Overview Last updated: December, 2011
In the decade preceding the 1991 Gulf War (Desert Storm), Iraq heavily invested in illicit nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs. Saddam Hussein perceived WMD as serving both tactical and strategic ends, and these weapons were inextricably linked with his ambitions to consolidate his power at home and to achieve regional dominance. Iraq no longer possesses any WMD capabilities. Since 2003, Iraq has signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Iraq began limited work in the civilian nuclear field in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, then Vice President and head of the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) Saddam Hussein ordered the establishment of a nuclear weapons program. By 1991 Iraq had created a robust, covert program that included a complete, although untested, nuclear weapon design and roughly 36.3 kilograms of weapons useable HEU as research reactor fuel. Following Iraq's defeat in Operation Desert Storm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) undertook intrusive inspections and dismantlement of the nuclear program. IAEA inspectors left Iraq in 1998, returning for a follow-up visit in November 2002, but were evacuated in March 2003 preceding Operation Iraqi Freedom. Soon after, former UN inspector David Kay was named head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). In its comprehensive 30 September 2004 report, the ISG concluded that Saddam Hussein had ended Iraq's nuclear weapons program following the first Gulf War in 1991 and had not directed a coordinated effort to restart the program thereafter.
Iraq has been a member of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1970, and joined the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in August 2008. The surviving remnants of Saddam's nuclear program are controlled by the Ministry of Science and Technology. In cooperation with the multilateral Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project, the Ministry has worked to eliminate most of Iraq's remaining nuclear infrastructure, much of which poses health and safety risks. To date, the post-Saddam Iraqi government has adhered to the nonproliferation regime and has shown little interest in pursuing even a civil nuclear program.
Iraq began an offensive biological weapon (BW) program in 1985. By 1990, this program had produced 25 missile warheads and 166 400-pound aerial bombs that were filled with anthrax, botulinum toxin, or aflatoxin. Further, Iraq acknowledged production of approximately 20,000 liters of botulinum toxin solution, 8,425 liters of anthrax solution, and 2,200 liters of aflatoxin. Baghdad also admitted to having researched the weapons potential of the camelpox virus, human rotavirus, enterovirus 17, and the toxin ricin. Since December 1998, when UN inspectors left the country, there has been no verifiable information about the status of Iraq's BW program. In May 2000, the United Kingdom estimated that Iraq could rebuild its BW program within months. As a condition of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire agreement, Iraq ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq in part due to intelligence suspicions that Iraq had a clandestine biological weapons program among other WMD development programs. Investigations following the invasion, however, have yet to uncover evidence of biological weapons production in Iraq.
Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons (CW) during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. In 1988, Iraq mounted a massive chemical attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing approximately 5,000 civilians. Before Desert Storm, Iraq succeeded in producing the blister agent known as mustard, as well as the nerve agents: tabun, sarin, cyclosarin and VX. Iraq's CW infrastructure suffered extensive damage during the 1991 Gulf War and by mid-1995, UN inspectors had largely completed verification and destruction of Baghdad's chemical stocks, munitions, and relevant production facilities and equipment. One of the justifications for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq was a belief that the country had clandestinely amassed large stockpiles of chemical weapons including VX, sarin and mustard gas, among other WMD that it had successfully concealed from the United Nations. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 the United States established the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) to locate the chemical weapons and other WMD reportedly hidden in Iraq. The ISG's final report revealed that it had not been able to find any WMD stockpiles or evidence that Iraq had restarted its CW program at any point subsequent to 1991. Iraq became a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in February 2009 and established a National Monitoring Directorate to ensure the country's full compliance with its obligations under the Convention.
Iraq purchased numerous short-range Scud missiles and launchers from the Soviet Union beginning in the early 1970s. These missiles, later known as the Al-Hussein, were modified and used in both the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars. UNMOVIC inspectors destroyed many of these missiles and related equipment under the post-Gulf War UN mandate. From 1991 to 1998, working within the proscriptions of the UN cease-fire, Iraq developed various ballistic missiles with ranges of less than 150km, including the Al-Ababil and the Al-Samoud.
Following the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, the Iraq Survey Group learned of Iraqi attempts to improve both its ballistic and cruise missile capabilities during the inspection hiatus from 1998 to 2002. The most notable violations included a version of the Al-Ababil exceeding the permitted range, and two cruise missile programs to convert the HY-2 Seersucker into a land-attack system. Iraq also attempted to convert SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) with proscribed range capabilities. In order to avoid detection, Iraq engaged in secret negotiations to acquire missile technology from North Korea and a number of other state and non-state actors beginning in 1997. By 2001, Iraq possessed two missile types exceeding the 150km limit, the Al-Samoud II and the Al-Fatah. UNMOVIC began to destroy the missiles prior to the 2003 invasion but incomplete inspections left the status of these missiles unclear.
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright © 2011 by MIIS.
Get the Facts on Iraq
- Nuclear weapons program comprehensively dismantled by the IAEA from 1991 to 1997
- Used chemical weapons against Iran and its Kurdish population during the 1980s
- Pursued offensive biological weapon capabilities from 1985 until the 1990s
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