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Overview Last updated: July, 2015

In the decade preceding the 1991 Gulf War (Desert Storm), Iraq heavily invested in illicit nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs.

Saddam Hussein perceived nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons 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. [1] Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War against Iranian combatants and Kurdish citizens of Iraq was one of the major factors prompting the completion of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1992. [2] Iraq acceded to the CWC in 2009. [3]

Iraq has been a non-nuclear weapon state member of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1969. Iraq ratified the Additional Protocol in 2012, which it signed in 2008 and had provisionally implemented since 2010. [4]  Iraq also signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 2008, ratifying the treaty five years later in 2013. [5] Iraq signed but did not ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1972. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) discovered the country had been in violation of its commitments as a signatory state, and Iraq was compelled by international pressure to ratify the BTWC in 1991. [6]

The growth of the Islamic State (IS), a terrorist organization that has seized large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq, has raised questions about the security of Iraq's nuclear and chemical facilities. [7] Although the facilities that have fallen under IS control appear to be low-risk, IS intent poses some concerns, as recent reports indicate the group may be interested in trying to carry out WMD attacks. [8] In September 2014, the United States initiated a bombing campaign in northern Iraq and Syria with the goal to "degrade and ultimately destroy" IS. [9]

Nuclear

Iraq began limited work in the civilian nuclear field in the late 1960s. [10] 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. [11] In 1981, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, simultaneously drawing attention to Baghdad's nuclear ambitions and deepening Hussein's commitment to develop a nuclear weapons capability. [12] By 1991 Iraq had a robust covert program that included a complete, although untested, nuclear weapon design and roughly 36.3 kilograms of weapons-useable HEU in the form of research reactor fuel. [13] Following Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) undertook intrusive inspections and concluded by 1997 that Iraqi WMD weapons programs had been incapacitated. [14] 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. [15]

In its comprehensive 30 September 2004 report (also known as the Duelfer Report), the Iraq Survey Group 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. [16] Surviving Iraqi nuclear facilities, which were almost entirely destroyed during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, are controlled by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST). In cooperation with the Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project - a joint effort of the IAEA, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. national laboratories tasked with "eliminating threats from poorly controlled radioactive materials" - Iraqi regulators have worked to eliminate most of Iraq's remaining nuclear infrastructure, much of which poses health and safety risks. [17]

The post-Saddam Iraqi government has thus far adhered to the nonproliferation regime, and in 2009 displayed interest in developing a peaceful nuclear program. [18] Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology Ra'id Fahmi publicly cited both research and the growing demand for electricity as reasons Iraq is exploring the feasibility of nuclear technology. [19] In recognition of Iraq's adherence to the international nonproliferation regime, the United Nations Security Council in 2010 lifted post-Gulf War sanctions prohibiting Iraq from pursuing peaceful nuclear technology. [20]

In July 2014, ISIS reportedly seized nuclear materials from a scientific university in Northern Iraq. [21] Approximately 40 kilograms of uranium compounds were stored at Mosul University- now under the control of ISIS. However, the U.S. government reportedly believes that the material would be difficult to weaponize, as it is not believed to have been enriched uranium. [22] Not long after in September 2014, the United States and Iraq signed a Joint Action Plan to bolster their cooperation in combatting nuclear terrorism. [23] There have been no further reports of nuclear theft by the Islamic State.

Biological

Iraq began pursuing a biological warfare (BW) program in the 1970s but only began making tangible advances in offensive BW technology after the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. [24] Iraq's BW research covered lethal, incapacitating, and anti-plant agents, including botulinum toxin, Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), aflatoxin, ricin, Clostridium perfringens, hemorrhagic conjunctivitis virus, human rotavirus, camelpox virus, mycotoxins, and wheat cover smut. [25] Iraq produced at least 19,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 8,500 liters of anthrax solution, and 2,000 liters of aflatoxin. [26] In 1991, Saddam Hussein deployed 166 R-400 aerial bombs and 25 Al-Hussein missiles containing anthrax, botulinum toxin, and aflatoxin in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. [27] In accordance with the Gulf War ceasefire agreement, Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of Iraq's BW munitions and bulk agents in 1991, although his regime attempted to preserve a clandestine BW production capability. [28] Following the 1995 defection of Iraqi General Husayn Kamil, the primary BW production facilities at Al Hakam and the Daura Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine facility were destroyed under UN supervision. [29] Inspectors from both UNSCOM and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) were unable to verify the complete destruction of Iraq's BW munitions and some chemical precursors. However, the Iraq Survey Group determined in 2004 that Iraq had dismantled its BW program in the 1990s. [30]

Chemical

Iraq extensively used chemical weapons (CW) during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. [31] In 1988, Iraq mounted a massive chemical attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing approximately 5,000 civilians. [32] Prior to Desert Storm, Iraq succeeded in producing the blister agent mustard, and the nerve agents tabun, sarin, cyclosarin, and VX. [33] The use of tabun, and later sarin, munitions against Iran constitutes the first and only known battlefield use of a nerve agent in history. [34] Iraq declared the overall production of 3,859 tonnes of CW agents, of which 3,315 tonnes of mustard, tabun, sarin, and cyclosarin were weaponized. [35] 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. [36] Iraq became a member of the CWC in February 2009 and established a National Monitoring Directorate to ensure the country's full compliance with its obligations under the Convention. [37] In its March 2009 initial declaration to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Iraq "declared two bunkers with filled and unfilled chemical weapons munitions, some precursors, as well as five former chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs)." [38] The weapons are not functional, but were badly damaged by aerial bombing during the Gulf War and will be difficult and costly to destroy. [39] In addition to declared facilities, old and damaged chemical weapons have been found across the country. In October 2014, the New York Times published its investigation of leftover chemical weapon stockpiles from the Iran-Iraq War. Between 2004 and 2011, U.S. soldiers had repeatedly stumbled upon old sulfur mustard and nerve agent warheads and shells. [40] In 2009, the U.S. reported to the OPCW that it had recovered more than 4,500 chemical weapons, but the official report was given to the New York Times on November 21, 2014. [41] At the time these weapons were found, almost all were destroyed. [42] According to a redacted intelligence report the New York Times also obtained, the number of chemical weapons found was updated to 4,996. [43]

While some of the weapons were destroyed when U.S. soldiers accidentally found them, others were procured through Operation Avarice, a large arms purchase plan. In 2005 and 2006, the CIA and U.S. Army Intelligence ran the operation to purchase old Iraqi chemical weapons off of the black market to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Through the operation that was deemed a success, the U.S. was able to destroy at least 400 Borak rockets. [44]

In 2009 when Iraq joined the Convention on Chemical Weapons, responsibility for disposing of the remaining chemical stockpiles was ceded to the Iraqi government. [45] Initially plans were made by the Iraqi government to permanently entomb the chemical weapons bunkers at the Al Muthanna site. [46] However, before the weapons compound could be completely entombed, the Islamic State took control of the site. [47]

In June 2014, Iraq notified the UN that the Islamic State had taken control of the Al Muthanna complex. [48] The Mathunna Facility is believed to have contained approximately "2500 degraded chemical rockets filled with sarin." [49] U.S. State Department Spokeswoman, Jen Psaki downplayed the break-in by noting that the dismantled weapons were from the 1980's. [50] Given their current degraded state, the weapons would be very dangerous to handle, much less utilize for military purposes. [51]

Although the Islamic State has not been able to utilize the chemical weapon remnants in Al Muthanna, there have been several alleged incidents of chlorine usage by the terrorist organization since June 2014. However, these reports have not been independently confirmed. The Islamic State was able to access chlorine when it captured territory containing several water treatment facilities. Because chlorine is not highly lethal, experts believe the Islamic State is using chlorine to spread fear. [52]

Missile

Iraq purchased numerous short-range Scud missiles and launchers from the Soviet Union beginning in the early 1970s. [53] These missiles were modified, produced indigenously, and used in both the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars under the names Al-Hussein or Al-Hijara. [54] UNMOVIC inspectors destroyed most of these missiles and related equipment under the post-Gulf War UN mandate. [55] 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. [56]

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 anti-ship cruise missile into a land-attack system. [57] Iraq also attempted to convert S-75 Dvina (NATO: SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) with proscribed range capabilities. [58] In order to avoid detection, Iraq engaged in secret negotiations to acquire missile technology from North Korea, Russia and non-state actors beginning in 1997, though with limited success. By 2001, Iraq possessed two missile variants 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. [59]

Iraq became a member of the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC) in 2011, and has not declared an interest in reconstituting its missile programs. [60]

Sources:
[1] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 24, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[2] Stephen C. Pelletiere, "The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum," p. 81. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1992; Human Rights Watch, "Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds," July 1993, www.hrw.org.
[3] "Status of Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention as at 21 May 2009," Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 21 May 2009, opcw.org; Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," p. 36, Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2005.
[4] "Safeguards Statement for 2012," IAEA, 3 June 2013, iaea.org; "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, disarmament.un.org.
[5] "Press release: Iraq Signs the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, PI/2008/08, 20 August 2008, ctbto.org; "Iraq ratifies the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty," CTBTO Newsroom, 27 September 2013, www.ctbto.org. 
[6] "Status of the Convention," The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, opbw.org; "Resolution 687: Iraq-Kuwait," United Nations Security Council Resolutions, 3 April 1991, unscr.com.
[7] "ISIS seizes former chemical weapons plant in Iraq," The Guardian, July 9, 2014, www.theguardian.com; Nichols, Michelle, "Iraq tells U.N. That 'terrorist groups' seized nuclear material" Reuters, July 9, 2014, www.reuters.com.
[8] Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa, "Found: The Islamic State's Terror Laptop of Doom," Foreign Policy, August 28, 2014, www.foreignpolicy.com; Vasudevan Sridharan, "Isis Militants 'Plotting to Seize Iran's Nuclear Secrets with Russia's Help,'" International Business Times, October 5, 2014, www.ibtimes.co.uk.
[9] Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by the President on ISIL," The White House, September 10, 2014, www.whitehouse.gov.
[10] Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel and Uri Bar-Joseph, "Two Minutes over Baghdad," London: Frank Cass, 2003.
[11] Nuclear Control Institute, "Iraq's Crash Program to Build A-Bomb Should Come as No Surprise," 26 August 1995, www.nci.org.
[12] Bennett Ramberg, "Osirak and Its Lessons for Iran Policy," Arms Control Association, May 2012, armscontrol.org; Dan Reiter, "Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the 'Success' at Osiraq," Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, July 2005.
[13] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 24, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[14] IAEA, "Fourth Consolidated Report of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency under Paragraph 16 or Resolution 1051 (1996)," S/1997/779, 8 October 1997, Iraqwatch.org.
[15] Nicolaas van Rijn, "Blix wants 'the real truth' about Iraq's weapons stash," The Toronto Star, 1 July 2003; James Bone, "UN Team to Hunt Missing Uranium" The Times of London, 22 May 2003; "What Happened to Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction?" Arms Control Association, September 2003, Armscontrol.org.
[16] "Key Findings," Iraq Survey Group Final Report, 30 September 2004, cia.gov. The Iraq Survey Group was a multinational force tasked by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency to investigate Iraqi CBRN weapons programs after the 2003 invasion.
[17] John Cochran, Jeff Daneels, Carleton Phillips and Ronald Chesser, "Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project," Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, IAEA, www.-ns.iaea.org.
[18] Martin Chulov, "Iraq goes nuclear with plans for new reactor programme," The Guardian, 27 October 2009, guardian.co.uk.
[19] "Science minister says Iraq is studying building of nuclear power reactor," BBC Monitoring Middle East, 20 June 2009, www.bbc.co.uk.
[20] "Resolution 1957: The situation concerning Iraq," United Nations Security Council Resolutions, 15 December 2010, unscr.com; UN Security Council, "Security Council Presidential Statement Welcomes Steps Taken by Iraq to Support International Non-proliferation Regime, Comply with Disarmament Treaties," Press Release SC/9871, 26 February 2010, www.un.org.
[21] Nichols, Michelle, "Iraq tells U.N. That 'terrorist groups' seized nuclear material" Reuters, July 9, 2014, www.reuters.com.
[22] Nichols, Michelle, "Iraq tells U.N. That 'terrorist groups' seized nuclear material" Reuters, July 9, 2014, www.reuters.com.
[23] Bureau of Public Affairs, "U.S. and Iraq Sign a Joint Action Plan to Combat Nuclear and Radioactive Smuggling," U.S. Department of State, September 3, 2014, www.state.gov.
[24] Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," p. 346, Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2005; UN Special Commission, "Report to the Security Council - S/1995/864," 11 October 1995, www.un.org.
[25] Wade Boese, "Unfinished Business in Iraq," Arms Control Association, April 2003, armscontrol.org; "Status of Verification of Iraq's Biological Warfare Programme," UNSCOM - Report to the Security Council, 25 January 1999, hosted by the Federation of American Scientists at fas.org.
[26] Wade Boese, "Unfinished Business in Iraq," Arms Control Association, April 2003, armscontrol.org; "Status of Verification of Iraq's Biological Warfare Programme," UNSCOM - Report to the Security Council, 25 January 1999, hosted by the Federation of American Scientists at fas.org.
[27] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 3, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[28] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 3, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[29] For examples of the unresolved BW verification issues under UNMOVIC, see "Anthrax Destruction Study" section of UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, "Thirteenth Quarterly Report to the Security Council - S/2003/580," 30 May 2003, www.unmovic.org; "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 3, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[30] Stephen C. Pelletiere, "The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum," p. 81. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1992.
[31] Human Rights Watch, "Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds," July 1993, www.hrw.org.
[32] Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," p. 342, Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2005.
[33] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 3, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[34] UN Special Commission, "Report on the Status of Disarmament and Monitoring - S/1999/94," 29 January 1999, www.un.org; "Iraq Survey Group: Final Report," vol. 3, 30 September 2004, www.globalsecurity.org.
[35] Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," p. 343, Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2005.
[36] "Iraq Designates National Authority for Chemical Weapons Convention," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 16 February 2009, www.opcw.org.
[37] Jonathan B. Tucker, "Iraq Faces Major Challenges in Destroying Its Legacy Chemical Weapons," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 4 March 2010, www.nonproliferation.org.
[38] "Update on Chemical Demilitarisation," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 21 April 2009, www.opcw.org.
[39] Federation of American Scientists, "Missiles: Iraq Special Weapons," www.fas.org.
[40] C.J. Chivers, "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons," The New York Times, October 14, 2014, www.nytimes.com.
[41] "Reports of the Technical Secretariat for the Purpose of Reviewing Documentation Related to the Recovery and Destruction of Iraqi Chemical Weapons," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, November 19, 2014, www.opcw.org.
[42] "Reports of the Technical Secretariat for the Purpose of Reviewing Documentation Related to the Recovery and Destruction of Iraqi Chemical Weapons," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, November 19, 2014, www.opcw.org.
[43] "Iraq: Recovered Chemical Weapons Update (April 2009- March 2011," U.S. Army National Ground Intelligence Center, June 23, 2011.
[44] C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt, "C.I.A. Is Said to Have Bought and Destroyed Iraqi Chemical Weapons," The New York Times, February 15, 2015, www.nytimes.com.
[45] C.J. Chivers, "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons," The New York Times, October 14, 2014, www.nytimes.com.
[46] "Progress Report on the Preparation of the Destruction Plan for the Al Muthanna Bunkers," Report by Iraq, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, May 1, 2012, www.opcw.org.
[47] C.J. Chivers, "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons," The New York Times, October 14, 2014, www.nytimes.com.
[48] Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim, "Letter Dated 30 June 2014 from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General," United Nations Security Council, 2014, www.un.org.
[49] "ISIS seizes former chemical weapons plant in Iraq," The Guardian, July 9, 2014, www.theguardian.com.
[50] "Daily Press Briefing: June 20, 2014," U.S. Department of State, June 20, 2014, www.state.gov.
[51] "Daily Press Briefing: June 20, 2014," U.S. Department of State, June 20, 2014, www.state.gov.
[52] "Islamic State 'using chlorine gas' in Iraq roadside bombs," British Broadcasting Corporation, March 12, 2015, www.bbc.com.
[53] "Amb. Richard Butler's Presentation to The UN Security Council," The Federation of American Scientists, 3 June 1998, www.fas.org.
[54] Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," p. 352, Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2005; UNSCOM, "Report of the Secretary-General on the Activities of the Special Commission Established by the Secretary-General Pursuant to Paragraph 9 (b) (i) of Resolution 687 (1991)."
[55] Federation of American Scientists, "Ababil-100/Al Samoud," www.fas.org; United Nations Special Commission, "Third Report under Resolution 1051," S/1997/301, 11 April 1997, www.un.org.
[56] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 1, p. 24, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[57] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 2, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[58] "Iraq Paid North Korea $10 Million in Failed Missile Deal, Kay Says," Global Security Newswire, 6 October 2003, nti.org; "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, Vol. 2, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[59] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 24, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[60] "10th Regular Meeting of the Subscribing States to the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation," Hague Code of Conduct, 3 June 2011, hcoc.at; UN Security Council, "Security Council Presidential Statement Welcomes Steps Taken by Iraq to Support International Non-proliferation Regime, Comply with Disarmament Treaties," Press Release SC/9871, 26 February 2010, www.un.org.

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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.

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