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The proliferation of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons in the Middle East should be of international concern.

COLIN RUBENSTEIN: The news that up to 700 people were killed in an explosion last month at a secret defence establishment near Baghdad, where Iraq is said to be developing missile technology, should focus attention on the disturbing proliferation of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons in the Middle East. Among the casualties were Egyptians, part of a team that succeeded in assisting the Iraqis develop a longer range version of their Soviet made Scud B missiles, used so tellingly against Iran. This team has also developed the Badr 2000, an improved version of the Argentinian Condor 2 missile, which has a range of over 1,000 kilometres. This has been developed with German technology, in conjunction with Iraqi and Egyptian support. Speculation has it that the disaster was related to work on this project.

As well, Iraq, whose first attempt at acquiring nuclear capability was destroyed by Israeli war planes in 1981, is secretly engaged in a crash program to build nuclear warheads for use with this strategic missile. The goal of the secret program is to produce and test such a warhead within the next two years. Sources say the project is being financed in part by Saudi Arabia, and that Pakistan is believed to have provided limited technical assistance. In any case, the extensive use of surface to surface ballistic missiles and chemical weapons against both soldiers and civilians in the Gulf War, has fundamentally changed the nature of warfare in the Middle East. Iraq's barbaric but regrettably effective use of chemical weapons to break Iranian civilian morale, and so tellingly on the battle field as well as against its own Kurds, has established a very tempting precedent for Syria and Libya. The lowering of the threshold against the use of these weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, has been further encouraged by the relative indifference of the civilised world and the lack of condemnation or outrage from international authorities.

The lack of passion on this issue was truly stunning. It was no surprise therefore, that Israel was one of the first nations to join up President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative program because of its need to be able to neutralise missiles that may be launched by surrounding radical Arab States or even crazy terrorist actors. What then can be done by this destabilising and dangerous situation? There is one firm option left, that those countries outside of the Middle East, like Germany, that have tolerated the murderous traffic of chemical warfare equipment to the Middle East, must put an immediate end to any further supplies, including service and spare parts. To that end, one hopes the government industry conference against chemical weapons, to be held in Canberra this month, will highlight the problems and tighten the safeguards against diversion of legitimate chemical products to chemical weapons.