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Chemical Last updated: July, 2015

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 populations 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. However, the United States and others remained concerned that Iraq had reconstituted its WMD programs, including its chemical weapons program. The 2003 Iraq War was launched on this belief. However, the post-war survey of Iraq’s WMD activities (known as the Duelfer Report) found that Iraq’s chemical weapons program had been successfully dismantled, although evidence suggested that the Iraqi government had hoped to reconstitute the program in the future. Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2007.

History

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

The 1980 Iran-Iraq War gave new impetus to chemical weapons research. In June 1981 Iraq founded Project 922, within the Ministry of Defense, to oversee development and production. [4] Project 922 drew much of its 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 began using chemical weapons against Iranian troops in 1982. [7] Bombardments began with tear gas and expanded to include mustard gas attacks during the 1983 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. Chemical weapons 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 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 overseen the destruction of 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] 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 were resolved and ceased cooperation with UNSCOM. This decision 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 its 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), the organization that 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. Former UNSCOM member Charles A. Duelfer later replaced David Kay as head of the ISG.

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]

Recent Developments and Current Status

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 difficulties for routine CWC-mandated inspections by the OPCW.

A New York Times investigation by C.J. Chivers revealed that the dismantlement of Iraq’s CW program was not as clear-cut as originally thought. The investigation revealed that approximately 5,000 chemical warheads, shells, or aviation bombs were recovered following the 2003 Iraq war. [15] Although all of these munitions were produced before 1991, they did pose serious hazards; at least 17 American soldiers and seven Iraqi police officers were exposed to CW agents. [16] A subsequent investigation by Chivers and Eric Schmitt revealed a major CIA-run effort, Operation Avarice, to purchase old chemical weapons that were on the Iraqi black market. The program purchased and destroyed over 400 Borak rockets, many of which contained sarin. [17]

The Syrian civil war has generated concern over the legacy of Iraq's CW program. In July 2014, the Islamic State (IS), 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. [18] 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. [19] However, the materials in question date back to the 1980s, and are unlikely to be useful for chemical warfare purposes.

Kurdish and Iraqi military officials claim that IS has used chemical weapons within Iraq, against the Peshmerga forces, multiple times in the past year. Specifically, the Kurdistan Region Security Council has offered video and lab results that it claims prove IS used chlorine gas on 23 January 2015 in a suicide truck bombing. This attack has not been investigated or verified by other independent sources. [20] Additionally, officials believe IS committed chlorine attacks in December 2014 and March 2015, though they do not have test results. Kurdish officials released a video of the aftermath of a similar IS suicide truck bombing on 26 December 2014, which is believed to have involved chlorine gas. The video shows men coughing and pouring water over their heads; 60 men were wounded in the attack. Kurdish forces are investigating the March 2015 attacks. [21]

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] C.J. Chivers, "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons," New York Times, 14 October 2014, www.nytimes.com.
[16] C.J. Chivers, "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons," New York Times, 14 October 2014, www.nytimes.com.
[17] C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt, "C.I.A. Is Said to Have Bought and Destroyed Iraqi Chemical Weapons," New York Times, 15 February 2015, www.nytimes.com.
[18] 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.
[19] "Isis Seizes Former Chemical Weapons Plant in Iraq," Associated Press printed in The Guardian, 9 July 2014, www.theguardian.com.
[20] "Islamic State used chemical weapons against Peshmerga, Kurds say," The Guardian, March 14, 2015, www.theguardian.com.
[21] "Kurds claim ISIS using chemical weapons," CBS News, March 16, 2015, www.cbsnews.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