Prior to the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq had an arsenal of chemical weapons that included aerial bombs, artillery shells, rockets and scud missiles warheads stockpiled at Al-Muthana Complex – a chemical weapons production and storage facility located 20 kilometers south of Samarra, according to Western sources. The underground storage structure was built of thick and reinforced concrete and covered with a 3-meter-high layer of sandy clay. The main storage room had a capacity of about 10,800 cubic meters and was about the size of a football field.
On February 8, 1991, coalition warplanes bombed the facility and an aerial bomb hit the roof of bunker 13. According to data, this bunker stored 2,500 sarin-filled 122mm rockets, which were partially damaged or destroyed as a result of the aerial bombardment.
Post-1991 War – Chemical Disarmament
In the aftermath of 1991 war, Iraq signed a cease-fire agreement and the United Nations Security Council Resolution (687), which ordered the formation of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) to search and destroy Iraq’s stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The inspection campaign lasted from June 1992 to June 1994 under the supervision of UN inspectors. During the campaign, more than 38,000 filled and unfilled chemical munitions, 690 metric tons of bulk and weaponized CW agents, and over 3,000 metric tons of precursor chemicals were disposed.
Although Bunker 13 at Al-Muthanna facility suffered major damage due to aerial bombardment, leaking hazardous munitions such as the sarin forced the UNSCOM inspectors not to enter it until making sure everything inside is destroyed. Back then, Iraq said the munitions in Bunker 13 were destroyed and they were not included in the inventory of chemical weapons disposed under the special supervision committee.
According to Western data, another nearby storage bunker at Al-Muthanna, called Bunker 41, was in good condition, so UNSCOM used it to entomb contaminated materials left over from the CW destruction effort. These
items included about 2,000 mustard-filled artillery shells and 605 one-ton mustard containers and other items that could not be thoroughly decontaminated because they posed a threat to human health if not handled properly.
In 1994, Iraqi employees working under UNSCOM supervision secured Bunkers 13 and 41 by sealing the entrances with massive barriers of brick, tar, and more than 1.5-meter-thick reinforced concrete. They also used reinforced concrete to patch up the hole in the roof of Bunker 13.
In December 1998 ad after the UNSCOM inspectors left Iraq, the United States was left with no reliable sources of information on the ground. U.S. spy agencies assumed that the Iraqi regime would replenish its chemical weapons program in the absence of UN monitoring. At that time, Iraqi opposition groups such as the Iraqi National Congress provided misleading information that reinforced this belief. By late 2002, the CIA estimated that Iraq had acquired a stockpile of about 500 metric tons of chemical weapons, even though in early 2003 inspectors with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC, the successor agency to UNSCOM) found only a few chemical artillery shells dating from the pre-1991 era.
In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the Iraqi regime in April 2003, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), led by the CIA, scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, but found none. The group concluded that contrary to the pre-war intelligence estimates, the Iraq had unilaterally destroyed most of its undeclared CW stockpile after the 1991 Gulf War and had not resumed the production of chemical weapons.
On June 21, 2006, at the request of the Congress Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the “key points” report by the U.S. Army National Ground Intelligence Center on the recovery of chemical munitions in Iraq was declassified:
* Since 2003, coalition forces destroyed approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent.
* Despite many efforts to locate and destroy Iraq’s pre-Gulf War chemical munitions, it’s possible that much of them still exist.
* Pre-Gulf War Iraqi chemical weapons could be sold on the black market and could be used by terrorists or insurgent groups against coalition forces in Iraq. The possibility of using these weapons outside Iraq cannot be ruled out.
* Among remaining munitions are sarin and mustard-filled projectiles.
* The purity of the agent inside the munitions depends on many factors, including the manufacturing process, potential additives, and environmental storage conditions. While agents degrade over time, chemical warfare agents remain hazardous and potentially lethal.
* Media outlets reported that insurgents and Iraqi groups desire to acquire and use chemical weapons.
Given the way chemical weapons were stored in Iraq—often unmarked and combined with conventional ordnance—it is quite likely that pre-1991 chemical munitions left over from the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War will continue to be discovered for years to come. According to the ISG final report, “An Iraqi source indicated that the chemical weapons often became mixed in with the regular munitions. Another source said several hundred munitions moved forward for the 1991 war, and never used, were never recovered by retreating Iraqi troops. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, weapons depots were looted and they were likely sent to markets and sold to multiple parties.
In addition to the foregoing, the United States lost trace of chemical weapons, which its troops already found; leaving large quantities of them unsecured, and did not warn people – Iraqis and foreign forces – of these weapons while it quickly destroyed chemical munitions in the open.
Iraq and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
After joining the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a multilateral treaty banning the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons, Iraq was obligated to declare any legacy stocks of
chemical weapons it had inherited from the former regime. On March 12, 2009, Iraq informed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body overseeing CWC implementation, that Bunkers 13 and 41 at Al-Muthanna contained chemical munitions and precursors, as well as five former chemical weapons production facilities.
Because of the hazardous conditions in Bunker 13, UNSCOM inspectors were unable to make an accurate inventory of its contents because there were no records of the exact number or status of the sarin-filled rockets remaining in the bunker. According to the final report of the commission in 2007, the worst-case scenario was that the munitions could contain as much as 15,000 liters of sarin. Although it is likely that the nerve agent has degraded substantially after nearly two decades of storage under suboptimal conditions, the commission cautioned that “the levels of degradation of the sarin fill in the rockets cannot be determined without exploring the bunker and taking samples from intact warheads. “If the sarin remains highly toxic and many of the rockets are still intact, they could pose a proliferation risk.”
According to the ISG final report, published in September 2004, “Beginning in May 2004, a total of 53 munitions have been recovered, all of which appear to have been part of pre-1991 War. The most interesting discovery has been a 152mm binary Sarin artillery projectile—containing a 40 percent concentration of Sarin—which insurgents attempted to use as an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) against the US forces. The existence of this binary weapon not only raises questions about the number of viable chemical weapons remaining in Iraq and raises the possibility that long-lasting chemical weapons still exist.”
Destroying the Chemical Weapons at Muthanna
According to Western sources, Iraq produced, in 1981, ten tons of mustard gas and increased production in 1987 to ninety-fold, taking advantage of rivalry between two US companies selling this agent. Simultaneously, Iraq began production of nerve agents. Furthermore, Iraq bought missiles parts from various makers including Spain, Egypt and Italy and assembled the missiles and filled them with chemical agents. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, thousands of such munitions and warheads remained underground and improperly abandoned.
Many looting incidents of chemical weapons and agents took place near the remnants of Al-Muthana facility. According to government information, Daesh organization captured the area surrounding the facility in June 2014. This summer, the Iraqi government sent a letter to the US administration informing it that there are still more than 2,500 worn and buried chemical missiles and that the equipment at the facility were looted by some individuals.
Based on incidents that occurred in the past ten years, abandoned Iraqi chemical weapons remain a threat especially when they are re-used to launch attacks on US troops with improvised bombs like what happened in 2005.
The stealing of sarin
In 1991 and before initiating the process of disposing and destroying chemical agents, there were many incidents of stealing basic liquid and solid materials, specifically the sarin agent from the Egyptian bunker- so named because they were constructed by an Egyptian company in 1983. Large quantities of these agents were hidden in nearby buildings in Hawija, Mosul, Anbar, Diyala, Samarra and Tikrit by the facility’s staff.
Between 2002 and 2003, large quantities of stolen concentrated acetone and isopropanol – used in the production of sarine – barrels were sold by stores that sell and buy chemicals in Baghdad’s Al-Aiywadiah area. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, trading in chemicals was taking place on weekly and monthly basis in the absence of monitoring and under the pretext of using such materials for civilian purposes.
Noteworthy, the production of sarine agent in a laboratory does not require major efforts; just the components and a five-strong team of chemists. In order to produce 280 grams of sarine, all needed is the correct formula and blending of dimethyl methyl phosphate, phosphorus trichloride, alcohol and sodium fluoride.
According to available information, a chemical materials store in Al-Aiywadiah owned by Dr. Nizar Abdulamir, a retired Oil Research Center researcher since 1989, concluded many suspicious deals between 2003-
2004. He also was a keen buyer of sarine and materials used in the manufacture of BZ agent at hefty prices.
Abdulamir was killed in 2006 when an artillery shell hit an Al-Qaeda hideout west of Iraq in while he was in a meeting with members of the group, according the security report a copy of which is available at the Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies.
Furthermore, As’ad Abdulamir, the brother of Dr. Nizar, an agricultural engineering MA holder, cooperated with the Al-Qaeda, and sold it chemical munitions barrels stolen from Al-Muthana facility. He also bought large quantities of concentrated sulfuric acid and nitric acid stolen from Al-Qaqaa facility located in Yusufiyah on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Interestingly, Asa’d was arrested several times by Iraqi security forces on charges of illicit trafficking of banned and stolen items. However, he was released for lack of adequate evidence raising many questions over this issue especially that Iraqi prisons are full of people already acquitted by courts.
Based on the aforementioned, a scenario of Daesh using chemical weapons, though unlikely, would trigger a similar retaliatory attack by Iran-affiliated militias while the innocent civilians will ultimately pay the price.
The killing of Abu Malik; Daesh’s chemical weapons expert
On January 24th, 2015, the US Central Command said an ISIS chemical weapons expert, named Abu Malik, was killed an international coalition airstrike near Iraq’s northern Mosul province. “Abu Malik was a chemical weapons expert who worked at a chemical munitions production facility during the Saddam Hussein era before joining Al-Qaeda in 2005 and end up with Deash,” the Centcom said at the time.
“His death is expected to temporarily degrade and disrupt the terrorist network and diminish ISIL’s (ISIS’) ability to potentially produce and use chemical weapons against innocent people,” the statement said.
However, there is no solid evidence that ISIS has a significant arsenal of chemical weapons, except for claims that its militants used chlorine gas, a toxic chemical agent, but not as lethal as nerve agents.
A Pentagon official affirmed that Abu Malik, whose full name is Saleh Jassem Mohammed Falah Al Sabaawi, was involved in chemical weapons production in 2005 and masterminded alongside Al-Qaeda attacks in Mosul, employing his military expertise and his ability to make lethal and harmful chemical agents.
The military official added: “We are aware that Daesh seeks to procure chemical military capabilities, but we don’t have solid evidence that the organization currently possesses chemical weapons”.
The chances of Daesh launching a chemical attack would trigger strong response, and could unleash a ground offensive in which the US forces will take part. The main problem, however, is that aerial bombardment alone would not end Daesh, in light of uncertainty that engulfs the international campaign.
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies
Blog article in Arabic