The enduring spectre of chemical weapons in Iraq

The US's failure to destroy the remnants of Iraq's chemical weapons stock, along with many others, haunts as ISIS continues its advance - now with access to this dangerous and unstable arsenal. 

Bob Rigg
30 June 2014
chemical weapons iraq.jpg

Remnants of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons stock. Another gift left by the Americans for ISIS? Flickr/wstera2. Some rights reserved. 

After the 1990-1991 Gulf War inspectors with a UN mandate located and destroyed large quantities of chemical weapons on Iraqi territory. But the US and the UK kept on insisting that Iraq was still concealing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs and finally attacked in 2003, in violation of the UN Charter. After the invasion, increasingly desperate US attempts to prove the existence of Iraqi WMD came up empty-handed. George W. Bush later said that his biggest regret was "the intelligence failure" in Iraq.

Relatively small caches of chemical weapons were eventually uncovered, all of which had been inadequately disposed of by the Iraqis. They were brought together at the Al Muthanna chemical weapons complex, previously the nerve centre of Iraq’s chemical weapons production.

In June 2006 Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, then Director of the US Intelligence Agency, advised the Senate Armed Services Committee that the munitions in question had been produced in the 1980s: “badly corroded, they could not currently be used as originally intended." Maples specifically noted that “the agent remaining in the weapons would be very valuable to terrorists and insurgents”. A colleague commented that this was true even considering any degradation of the chemical agents that may have occurred. 

Chemical weapons – a strategic asset for ISIS

Just days ago, in mid-June 2014, it was unexpectedly reported that, in the course of its Blitzkrieg in northern Iraq, ISIS had captured the Al Muthanna complex, which still contains remnants of chemical weapons, apparently buried in underground concrete bunkers. US sources confirmed that these chemical weapons included sarin, mustard gas, and the nerve agent VX.

The Obama administration immediately leaped into damage control mode, insisting that these deadly chemical weapons do not pose a threat because they are "old, contaminated and hard to move". The White House did not claim that these chemical weapons are impossible to move. This transparent attempt to trivialise ISIS control of these Iraqi chemical weapons contrasts unfavourably with what the head of US intelligence had said eight years previously.

ISIS is now widely recognised as being an extremely well-organised extremist organisation that even publishes annual reports detailing each year’s achievements in terms of bombings, assassinations, etc. It is also rather well-endowed, and has many Middle Eastern donors with deep pockets. Its bank balance is currently estimated at about US $2 billion.

Iraq, Syria and Eastern Europe contain a number of chemical weapons experts, at least some of whom may be open to offers of lucrative employment in the field of applied chemical weapons research. It is a real possibility that ISIS is at this moment actively aspiring to add chemical weapons to its repertoire of terror. From its point of view, chemical weapons would be just what the doctor ordered. Perhaps more than any other weapon of mass destruction, chemical weapons can terrorise entire populations.

Why has the US not destroyed all Iraqi chemical weapons?

The US has known for many years of the existence of these Iraqi chemical weapons. Given that the US was willing to violate the UN Charter to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, why did it not act immediately to destroy them after its conquest of Iraq?

The US and the UK have known of the chemical weapons stored at the Al Muthanna complex since the UN inspections in the early 1990s. Why did they not act swiftly to ensure their complete and irreversible destruction, on the basis of a voluntary agreement with the government of Iraq?

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) finally entered into force for Iraq on 12 February 2009. We know that the Al Muthanna complex was reported to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Iraq’s initial declaration. Why has the OPCW, which is dominated by the US, not lifted a finger since then to destroy Iraq’s last remnants of chemical weapons? This act of omission is certainly a major violation of the CWC. Or, if it was not an act of omission, what was the political rationale for not destroying these chemical weapons?

The west must face facts: extremist groups can produce and use chemical weapons

In the meantime the west and the OPCW need to revisit the arrest by the Iraqi military, in June 2013, of five men, members of al Qaeda, who were producing mustard gas and sarin at two sites in Baghdad. The OPCW also neglected to investigate the arrest in Turkey, in May 2013, of five men, members of the al Qaeda-aligned al Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham. Turkish police made a very detailed allegation charging them with the possession of 2.2 kg of sarin. When Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov asked why the Turks were being backward in coming forward about this matter, Turkey’s foreign minister eventually responded, claiming that it was antifreeze. But Turkey is in bed with Syria’s rebels, and has every reason to avoid discrediting them. 

Although both Turkey and Iraq are members of the OPCW, these incidents of the alleged use of chemical weapons by rebel groups then backed by the west and its Middle Eastern allies were apparently neither reported to the OPCW nor independently investigated by it.

The west and the Saudis consistently behaved as though their allies of the time, who included extremist groupings, could not possibly have stooped so low as to produce chemical weapons. This also applied to the first major alleged use of a chemical weapon in Khan al-Assal, Syria. The government of Syria reported this to the UN Secretary-General, alleging that Jabhat al Nusra rebels were responsible. The west immediately drowned out the government of Syria with counter-allegations that its armed forces, rather than western-friendly rebels, were undoubtedly behind this incident.

Why did the US and the west systematically deny or disregard clear evidence of chemical weapons production by rebel groups based outside Syria, with clear organisational links to Syrian rebel groups? 

Until now the west has maintained, in the face of convincing evidence to the contrary, that extremist groups in the Middle East (its former allies in Syria) were unable to produce chemical weapons. Al Qaeda in Iraq was shown to be producing chemical weapons very efficiently, while al Nusra in Turkey was in possession of a significant quantity of sarin.

If the testimony of the head of US intelligence to the senate is to be believed, ISIS now has access to significant quantities of mixed and unmixed chemical agents. Given its formidable resources, it clearly has the capacity to convert these into chemical weapons. ISIS will certainly need some time to harness the full potential of these chemical weapons for use in its military campaigns.

The chemical weapons cat is well and truly out of the bag. Just as more and more states sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, non-state entities are showing that chemical weapons will continue to be a threat to international peace and security. If the west in particular and the international community in general continue to bury their heads in the sand in the face of what their former close rebel allies are doing, they will share responsibility when the chickens come home to roost.

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