U.S. military and intelligence officials are closely watching Libya’s stockpiles of mustard gas and their precursor chemicals as the North African country descends further into civil war.
Proliferation analysts generally assess that Libya has close to 14 tons of mustard gas that it has not destroyed despite the announcement in 2003 that it would dismantle its weapons of mass destruction program.
“Obviously, the security of the Libyan stockpile of chemical weapons is a concern,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times.
“You could see a scenario where [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi takes troops away from these [stockpiles],” a Senate aide monitoring the situation in Libya said. “He could be pulling his security forces off of his missions, and bring them to Tripoli and Benghazi and other towns he needs to secure to hold on to his regime and, as a result, these facilities will be unguarded.”
On Wednesday, Libyans in the eastern part of the country celebrated their liberation from Col. Gadhafi and vowed to free the capital, Tripoli, where Gadhafi forces attacked protesters with heavy arms. In a rambling, nationally televised speech Tuesday, Col. Gadhafi vowed to die a “martyr.”
President Obama denounced the violence Wednesday and said he was dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Geneva on Monday to attend international talks on how to stop the carnage.
Mustard gas is a highly toxic sulfuric compound that can blister and burn exposed skin. First used in World War I, it can cause internal and external bleeding, and disrupt breathing and digestion. Its use in warfare is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Col. Gadhafi agreed to dismantle his country’s weapons of mass destruction program and its Scud missiles, after years of quiet diplomacy. In return, the U.S. was obligated to restore diplomatic relations with Tripoli and remove Libya from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The deal was hailed as a key foreign policy accomplishment of the George W. Bush administration.
Paula DeSutter, the U.S. coordinator under President Bush for the elimination of Libyan weapons of mass destruction, told The Times that Libya eliminated all of its bombs in which mustard gas could be delivered but still had some of the chemical agent.
“They definitely have some mustard gas and some of the chemical precursors,” said Ms. DeSutter, a former assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance. “But as far we know, they do not have the means to deliver them. They eliminated all of the unfilled munitions they declared in 2004.”
Ms. DeSutter added, however, that the mustard agent could be used as a weapon against unarmed demonstrators. “If you want to kill your people, you could pour it out on the street,” she said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international agency charged with monitoring the compliance of states with the Chemical Weapons Convention, said Wednesday that Libya has made progress in destroying its chemical weapons stocks.
“So far as we know, Libya gave up the capacity to deliver chemical agents seven years ago … and in the last year we’ve also seen, after some delays, substantial progress toward destroying their existing stockpile of chemical agent, which is all mustard,” an OPCW spokesman told the Associated Press.
Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, said that even though the OPCW notes that Libya’s chemical weapons cannot be delivered in bombs, “this is still a major concern because there are terrorists who may want to get their hands on these weapons and, given the current state of chaos in the country, we need to be worried these chemical agents could fall into the wrong hands.”
Mr. Fly served as a director for counterproliferation policy at the National Security Council during the Bush administration.
“I suggested at the time that we go on jihadi network websites and announce, not as the U.S. government, but surreptitiously as a phony jihadist, that Libya had all of this mustard gas, then give the location,” she said.
“The hope was the terrorists would try to infiltrate the facility and thereby eliminate a number of terrorists. But nobody picked it up and ran with it. The point is we did not view this as a proliferation risk as much as a health and safety risk.”