U.S. officials: Iraq ordered nerve gas antidote
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States was conferring with Turkey and other countries after learning that Iraq had ordered more than 1 million doses of atropine -- a drug used to counter the effects of nerve gas, Bush administration officials said Tuesday.
Atropine is commonly used by hospitals to treat heart conditions and other medical problems, but authorities said the number of doses ordered by Iraq drew suspicions.
Observers are concerned that Iraq may want the drug to provide protection for its forces against exposure to nerve agents.
Speaking after a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was not clear whether Baghdad had received any of the orders it placed for atropine. He said the United States was in touch with "any parties that might be a supplier."
A senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Iraq had requested 1.25 million doses of the drug and had contacted other countries to place orders.
The official said the United States found out about the order through the United Nations, when Iraq submitted the contracts to the world body.
Officials with the Turkish Ministry of Health and Turkish Union of Drug Manufacturers said there have been no exports of the treatment to Iraq. But another senior Turkish official said Turkish companies had received Iraqi orders for the antidote.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he was unable to say whether the doses were delivered but that the United States was concerned about Iraq's attempt to procure such large quantities of the drug.
"Any Iraqi orders for more atropine than needed to meet normal humanitarian requirements would be of concern since that could indicate preparations to use chemical weapons by preparing to protect their own forces from the consequences of such use," Boucher said.
Bush administration officials said they were in touch with Turkish officials about the orders and were trying to determine whether some firms may have tried to ship the drugs without their government's knowledge.
U.S. officials also said Iraq ordered doses of another antidote -- obidoxime chloride -- which is used to counter the effects of certain chemical weapons.
"Obviously Turkey shares our concern about making sure that Iraq doesn't get anything that could further a program of weapons of mass destruction or be possibly involved with making it easier for Iraq to use weapons of mass destruction as they have before," Boucher said.
The New York Times first reported news of the Iraqi orders Tuesday.
U.S. officials said orders have been ongoing throughout the year, raising the question of why Iraq is stockpiling the drug.
The officials said there are several possibilities:
Iraq wants to protect its troops if it uses nerve agents or other chemical weapons against U.S. forces; Iraq wants protection in the event the United States bombs a site where such weapons are stored, or Iraq wants to raise concern in the West that it may plan to use such weapons in the event of a U.S.-led invasion.
A U.S. official said atropine is not on the U.N. "goods review list" -- items Iraq is not allowed to buy as a part of sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- because it has wide medical use.
But he said the amount the Iraqis ordered seems to be "more than is needed for medical needs and could indicate the Iraqis are preparing their forces" for possible use with weapons of mass destruction.
Former chief U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter said Iraq is capable of reconstituting a chemical weapons program within a matter of weeks.
"I believe Iraq will seek to reconstitute a militarized nerve agent that will be used in a last ditch defense of Baghdad, and I think the Iraqi government's efforts to acquire significant stockpiles of atropine are an indication that this is the direction that Saddam Hussein is heading," Ritter said on CNN's "Crossfire."
The U.S. State Department was looking into whether this drug could be considered a "dual use item" to be included on the list for the U.N.-supervised oil-for-food program.
Under the program, which comes up for extension November 25, Iraq is allowed to sell oil with the revenues used to buy humanitarian supplies.
Sources said the orders from Iraq also included wash-down showers and Geiger counters, which are used to detect radiation in the atmosphere.
The revelations came as Iraqi officials decide how to respond to a U.N. resolution ordering the Baghdad government to allow unfettered inspections for weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has threatened to use military force to disarm Iraq if it refuses access to U.N. weapons inspectors.
-- CNN correspondents Barbara Starr, David Ensor and Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.