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Iraq flagIraq

Chemical Last updated: February, 2013

Iraq established a Chemical Corps in the mid-1960s, tasked with the nuclear, biological and chemical protection of troops and civilians. The Corps developed a laboratory-scale facility in the early 70's to gain practical experience in synthesizing chemical warfare agents and evaluating their properties. The laboratory's work constituted a necessary step in the training of a national cadre for future research and production of offensive chemical weapons. In addition, it contributed to the creation of a support infrastructure and acquisition system for equipment and materials.[1]

Iraq invaded Iran in 1980; after a series of military defeats in 1981 and 1982, it began to employ chemical weapons against the Iranian forces on an increasingly large scale. In 1988, in the closing stages of the war, Iraq mounted a massive chemical attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing approximately 5,000 civilians.

Iraq's capacity to develop chemical weapons was greatly assisted by its ability to import precursor chemicals and production equipment, and obtain technical support from western suppliers. Iraq eventually produced mustard blister agent and nerve agents such as tabun, sarin, and VX. Following its defeat by United States and allied forces in 1991, Iraq declared to UN inspectors that between 1982 and 1990 it produced 3,859 tons of CW agents and more than 125,000 filled and unfilled special munitions, most of which was 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.

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, over 425 pieces of key production equipment and 125 pieces of analytical instruments.[2] 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, 980 pieces of key production equipment and 300 pieces of analytical instruments.[3]

UNSCOM's final report to the UN Security Council noted a number of outstanding issues arising from efforts to verify the accuracy of Iraq's declarations. These included:

  • discrepancies regarding Iraq's use of CW during the 1980s
  • 550 artillery shells filled with mustard agent declared to have been lost shortly after the Gulf
  • a large number of R-400 aerial bombs
  • a lack of information regarding Iraq's production of VX agent and its plans for the use the agent
  • inadequate accounts of the disposition of precursors used in the production of VX

In August 1998, Iraq unilaterally declared that all outstanding CW-related disarmament issues had been resolved and effectively ceased to cooperate 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 be used in reviving Iraq's WMD programs.

International sanctions against Iraq were maintained in the continuing belief that it was secretly storing a significant quantity of CW agent, particularly nerve agent, and was in a position to rebuild much of its chemical weapons production infrastructure.

From January 1999 to November 2002 very little new information became available regarding Iraqi attempts to revive its WMD programs. However, given Iraq's past efforts to conceal its activities and retain its capabilities, Western intelligence agencies considered it likely that UNSCOM's withdrawal had led to a restoration of CW production capabilities. Intelligence provided by Iraqi opposition groups such as the Iraqi National Congress (INC) reinforced these concerns.

In November 2002, following a period of escalating pressure on Iraq, UNMOVIC inspection teams were finally allowed access to Iraq. Between 27 November 2002 and 18 March 2003, UNMOVIC conducted 731 inspections covering 411 sites, 88 of which had not been inspected previously.[4] In addition, UNMOVIC was able to conduct 14 interviews with Iraqi personnel. UNMOVIC inspection efforts ended with the withdrawal of all personnel from Iraq in anticipation of military action on 18 March 2003.

The UNMOVIC inspections were able to verify the destruction of between 30 and 39 per cent of Iraq's declared stockpile of 1.5 metric tons of VX. They also identified a small number of CW munitions that appeared to have been produced prior to 1990. UNMOVIC concluded that it had not found evidence of the continuation or resumption of WMD programs.[5]

The U.S. government refused to accept the validity of UNMOVIC's conclusions and continued to assert that Iraq had failed to account for 1.5 tons of VX, 1,000 tons of mustard gas, and 550 munitions containing mustard gas during the UNMOVIC inspections, violating UN Security Council Resolution 1441.

On 19 March 2003, a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq and following the defeat of Iraq's armed forces overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime. One justification for military action was the suspicion that Iraq 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 tasked the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), headed by former UN inspector David Kay, with locating suspected WMD stockpiles and equipment. The process of searching for evidence of Iraqi WMD programs was greatly complicated by 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 criticise the underlying premises of the groups 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 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 never abandoned his intentions to resume a CW effort when sanctions were lifted and conditions were judged favorable.
  • While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991.
  • Iraq's CW program was crippled by the Gulf War and the legitimate chemical industry, which suffered under sanctions, only began to recover in the mid-1990s. Subsequent changes in the management of key military and civilian organizations, followed by an influx of funding and resources, provided Iraq with the ability to reinvigorate its industrial base.
  • 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 had not regained pre-1991 technical sophistication or production capabilities prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
  • ISG uncovered information that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) maintained throughout 1991 to 2003 a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for intelligence operations.
  • ISG investigated a series of key pre-OIF indicators involving the possible movement and storage of chemical weapons, focusing on 11 major depots assessed to have possible links to CW. A review of documents, interviews, available reporting, and site exploitations revealed alternate, plausible explanations for activities noted prior to OIF which, at the time, were believed to be CW-related.[6]

Over the course of the period April 2003 to December 2004 a series of events highlighted the lack of security for sites formerly associated with Iraqi WMD programs. These events included the looting of the Tuwaitha facility and the discovery of missile parts with UNMOVIC tags still attached in European scrapyards. The ISG has noted that all the sealed buildings at the Muthanna State Establishment containing various items associated with the Iraqi chemical weapons program had been breached and some equipment and materials removed. These buildings had been inspected and sealed by UNSCOM/UNMOVIC and contained various items including chemical process equipment that had been destroyed or rendered harmless, empty 155mm artillery shells and sarin filled rockets dating back to the 1980s.[7] It is unclear how much of this material was removed but it is unlikely to be useful for chemical warfare purposes.

Following the conclusion of the primary phase of the U.S. military operations in the city of Fallujah the U.S. Marine Corps released photographs documenting what it described as a "chemical/explosives weapons laboratory." It was claimed that this laboratory which was clearly being used for the production of Improvised Explosive devices (IEDs) "may have served as a testing and research area for construction of improvised chemical devices (ICDs)."[8] Currently there are no indications that insurgents had actually produced chemical weapons at this or any other facility in Fallujah.

Iraq acceded to the Geneva Protocol banning the first use of chemical weapons in September 1931. Following a drawn-out process of deliberations the Iraqi cabinet referred a draft law for accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to the Council of Representatives (Parliament) for discussion and adoption in August 2006. This law was finally adopted in November 2007 at which time the foreign ministry announced that the appropriate documents would shortly be deposited with the U.N. Secretary-General completing the process of accession. Thirty days after this step is taken the Convention will enter into force for Iraq triggering obligations to make an initial declaration to the OPCW of all previous CW activities and facilities. Iraq has been preparing for CWC accession since at least 2005 by undertaking the training of key personnel in CWC implementation and compiling its initial declaration. Following Iraqi accession to the Convention the OPCW is required to conduct inspections to verify the accuracy of the initial declaration; a process which will be difficult and dangerous given the current security situation in some parts of Iraq.

[1] 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, S/2004/160, 27 February 2004, United Nations Security Council, 2004, p. 4.
[2] 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.
[3] UN Security Council Document S/1999/356, Annex 1 para 19.
[4] 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. 6.
[5] 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.
[6] 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.
[7] Nineteenth 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/2004/924, 26 November 2004, United Nations Security Council, p. 3 and 5.
[8] Fallujah Update, Insurgent Chemical/Explosives Weapons Laboratory, Multi-National Force, 26 November 2004, www.sftt.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