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Chemical Last updated: August, 2014

Iraq first developed a chemical weapons capability in the early 1960s. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq used tabun and mustard gas on a large scale against both Iran and the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. Iraq's chemical weapons program was dismantled under United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 following Iraq's defeat to coalition forces in the First Gulf War. The Second Gulf War was launched in 2003 in large part due to American and Western concerns that Iraq might have reconstituted its WMD programs, including its chemical weapons program. However, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) established after the war to determine the scope of Iraqi WMD activities found that the chemical weapons program had been successfully dismantled, although evidence suggested that the Iraqi government had hoped to reconstitute the program in the future. There have been no new accusations since that time, and in 2007 Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

History

Initial Iraqi efforts to develop chemical weapons were marred by failure and multiple bureaucratic reorganizations. The Iraqi Chemical Corps began research and development into chemical weapons in the 1960s, and attempts were made to synthesize small quantities of CW agents, including mustard gas and tabun. [1] These initial attempts largely resulted in failure, and in 1974 the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) took responsibility for chemical weapons research and founded the al Hazen ibn al-Haiteham Institute. [2] However, by 1978 the IIS too had failed to develop CW agents, due in part to extensive mismanagement. As a result, the al Hasan foundation was abolished and the Iraqi Chemical Corps again took responsibility for the program. [3]

The Iran-Iraq War in 1980 gave new impetus for chemical weapons development, and the Iraqi government poured extensive resources into the program. In June 1981 Iraq founded Project 922 within the Ministry of Defense to oversee the new program. [4] Project 922 drew upon much of the equipment and expertise from the al Rashad laboratory complex of the al Hazen Institute, and was able to produce tens of tons of mustard gas by 1983. [5] Project 922 continued to expand in size and scope, and by 1989 had produced several thousand tons of CW agents, including mustard gas and two different types of nerve agents. [6]

Iraq first began using chemical weapons in 1982, bombarding Iranian troops with tear gas. [7] Iraqi use expanded in 1983 to include mustard gas attacks during the Val Fajr II campaign near Haj Umran. [8] Over the course of the war, Iraq continued to use mustard gas, tear gas, and eventually the nerve agent tabun against Iranian forces. These attacks collectively resulted in over one million Iranian casualties by the end of the war. [9] The Iraqi government also mounted massive chemical attacks against the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. One such attack in 1988 on the Kurdish town of Halabja killed over 6,000 civilians. [10]

UN Security Council Resolution 687, passed on 3 April 1991 after Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War, mandated the complete dismantlement of Iraq's WMD programs, including the CW program. The resolution also established the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to oversee the dismantlement process. By December 1998, UNSCOM inspectors had destroyed 38,537 filled and unfilled chemical munitions, 690 metric tons of CW agents, more than 3,275 metric tons of precursor chemicals, and over 425 pieces of key production equipment. [11] Taking into account items unilaterally destroyed by Iraq prior to the beginning of inspections, UNSCOM was able to account for the destruction of 88,000 filled and unfilled chemical munitions, over 690 metric tons of weaponized and bulk CW agents, approximately 4,000 metric tons of precursor chemicals, and 980 pieces of key production equipment. [12]

In August 1998 Iraq unilaterally declared that all outstanding CW-related disarmament issues had been resolved and ceased cooperation with UNSCOM. This ultimately led to UNSCOM's withdrawal in December 1998 followed by Operation Desert Fox, in which the United States and United Kingdom bombed a number of facilities thought to have been used in reviving Iraq's WMD programs.

On 19 March 2003 a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein. A major justification for the invasion was the U.S. government's belief that Iraq had reconstituted a CW program. Specifically, the U.S. argued that Iraq had failed to account for 1.5 tons of VX, 1,000 tons of mustard gas, and 550 filled munitions, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. This was despite findings by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), which had replaced UNSCOM, that there was no evidence of Iraqi continuation or resumption of WMD programs. [13]

In April 2003 the United States tasked the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), headed by former UN inspector David Kay, with locating suspected WMD stockpiles and equipment. However, Kay rejected suggestions that there had been any significant Iraqi WMD activities since the end of the first Gulf War. Dr. Kay was later replaced as head of the ISG by former UNSCOM member Charles A. Duelfer.

On 30 September 2004 the ISG released its final report on Iraq's WMD programs. Its key findings regarding Iraqi chemical weapons programs were as follows:

  • Saddam Hussein never abandoned his intention to resume a CW effort once sanctions were lifted and conditions were judged favorable.
  • While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, the ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991.
  • The way Iraq organized its chemical industry after the mid-1990s allowed it to conserve the knowledge base needed to restart a CW program, conduct a modest amount of dual-use research, and partially recover from the decline of its production capability caused by the effects of the Gulf War and UN-sponsored destruction and sanctions.
  • Iraq constructed a number of new plants starting in the mid-1990s that enhanced its chemical infrastructure, although its overall industry had not fully recovered from the effects of sanctions, and the country had not regained its pre-1991 technical sophistication or production capabilities prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
  • The ISG uncovered information that the Iraqi Intelligence Service had maintained, from 1991 to 2003, a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for intelligence operations. [14]

Capabilities

Iraq produced significant quantities of blister agents such as mustard gas and nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and VX. Following its defeat by U.S. and allied forces in 1991, Iraq declared to UN inspectors that between 1982 and 1990 it had produced 3,859 tons of CW agents and more than 125,000 filled and unfilled special munitions, most of which were stored at the Muthana State Establishment, Iraq's primary CW production, filling, and testing facility. This declaration served as the basis for UNSCOM's subsequent efforts to verify the destruction of all Iraqi CW. Iraq's capacity to develop chemical weapons was greatly assisted by its ability to import precursor chemicals and production equipment, and to obtain technical support from Western suppliers.

Recent Developments and Current Status

In September 1931 Iraq acceded to the Geneva Protocol banning the first use of chemical weapons. In 2007 the Iraqi government acceded to the CWC following a drawn-out process of deliberations. Since then, there have been no major concerns over new chemical weapons developments; however, continued unrest in the country has created potential difficulties for routine CWC-mandated inspections by the OPCW.

The Syrian civil war has generated concern over the legacy of Iraq's CW program. In July 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant jihadist organization, seized a former Iraqi chemical weapons production facility that U.S. officials believe still contains remnants of Iraq's chemical weapons arsenal. [15] The last major UN report on Iraq's WMD programs in 2004 found that the facility contained 2,500 122mm chemical rockets filled with sarin, 180 tons of sodium cyanide, and numerous empty shells and containers contaminated with mustard residue. [16] However, the materials in question date back to the 1980s, and are unlikely to be useful for chemical warfare purposes.

Sources:
[1] W. Seth Carus, "The Genie Unleashed: Iraq's Chemical and Biological Weapons Program," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Papers Number 14, 1989, www.washingtoninstitute.org; Central Intelligence Agency, "Iraq's Chemical Warfare Program," 22 April 2007, www.cia.gov.
[2] Central Intelligence Agency, "Iraq's Chemical Warfare Program," 22 April 2007, www.cia.gov.
[3] Central Intelligence Agency, "Iraq's Chemical Warfare Program," 22 April 2007, www.cia.gov.
[4] United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), "Compendium: The Organizational Structure of Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes," June 2007, P. 56. www.un.org.
[5] United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), "Compendium: The Organizational Structure of Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes," June 2007, P. 57, www.un.org.
[6] W. Seth Carus, "The Genie Unleashed: Iraq's Chemical and Biological Weapons Program," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Papers Number 14, 1989, pp. 7-8, www.washingtoninstitute.org.
[7] Javed Ali, "Chemical Weapons and the Iran-Iraq War: A Case Study in Noncompliance," The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2001, P. 47.
[8] Javed Ali, "Chemical Weapons and the Iran-Iraq War: A Case Study in Noncompliance," The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2001, P. 48.
[9] Javed Ali, "Chemical Weapons and the Iran-Iraq War: A Case Study in Noncompliance," The Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2001, P. 44.
[10] Joost R. Hiltermann, "Halabja: America Didn't Seem to Mind Poison Gas," New York Times, 17 January, 2003, www.nytimes.com.
[11] 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, S/2003/580, 30 May 2003, United Nations Security Council, p. 40.
[12] UN Security Council Document S/1999/356, Annex 1 para 19.
[13] 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, S/2003/580, 30 May 2003, United Nations Security Council, p. 5.
[14] Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD Volume 3, 30 September 2004, Central Intelligence Agency, pp. 1-3, www.cia.gov.
[15] Julian E. Barnes, "Sunni Extremists in Iraq Occupy Hussein's Chemical Weapons Facility," The Wall Street Journal (Washington), 19 June 2014, http://online.wsj.com.
[16] "Isis Seizes Former Chemical Weapons Plant in Iraq," Associated Press printed in The Guardian, 9 July 2014, www.theguardian.com.

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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