The Iraq weapons report: a review

Ron G Manley
8 October 2003

Six months after the end of the war in Iraq, and in the eye of the political storm about whether Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat was exaggerated by the United States-led coalition, the interim report by the group currently heading weapons inspections in Iraq, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), has been published.

Both sides of the political battle have been scanning it for arguments that shore up their political case. Those who supported the war highlight Saddam’s commitment to continuing chemical weapons production, and the traces of biological agent found by ISG; opponents cleave to the fact that no trace of actual chemical or biological weapons have been found.

At this moment I would like – as a professional weapons inspector and someone deeply concerned with the complete eradication of chemical and biological weapons from the world stage, someone in short with no stake in the political battles that are raging around this issue – to examine the ISG report from a dispassionate, objective position. What new information does it actually provide us about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and their associated research and development programmes?

Weapons inspectors in protection suits

Needle in the haystack or elephant in the fridge?

In 1991, following the first Gulf war, I was in charge of the technical United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) team sent to Iraq to destroy Saddam’s chemical weapons arsenal. Between 1991 and 1994 we in Unscom undertook the tough task of scouring the country for chemical weapons, and also faced daunting piles of official documents, and the difficulties with interviewing reluctant personnel. Although we were ultimately very successful at eliminating Saddam’s chemical stockpile – as the ISG report shows – it was, nevertheless, a difficult and time-consuming task.

Iraq is a large country and the ISG has been operating there for only about three months. The ISG, with approximately 1,400 personnel, is much larger than either Unscom or the later United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic) operations were, but like its predecessors it has to carry out its task under very difficult conditions. Even after his regime has fallen, establishing the extent and details of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapon programmes continues to be a complex and painstakingly slow project.

Some have made political capital out of the fact that ISG team leader David Kay stresses the interim nature of this report. Such a claim, it is said, favours the pro-war lobby’s political agenda by suggesting that there is more to find than has been found. Nevertheless, in my professional judgement, Kay is right to emphasise this point, and we should bear the provisional nature of these findings in mind in what follows.

Saddam had intention but no actual chemical weapons

The most important and definitive finding in the report is that if there were any significant stocks of chemical weapons in Iraq prior to the 2003 campaign they would have been manufactured before 1991 and, therefore, almost certainly, ineffective because of decomposition.

The report says:

“Information found to date suggests that Iraq’s large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new CW [chemical weapons] munitions was reduced – if not entirely destroyed – during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox, 13 years of UN sanctions and UN inspections.” Iraq’s approach to the production of chemical weapons has historically been to produce and fill the chemical agent into munitions shortly before they were required for use. While Iraq is known to have carried out research into the development of stabilisers for its chemical agents, no evidence has been uncovered that they produced stabilised agent on a large scale and none of the many chemical weapons sampled by Unscom between 1991 and 1998 were found to contain stabilised agent.

It therefore follows that with the exception of those containing mustard gas (which has a much longer shelf-life), the chemical agent in any Iraqi chemical weapons, filled before 1991, will have decomposed and ceased to be effective long before 2003.

Iraqi mustard gas was of very high quality and, therefore, even unstabilised, it could still have a relatively long shelf-life. Analysis undertaken by Unscom, however, showed that Iraqi mustard gas was prone to undergo polymerisation over time, thus reducing its effectiveness. Even pre-1991 Iraqi chemical munitions that were filled with mustard gas, if used against an armoured and protected force, therefore, were likely to have proved relatively ineffective.

While the possibility remains that some chemical munitions may eventually be found in Iraq, the ISG interim report leads to the inevitable conclusion that there were no military significant stocks of chemical weapons in Iraq by 2003.

Missiles on the ground

What happened to the weapons?

We know that Saddam did have very significant stocks of chemical weapons, and (after the attack on Halabja in 1988) that he was prepared to use them. One of the questions which overhangs this report – as it did the reports of Unscom and Unmovic to the UN Security Council which mention (for example) unaccounted-for VX nerve agent and filled chemical munitions – is: if these stocks are no longer there, what happened to them?

Neither the Unscom nor Unmovic reports claimed that these unaccounted-for items continued to exist: they merely made the point that their respective organisations were unable to confirm what had happened to them.

Thus Hans Blix’s report to the UN Security Council of 14 February 2003:

“These reports do not contend that weapons of mass destruction remain in Iraq, but nor do they exclude that possibility. They point to lack of evidence and inconsistencies, which raise question marks, which must be straightened out, if weapons dossiers are to be closed and confidence is to arise.” The preliminary ISG report, then, is not inconsistent with either those of Unscom or Unmovic. It too is unable to say, at this stage, what might have happened to the missing weapons. In recent weeks, Hans Blix himself has stated that he is becoming increasingly convinced that these missing or unaccounted-for weapons, were in fact destroyed and that no significant stocks of chemical weapons remained in Iraq.

The development of biological weapons

While Iraq did eventually admit to Unscom that it had produced and weaponised some biological agents prior to the 1991 Gulf war, it consistently claimed that these weapons were subsequently destroyed. Although it was not possible to confirm that this destruction had in fact taken place, no munitions filled with biological agents were ever found, either during Unscom’s or Unmovic’s operations in Iraq. It would appear from the ISG report that, once again, no biological weapons have been found or any evidence that Iraq produced and weaponised biological agents on any significant scale after 1991.

That said, this report does contain strong circumstantial evidence that the Saddam regime may have been continuing to undertake research into the development of biological weapons. This includes the discovery of a number of undeclared research laboratories, under the control of the Iraqi security services. While their precise purpose has yet to be established, early indications are that they had the potential to undertake research in support of a biological weapons programme.

The report also makes reference to the discovery of a batch of vials containing ‘reference strains’ (very small quantities of an organism normally used for reference purposes) of a number of biological organisms at the private home of a scientist. One of these vials contained the bacteria Clostridium Botulinum.

Is this evidence of a biological weapons programme? It is hard to say. While it is true that, assuming the bacteria remained viable, this reference sample could, theoretically, have been used as a seed culture for the manufacture of large quantities of botulinum toxin, a potent biological agent, it does not automatically follow that this was its purpose.

Clostridium Botulinum is a naturally occurring bacterium, which can sometimes be found in improperly canned or uncooked meat. Eating such contaminated products can result in a serious case of food poisoning. Reference samples of this bacteria are, therefore, likely to be maintained, for identification purposes, within the public health laboratories of most developed countries. It would be entirely legitimate, for hospital pathology laboratories and other specialist labs to have such samples.

The report, unfortunately, does not provide any information on what was in the other vials recovered, which might have helped to clarify matters, but it does say that only the Clostridium Botulinum sample was capable of being used to produce a biological weapon.

The ISG has also uncovered some evidence of research into fermentation and spray drying techniques that could be used equally for either peaceful or military production purposes.

The sum total of these findings adds up to the conclusion that during the period from 1991 to the start of the 2003 war, work on Iraq’s biological weapons programme was, at most, proceeding at a limited and very low level. Of course these findings are a work in progress, and the Saddam regime was notoriously compartmentalised and secretive, so this may not be the final word on Iraq’s biological weapon capabilities.

The future of weapons inspections

While turning up little in the way of actual weapons, the ISG report does provide comfort of a kind to the pro-war lobby, by restating what Unscom, Unmovic and many of us who have worked on this issue in Iraq have been saying for the past decade: Saddam’s regime was serious about developing and using chemical and biological weapons; the programme had a twenty-year history and the regime was committed and likely to remain committed to the continuation of its chemical and biological weapon programmes .

This report clears some things up, but leaves many big questions unanswered. For the political combatants the main issue, I would imagine, is to find out to what extent the situation on the ground in Iraq matches or contradicts the intelligence the coalition powers had at their disposal. For those of us operating in the arms control field the key question, however, is: why did the regime not produce stocks of chemical and biological weapons during the period between the 1991 Gulf war and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003?

We need to answer this because we need to know how effective the containment policy of sanctions, export controls and the presence of international inspectors was in thwarting Saddam’s clear desire to maintain a chemical and biological capability.

Irrespective of whether or not war, as a method of addressing the threat Saddam ultimately posed, was right in this case, we must move toward a situation where international systems and organisations – with the necessary experience, skill and ability to address the threat of WMD – are strengthened. Thus avoiding the need to resort to armed conflict in order to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

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