When Iraq killed or wounded 5,000 people with chemical arms last week, officials say it gave other nations an excuse for a chemical arms race, with Utah's Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground in its vortex.
As one U.S. official close to international negotiations on banning chemical arms told the Deseret News, "This pre-sents an attractive way for nations to claim they need a deterrent stockpile of weapons. It hinders a total ban."That could continue or accelerate a chemical arms race and possibly allow the U.S. Army to justify more production and testing of such arms itself.
Chemical arms are tested at Dugway, and many are stored at Tooele.
All that worries local government watchdogs and arms protesters, who say any further development of chemical arms or testing is unwarranted and potentially dangerous to residents.
The Army doesn't want to comment directly on the situation. Spokesmen at Tooele referred the Deseret News to the Army headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Maj. Phil Soucy said it would have no comment on any effect that use of chemical arms in the Iran-Iraq war would have in the United States.
But he said the Army has long argued that it needs a stockpile of chemical weapons to use in retaliation if attacked. "People who use chemical weapons tend to stop quickly if they are counterattacked with the same type of weapons. But the United States would never use them in a first strike."
International treaties now ban the actual use of chemical weapons, but not their possession. Arms talks in Geneva are seeking to ban them, and Soviet ambassadors to those talks visited Tooele recently to see how the United States destroys those weapons and whether the process is verifiable.
The official close to the arms negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitive diplomatic situations, said, "It complicates the process toward negotiating a ban when other countries see someone use let alone just stockpile weapons. They then also want deterrent stockpiles.
"If countries insist upon stockpiles as a deterrent, then you have to question whether a total ban will ever be possible. This is a very serious situation."
Even while the United States has been seeking a total ban, it in recent months began producing new Bigeye binary chemical weapons many of which will be stored at Tooele Army Depot. Those weapons store two non-lethal chemicals that mix in flight to form nerve gas. They are considered safer to store and transport than current "unitary" weapons scheduled for destruction.
Some government watchdogs and arms protesters worry about a chemical arms race and its effects locally.
Edwin Firmage, a University of Utah law professor who led the fight against the MX missile, said Iraq appears to be using relatively primitive weapons, so that in itself doesn't necessitate developing new weapons or defenses.
Steve Erickson of Downwinders, a group that has protested nuclear testing, said, "We've seen this type of warfare happen before between these two combatants, so it shouldn't be that surprising to anyone.
"But because the Iraqis use chemical weapons doesn't mean we need more weapons as a deterrent. It means we need to sit on the Iraqis economically if nothing else."