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Biological Last updated: February, 2013

In 1972, Iraq signed the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) that prohibited the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons. Nevertheless, Iraq began pursuing offensive biological warfare (BW) capabilities in the years following 1985 with the construction of a number of facilities aimed at indigenously producing BW agents.[1] Dual-use facilities such as the Al-Dora Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) Vaccine Plant and the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute incited particular international concern due to their clandestine BW production potential.

In the wake of the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq agreed to abide by United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 authorizing the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to implement on-site inspections of those facilities in Iraq believed to be related to WMD production. Resolution 687 also required Iraq to declare and render harmless, by destruction or other means, all biological weapons and "invited" it to ratify the BTWC, which it did on April 18, 1991.[2] Teams of UNSCOM and IAEA personnel began inspections in August of 1991, at which time, Iraq declared that although it had a biological weapons R&D program for defense purposes, it had no offensive BW program whatsoever.[3]

However, the defection and testimony of former director of the Iraqi military industries Husayn Kamil in 1995 finally prompted Iraqi officials to admit to producing and weaponizing biological agents for offensive purposes. They specifically acknowledged having conducted open-air testing of biological agents including Bacillus anthracis, Bacillus subtilis, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin, and ricin between March 1988 and January 1991 at facilities such as al-Muhammadiyat, Khan Bani Saad, Jurf al-Sakr Firing Range, and Abou Obeydi Airfield.[4] Iraq declared that coalition forces during the Gulf War in 1991 had destroyed the laboratory of the Technical Research Center at Salman Pak, but did not destroy biological weapons or bulk BW agents. Iraq also declared that during the UNSCOM inspections it had unilaterally destroyed 157 R-400 aerial bombs, 25 al-Hussein missile warheads filled with BW agent, 12,500 liters of bulk BW agents, and mobile storage tanks. UNSCOM inspectors suspected these figures to be significantly underreported, possibly to conceal the true size of the BW program.[5]

In 1998, Iraq refused to cooperate further with UNSCOM, forcing inspectors to pull out of Iraq. The inspectors claimed that due to Iraq's tactics of deception, underreporting, concealment, and unilateral destruction of biological weapons during the eight years of inspections, it was difficult to estimate the true magnitude of BW weapons remaining in Iraq. They suspected that the Iraqis actually produced two-to-four times more agent than they declared.[6]

Following UNSCOM's withdrawal from Iraq, the United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 1284 in December 1999 commissioning the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) to continue UNSCOM's mandate of monitoring and dismantling Iraq's WMD proliferation activities, including BW-related activities.[7] In the period between its inception and late 2002, UNMOVIC's work was limited to the analysis of previously gathered information and secondary source material. However, following a prolonged period of increased international pressure, Iraq agreed to allow UNMOVIC inspectors into the country in November 2002. Between November 2002 and mid-March 2003, UNMOVIC inspected numerous sites and facilities, including some suggested to it by intelligence agencies. Nonetheless, UNMOVIC inspectors were unable to discover any evidence that Iraq was pursuing an illicit biological warfare program.[8]

Despite Iraq's increasing levels of cooperation with the international community over WMD concerns, the U.S. government had become convinced that the failure to discover evidence of prohibited activities highlighted flaws in the inspection process rather than the absence of such programs. Accordingly, the U.S. government continued the military preparations which had begun earlier in 2002.

In October 2002, the U.S. issued a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, a summation of the intelligence community's views, entitled Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction.[9] On the topic of biological warfare, this report alleged that Iraq had a stock of biological weapons and mobile facilities for the production of BW agents. Although doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence were expressed by analysts outside the government, these did not appear to have had a significant impact on policy-making.

In a February 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell alleged that Iraq was engaged in a broad-ranging effort to revive its proscribed WMD programs, including the development of biological weapons.[10] In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. Soon after, the U.S. government established the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), initially headed by former UN inspector David Kay, to locate WMD stockpiles and equipment suspected to be hidden in Iraq.

The process of searching for evidence of Iraqi WMD programs was greatly complicated by the total collapse of Iraq's governing structures; the country's large size; an ongoing insurgency that made unescorted travel extremely dangerous; and the destruction of most official Iraqi government archives in the closing stages of the 2003 war. In January 2004, David Kay resigned as head of the ISG and began to criticize the underlying premises of the group's work. On the basis of his work with the ISG, Kay rejected suggestions that there had been any significant Iraqi WMD activities since the end of the first Gulf War. Dr. Kay was replaced as head of the ISG by former UNSCOM member Charles A. Duelfer.

On September 30, 2004 the ISG released its final report on Iraq's WMD programs. Its key findings regarding Iraqi BW programs were as follows:[11]

  • ISG judges that in 1991 and 1992, Iraq appears to have destroyed its undeclared stocks of BW weapons and probably destroyed remaining holdings of bulk BW agent. However ISG lacks evidence to document complete destruction. Iraq retained some BW-related seed stocks until their discovery after Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
  • ISG judges that Iraq's actions between 1991 and 1996 demonstrate that the state intended to preserve its BW capability and return to a steady, methodical progress toward a mature BW program when and if the opportunity arose.
  • Depending on its scale, Iraq could have re-established an elementary BW program within a few weeks to a few months of a decision to do so, but ISG discovered no indications that the Regime was pursuing such a course.
  • In practical terms, with the destruction of the Al Hakam facility, Iraq abandoned its ambition to obtain advanced BW weapons quickly. ISG found no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.
  • ISG is aware of BW-applicable research since 1996, but ISG judges it was not conducted in connection with a BW program.
  • In spite of exhaustive investigation, ISG found no evidence that Iraq possessed, or was developing BW agent production systems mounted on road vehicles or railway wagons.

In March 2005, the ISG released a set of Addendums to its earlier Comprehensive Report that provided more detail on a number of specific issues not fully addressed in the initial comprehensive report.[12] The Addendums addressed allegations that the Hussein regime had shipped its WMD stocks and associated equipment to Syria prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion: "ISG judged that it was unlikely that an official transfer of WMD material from Iraq to Syria took place. However, ISG was unable to rule out unofficial movement of limited WMD-related materials."[13]

Another important release in March 2005 was the unclassified version of the final report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.[14] In its section on the Iraqi case, this report, which looked at U.S. intelligence efforts in regard to a number of countries, highlighted the complete failure of U.S. intelligence in identifying the true state of Iraq's WMD capabilities. The report concluded that the Iraq intelligence failure "was the product of poor intelligence collection, an analytical process that was driven by assumptions and inferences rather than data, inadequate validation and vetting of dubious intelligence sources, and numerous other breakdowns in the various processes that Intelligence Community professionals collectively describe as intelligence 'tradecraft.' In many ways, the Intelligence Community simply did not do the job that it exists to do."[15]

An important element, though by no means the only one, in the inaccurate conclusions of the U.S. government regarding Iraqi BW programs was U.S. officials' reliance on the testimony of an Iraqi defector known by the codename "Curveball."[16] Intelligence provided by this individual was found to be totally fabricated as much as a year prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq but continued to be relied upon due to serious communication failures within the intelligence community.

Current Status

As of mid-2009, Iraq no longer represents a BW threat. The Hussein regime's BW capabilities were largely destroyed in the mid-1990s and there was no effective effort to resume these following the withdrawal of UNSCOM inspection teams in 1998. There are no reasons to suspect that the new government has any desire to resume the WMD programs of the Hussein regime. This new government has worked to adopt a responsible international position in regard to BW issues, actively participating in the meetings of the BTWC review process and supporting the work of the UN 1540 Committee.[17]

Sources:
[1] For a more detailed discussion of the development and operation of Iraq's BW capability see "The Biological Weapons Programme" in Compendium of Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes in the Chemical, Biological and Missile areas (New York, NY: United Nations, 2007) pp. 766-791, www.un.org.
[2] Resolution 687, UN Document S/RES/687 (1991), Paragraph 7, April 8, 1991, www.fas.org.
[3] UNSCOM, "UNSCOM: Chronology of Main Events," December 1999, www.un.org.
[4] Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, October 2002, p. 15, www.cia.gov.
[5] Sixteenth Quarterly Report on the Activities of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in accordance with Paragraph 12 of Security Council Resolution 1284, UN Document S/2004/160, February 27, 2004, p. 17, www.un.org. For a discussion of UNMOVICs position on discrepancies in Iraq's declarations regarding the destruction of its BW program and stockpiles see "The Biological Weapons Programme" in Compendium of Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes in the Chemical, Biological and Missile areas, pp. 968-983, www.un.org.
[6] Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, p. 15.
[7] UNMOVIC, "Basic Facts," www.unmovic.org.
[8] Thirteenth Quarterly Report on the Activities of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission in accordance with Paragraph 12 of Security Council Resolution 1284, UN Document S/2003/580, May 30, 2003, p. 5. www.un.org.
[9] Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, October 2002, www.fas.org.
[10] "Transcript of Powell's U.N. presentation," CNN, February 6, 2003, www.cnn.com.
[11] Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD Volume 3-Biological Warfare (Washington, DC: GPO, September 2004), p. 1-3, www.foia.cia.gov.
[12] Addendums to the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD" (Washington, DC: GPO, March 2005), p. 1, www.cia.gov.
[13] Addendums to the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD" (Washington, DC: GPO, March 2005), p. 1, www.cia.gov.
[14] Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report to the President (Washington, DC: GPO, March 31, 2005), www.gpoaccess.gov.
[15] Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report to the President (Washington, DC: GPO, March 31, 2005), www.gpoaccess.gov., p. 47.
[16] Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report to the President (Washington, DC: GPO, March 31, 2005), www.gpoaccess.gov., p. 48, 80-111 passim.
[17] List of Participants, BWC/CONF.VI/INF.8, December 7, 2006, p. 18-19, www.opbw.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury 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 2015.

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