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Updated: Mar 17, 2010

Iraq Faces Major Challenges in Destroying Its Legacy Chemical Weapons

Iraq joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in February 2009 and now faces major challenges destroying the chemical munitions it inherited from the Saddam Hussein regime.
Author: Jonathan B. Tucker

Posted: March 4, 2010

Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's Iraq produced and stockpiled hundreds of tons of chemical weapons (CW), a small fraction of which still exist. After Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on February 12, 2009, it was obligated to declare and destroy any surviving CW agents and munitions according to the detailed procedures set out in the treaty. Because some of Iraq's legacy chemical weapons were damaged by aerial bombing during the Gulf War and are extremely dangerous to handle, Baghdad will have great difficulty disposing of them. In addition, chemical munitions from the pre-1991 era will probably be recovered in the future and will have to be destroyed in a verifiable manner. How Iraq and the international community deal with these issues will have important implications for the CWC and the prospects for chemical disarmament in the Middle East.

Iraq's Chemical Weapons Activities

Before Iraq acceded to the CWC in early 2009, it had a long history of involvement in chemical warfare. The Saddam Hussein regime used mustard gas and the nerve agents tabun and sarin on a large scale during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the ensuing terror campaign against the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, including the infamous chemical attack on the town of Halabja in March 1988 that killed some 5,000 civilians.[1]

In late 1990, during the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq produced a large stockpile of chemical weapons at the Muthanna State Establishment, some 20 kilometers south of the city of Samarra, including aerial bombs, shells, artillery rockets, and Scud missile warheads filled with mustard and nerve agents. Chemical weapons were stockpiled at Muthanna in eight large cruciform bunkers—semi-underground structures resembling truncated pyramids that were built of reinforced concrete one meter thick and covered with a three-meter layer of sandy clay. Each bunker was about the size of a football field and had a main storage room with a capacity of about 10,800 cubic meters.[2]

During the Gulf War, U.S. retaliatory threats deterred Saddam Hussein from using his chemical arsenal, and Coalition aircraft bombed much of the Muthanna complex, shutting down Iraq's chemical weapons production. On February 8, 1991, an aerial bomb hit the roof of Bunker 13 at Muthanna. According to Iraqi declarations, this bunker stored 2,500 sarin-filled 122mm artillery rockets, which were partially damaged or destroyed in the bombardment. In addition, the bunker held about 200 metric tons of sodium and potassium cyanide salts (precursors for tabun production) and 75 kilograms of arsenic trichloride (a precursor for blister agent).[3]

Post-Gulf War Chemical Disarmament

In the aftermath of Iraq's military defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, the cease-fire agreement—United Nations Security Council Resolution 687—required Iraq to eliminate its entire chemical weapons stockpile under the supervision of inspectors from a newly created UN disarmament agency, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). Chemical munitions, bulk agent, and precursors stored throughout Iraq were consolidated at Muthanna and destroyed by incineration or neutralization. The destruction campaign, which lasted from June 1992 to June 1994, disposed of 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.[4]

Although the damaged Bunker 13 at Muthanna contained thousands of sarin-filled rockets, the presence of leaking munitions and unstable propellant and explosive charges made it too hazardous for UNSCOM inspectors to enter. Because the rockets could not be recovered safely, Iraq declared the munitions in Bunker 13 as "destroyed in the Gulf War" and they were not included in the inventory of chemical weapons eliminated under UNSCOM supervision.

Another nearby storage bunker at 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 that had been drained and burned to speed decomposition of the agent, and 605 one-ton mustard containers and other items that could not be thoroughly decontaminated. Because these items still bore traces of mustard, they posed a threat to human health if handled improperly. In 1994, Iraqi personnel working under UNSCOM supervision secured Bunkers 13 and 41 by sealing the entrances with massive barriers of brick, tar, and reinforced concrete more than 1.5 meters thick. They also used reinforced concrete to patch the hole in the roof of Bunker 13.[5]

After the UNSCOM inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, the United States had no reliable sources of information on the ground. U.S. intelligence agencies assumed that in the absence of UN monitoring, Saddam Hussein would replenish his chemical arsenal. Iraqi opposition groups such as the Iraqi National Congress also 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.[6]

The UNMOVIC inspectors were forced to leave the country in March 2003, shortly before the start of the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom). In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group (ISG) scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, but found none. The ISG 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.[7]

Destroying the Chemical Weapons at Muthanna

On February 12, 2009, Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a multilateral treaty banning the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons.[8] (To date, 188 countries have signed and ratified the CWC.) After joining the Convention, Iraq was obligated to declare within 30 days any legacy stocks of chemical weapons it had inherited from the Saddam Hussein regime. On March 12, 2009, Iraq declared Bunkers 13 and 41 at Muthanna containing filled and unfilled chemical munitions and precursors, as well as five former chemical weapons production facilities, to the international body overseeing CWC implementation—the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, the Netherlands.[9]

Because of the hazardous conditions in Bunker 13, UNSCOM inspectors were unable to make an accurate inventory of its contents before sealing the entrances in 1994. As a result, no record exists of the exact number or status of the sarin-filled rockets remaining in the bunker. According to the UNMOVIC final report in 2007, the rockets "may be both filled and unfilled, armed or unarmed, in good condition or deteriorated."[10] In the worst-case scenario, 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, UNMOVIC 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."[11] If the sarin remains highly toxic and many of the rockets are still intact, they could pose a proliferation risk.

Even if the sarin inside the rockets in Bunker 13 has degraded to the point that it has no military value and is little more than hazardous waste, the CWC still requires that all such materials be destroyed. Following Iraq's submission of its initial CW declaration in March 2009, the OPCW Technical Secretariat processed and analyzed the data. In April, Iraq submitted a general plan for destroying the CW materials stored in the two declared bunkers at Muthanna, as well as dismantling its former chemical weapons production facilities.[12]

Because Baghdad acceded to the CWC more than ten years after the treaty entered into force in 1997, Iraq is not subject to the April 29, 2012 deadline for completing destruction of its chemical weapons that applies to the other member-states that are still eliminating their stockpiles (Libya, Russia, and the United States).[13] Instead, under paragraph 8 of Article IV of the CWC, Iraq must destroy its chemical weapons "as soon as possible," with the order of destruction and procedures for stringent verification to be determined by the OPCW Executive Council. In April 2009, OPCW Director-General Rogelio Pfirter observed, "Undoubtedly, history and the unique complexities that we can envision for the implementation of Articles IV and V of the Convention [dealing, respectively, with the destruction of chemical weapons and former production facilities] make the Iraqi accession to the Convention a special case, and one that might provide unique implementation challenges."[14]

In another statement on November 30, 2009, Director-General Pfirter noted that "exceptional safety considerations" had impeded Iraq's ability to comply in a timely fashion with the obligation in Article III of the CWC to declare its chemical weapons stockpile.[15] On December 1, 2009, on the margins of the annual Conference of the States Parties in The Hague, representatives from Iraq, the United States, and the Technical Secretariat met to review the "possible enhancement of Iraq's declarations" concerning the status of the chemical munitions at Muthanna. The three sides agreed that additional information was needed to clarify the situation, including ground photographs, aerial imagery, documents, and findings from the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC inspections in Iraq. A follow-up meeting took place in The Hague on January 13-14, 2010, and efforts to clarify the Iraqi CW declaration continue.[16] It now appears likely that Iraq will amend its declaration to list only the contents of Bunker 13, given the fact that Bunker 41 contains no filled munitions or bulk agent. The OPCW Technical Secretariat is also consulting with the Iraqi authorities about how to conduct an initial inspection to verify the declaration.

Iraq has asked the United States to provide technical and financial assistance in eliminating the CW materials stored at Muthanna. Because the conditions inside Bunker 13 remain extremely hazardous, however, Iraq and the OPCW Technical Secretariat have not yet decided how to proceed. One possible approach would be to drill holes in the bunker and use sensors to detect the presence of leaking chemical munitions. It would then be necessary to unseal the entrances, use robots and/or bomb-disposal teams in full protective gear to recover the sarin-filled rockets, and destroy the weapons by incineration or chemical neutralization—a difficult, dangerous, and expensive process. Reportedly, a preliminary estimate of the cost to evaluate and inventory the bunkers (not including destruction) is $500 million, including providing security for the workforce and assessing and managing the danger from unexploded ordnance and agent leaks. Accordingly, the cost of the operation is a major concern.

A second option under consideration would be to entomb Bunker 13 in a concrete "sarcophagus" that would render it permanently inaccessible, as was done with the highly radioactive nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. However, the CWC's prohibition on "land burial" in paragraph 13 of Part IV(A) of the Verification Annex creates a potential obstacle to this approach. Some experts also argue that failing to recover and destroy the sarin-filled rockets would be inconsistent with the basic obligation in the CWC to eliminate all chemical weapons in an irreversible manner, and would therefore set a bad precedent.

Destruction of Recovered Chemical Munitions

Iraq's CW destruction efforts face an additional challenge that is likely to persist for some time. Between the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003, and Iraq's accession to the CWC on February 12, 2009, U.S. and British occupation forces recovered hundreds of chemical munitions containing degraded mustard or sarin, all dating from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s or the 1991 Persian Gulf War.[17]

According to the ISG final report, published in September 2004, "Beginning in May 2004, ISG recovered a series of chemical weapons from Coalition military units and other sources. A total of 53 munitions have been recovered, all of which appear to have been part of pre-1991 Gulf War stocks based on their physical condition and residual components. 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). The existence of this binary weapon not only raises questions about the number of viable chemical weapons remaining in Iraq and [sic] raises the possibility that a larger number of binary, long-lasting chemical weapons still exist."[18]

On June 21, 2006, at the request of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte declassified the "key points" from a U.S. Army National Ground Intelligence Center report on the recovery of chemical munitions in Iraq:

  • Since 2003 Coalition forces have recovered 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, filled and unfilled pre-Gulf War chemical munitions are assessed to still exist.
  • Pre-Gulf War Iraqi chemical weapons could be sold on the black market. Use of these weapons by terrorists or insurgent groups would have implications for Coalition forces in Iraq. The possibility of use outside Iraq cannot be ruled out.
  • The most likely munitions remaining 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.
  • It has been reported in open press that insurgents and Iraqi groups desire to acquire and use chemical weapons.[19]

At the time the Iraqi chemical munitions were recovered, Iraq was under military occupation by the United States and the United Kingdom, which were parties to the CWC. Accordingly, both countries were subject to paragraph 1(a)(i) of Article III of the Convention, which provides that a state party must declare to the OPCW Technical Secretariat all chemical weapons "located in any place under its jurisdiction and control." In addition, according to paragraph 1 of Article IV, the CWC's requirements for verifiable destruction apply to "all chemical weapons owned or possessed by a State Party, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction and control." Finally, paragraph 9 of Article IV states, "Any chemical weapons discovered by a State Party after the initial declaration of chemical weapons shall be reported, secured and destroyed in accordance with Part IV(A) of the Verification Annex."

These provisions of the CWC suggest that during the period after the 2003 invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein when the United States and the United Kingdom controlled the territory of Iraq, they were legally obligated to declare any recovered chemical munitions to the OPCW Technical Secretariat and ensure that the weapons were stored and destroyed in a manner that could be verified by the international inspectorate. Yet because of the deteriorating security situation that prevailed during the early years of the military occupation of Iraq, Washington and London decided to conceal the recovery of hundreds of pre-1991 chemical munitions in order to protect their own troops and Iraqi civilians from the possible theft and use of such weapons by terrorists or insurgents. The recovered chemical munitions were then secretly destroyed.

Not until April 2009, in response to Iraq's accession to the CWC two months earlier, did the United States and the United Kingdom provide information to the OPCW Technical Secretariat about the ad hoc recovery and destruction of chemical weapons by U.S. and British occupation forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2008. In early September 2009, teams from the Technical Secretariat's Verification Division, including the Chemical Demilitarization Branch, visited Washington and London to review documents related to the recovery and destruction operations. In both cases, the Technical Secretariat's teams concluded that the documents appeared consistent with the information provided by the two governments in April 2009.[20]

Other CWC member states were troubled by the implications for the Convention of the unilateral destruction of chemical weapons in Iraq by U.S. and British forces. During a meeting of the Executive Council in October 2009, South Africa's permanent representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Peter Goosen, speaking on behalf of the African Group of CWC member states, called for the development of guidelines for "the security and destruction of chemical weapons that come into the possession and/or control of a State Party or States Parties in situations not foreseen by the Convention, including conflict situations." Although Goosen did not mention Iraq by name, his statement clearly referred to the ad hoc destruction of Iraqi chemical munitions during the occupation. In Goosen's view, destroying such weapons "without the engagement of the Convention and its provisions" threatened to undermine the CWC.[21]

To address this situation, South Africa urged that the Executive Council establish a working group, open to all interested CWC member states, to develop a set of guidelines for declaring and destroying chemical weapons in cases where foreign military forces recover chemical munitions from an area under their control.[22] On October 16, 2009, the Executive Council duly approved the creation of a working group for this purpose, chaired by Michael Hurley of Ireland, and encouraged the participating states to complete their work as soon as possible.[23] The new working group will focus on developing guidelines to deal with similar circumstances in the future, rather than rehashing the details of the Iraq occupation.

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 when weapons were forward-deployed in anticipation of a conflict, the CW weapons often became mixed in with the regular munitions, and were never accounted for again. Another source stated that several hundred munitions moved forward for the Gulf war, and never used, were never recovered by retreating Iraqi troops. A thorough post-[Operation Iraqi Freedom] search of forward depots turned up nothing—if the weapons were indeed left behind, they were looted over the 12 years between the wars."[24]

Now that Iraq is back in control of its own territory, the United States wants the Iraqi government to deal with any future chemical weapons finds on its own. (The United Kingdom ended its six-year occupation of southern Iraq in June 2009, and the United States plans to pull out its combat troops by the end of 2011.) Given the likelihood that additional pre-1991 chemical munitions will be recovered in Iraq, the U.S. military is currently training Iraqi Army soldiers to identify, recover, render harmless, transport, and safely destroy chemical weapons. Because Iraq is now a party to the CWC, any chemical munitions recovered in the future will have to be disposed of under international verification, in a manner fully consistent with the provisions of the Convention.

Because Iraq acceded to the CWC more than 10 years after its entry into force, Baghdad is subject to Article IV, paragraph 8, which states that procedures for the "stringent verification" of chemical weapons destruction "shall be determined by the Executive Council." How the Iraqi government and the OPCW decide to eliminate Iraq's legacy chemical weapons—both those stored at Muthanna and any munitions that may be recovered elsewhere—will have broader implications for the region. Three Middle Eastern countries suspected of possessing chemical arms have yet to join the CWC: Israel has signed but not ratified the treaty, while Egypt and Syria have neither signed nor ratified. Destroying Iraq's remaining chemical weapons in a credible manner would bolster the chemical disarmament regime and set a positive example for the region. Conversely, a failure by Iraq to implement the Convention effectively could weaken the regime and reduce pressures on the remaining hold-out states to join.

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[1] See Jonathan B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), pp. 279-286.
[2] United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), Compendium of Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes in the Chemical, Biological and Missile Areas, June 2007, "Chapter III: Chemical Weapons Programme," p. 65,
[3] Ibid., 312.
[4] Ibid., p. 256.
[5] Ibid., p. 312.
[6] Ibid., p. 256.
[7] Iraq Survey Group, "Iraq's Chemical Warfare Program, Annex B," in the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD, CIA website, September 30, 2004,
[8] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), "Iraq Joins the Chemical Weapons Convention," January 14, 2009, article/ iraq- joins-the-chemical- weapons-convention/.
[9] OPCW Executive Council, "Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Executive Council at its Fifty-Sixth Session," EC-56/DG.10, April 21, 2009, p. 2, paragraph 5.
[10] UNMOVIC, Compendium, p. 317.
[11] Ibid., p. 318.
[12] OPCW Executive Council, "Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Executive Council at its Fifty-Sixth Session," EC-56/DG.10, April 21, 2009, p. 2, paragraph 5.
[13] Three other states parties to the CWC—Albania, India, and South Korea—have already completed the destruction of their declared CW stockpiles.
[14] OPCW Executive Council, "Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Executive Council at its Fifty-Sixth Session," EC-56/DG.10, April 21, 2009, p. 2, paragraph 7.
[15] OPCW Conference of the States Parties, "Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Conference of the States Parties at its Fourteenth Session," C-14/DG.13, November 30, 2009, p. 5, paragraph 24.
[16] OPCW Executive Council, "Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Executive Council at its Fifty-Ninth Session," EC-59/DG.16, February 23, 2010, p. 3, paragraphs 15-16.
[17] UNMOVIC, Compendium, p. 118.
[18] Iraq Survey Group, "Iraq's Chemical Warfare Program, Annex F," in Comprehensive Report of the Special Adviser to the DCI on Iraq's WMD.
[19] Letter from Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte to the Honorable Peter Hoekstra, Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. House of Representatives, providing declassified "Key Points" from a National Ground Intelligence Center report on the recovery of chemical munitions in Iraq, dated June 21, 2006.
[20] OPCW Executive Council, "Opening Statement by the Director-General to the Executive Council, at its Fifty-Eighth Session," EC-58/DG.13, October 13, 2009, pp. 4-5, paragraphs 22-24.
[21] South African Delegation to the OPCW Executive Council, "Statement on Behalf of the African Group of States Parties at the Fifty-Eighth Session of the Executive Council," EC-58/NAT.9, October 13, 2009, p. 2.
[22] South African Delegation to the OPCW Executive Council, "Request for the Inclusion of a Subitem in the Provisional Agenda for the Fifty-Eight Session of the Executive Council, 13-16 October 2009," EC-58/2, October 1, 2009.
[23] OPCW Executive Council, "Report of the Fifty-Eighth Session of the Executive Council," EC-58/9, October 16, 2009, p. 5, paragraph 5.17.
[24] Iraq Survey Group, "Iraq's Chemical Warfare Program, Annex F," in Comprehensive Report of the Special Adviser to the DCI on Iraq's WMD.

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