt U.N. chemical weapons inspectors

Ghosts of Iraq haunt U.N. chemical weapons inspectors

A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people.

Ake Sellstrom‘s confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since last December. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

For U.N. inspectors, the new inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq’s deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.

There are, to be sure, stark differences between Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad‘s Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for war in Iraq, appears reluctant to enter the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.

But officials at U.N. headquarters also see the parallels and potential pitfalls between Iraq and Syria. Among them is a big-power rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom. As happened with Iraq, any findings by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria. 

Its conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed intelligence served as the basis for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable," said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who managed his government’s Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.

Read the entire story, which ran in the Washington Posthere.

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