ISIS captures chemical-weapons plant in Iraq

posted at 10:41 am on June 20, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

The Iraqis may have held off the ISIS advance from its main refinery, but they captured another key facility today. The chemical-weapons plant operated under Saddam Hussein, with its sealed bunkers of faulty munitions, fell into ISIS hands today:

Islamist insurgents continued to bear down on Iraqi forces Friday, seizing a former chemical weapons facility once part of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein’s arsenal and battling for control of the country’s largest oil refinery and an airport in the north.

The al-Qaeda-inspired militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who launched a lightning offensive across northern Iraq last week, seized the facility, which contains stockpiles of chemical munitions that are not considered usable, a State Department spokeswoman said.

When the facility came under threat yesterday, some wondered why the discovery of WMDs in Iraq didn’t make more of a splash in the news, considering the renewed controversy over the 2003 invasion. This facility had been declared after the 1991 war, though, and UN inspectors allowed to seal its contents. The poor quality of the storage made destruction too difficult, but that means that the al-Qaeda-related network has the chemicals available to them if they dare risk breaching the seals. This includes the worst of chemical weapons:

According to the CIA, the facility about 36 miles northwest of Baghdad was bombed extensively during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, ending its ability to produce chemical weapons. U.N. weapons inspectors subsequently destroyed equipment and stockpiles there, most of the complex was razed by the Iraqis, and the remainder was extensively looted, the agency said in a 2007 report.

However, the CIA report said: “Stockpiles of chemical munitions are still stored there. The most dangerous ones have been declared to the UN and are sealed in bunkers. Although declared, the bunkers contents have yet to be confirmed. These areas of the compound pose a hazard to civilians and potential blackmarketers.” Among the chemical agents once produced at Al Muthanna were mustard gas, sarin and VX, it said.

The defense of Beiji is hardly over. Now that ISIS has seized the chemical weapons facility, they’re reorganizing for an assault on the refinery:

The army officer in charge of protecting a key Iraqi refinery besieged by Sunni militants has said he fears insurgents are regrouping to resume their assault on the key facility, as reports suggested the fighters had overrun an old chemical weapons facility.

The fight over the Beiji refinery, some 155 miles north of Baghdad, began Tuesday. Col. Ali al-Qureishi said the latest attempt by fighters came late Thursday, and told The Associated Press on Friday that he believed the militants were regrouping to launch a new attack. …

The loss of the Baiji refinery would be a devastating blow to the national government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has struggled in the face of the offensive by Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The militants captured much of northern Iraq in a lightning offensive last week.

Note the position of the chemical weapons plant and the Beiji refinery. Al-Muthanna is relatively close to Baghdad, but Beiji is far to the north. That’s one reason why Maliki wanted the US to conduct air strikes; ISIS is forcing Maliki to split his forces in order to hold onto the refinery. That’s less of a problem for the ISIS forces, which have seized much of that northern territory on their way to Baghdad.

They haven’t seized all of it, though, thanks to the Kurds. The Peshmerga, with higher morale and cohesion, successfully expelled ISIS from a city near Kirkuk yesterday and tightened their grip on long-claimed Kurdish territory previously seized by Hussein and claimed by the Maliki government. The fight with ISIS might end up producing a new national spirit and even Turkish endorsement for the Kurds’ ambitions:

Turkey has traditionally opposed Kurdish nationhood as too destabilizing in their own Kurdish-heavy provinces. With ISIS threatening their own borders, though, the Turks may be reconsidering the value of a friendly Kurdish buffer state, as well as the need for the Kurds to focus on defending its own borders against ISIS rather than stirring unrest in Turkey.


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Meow, we should have strafed them early and often. Your take?

Bmore on June 20, 2014 at 2:45 PM

Meow, we should have strafed them early and often. Your take?

Bmore on June 20, 2014 at 2:45 PM

I personally think the entire ME should be turned into a big glass parking lot….

dentarthurdent on June 20, 2014 at 2:47 PM

I personally think the entire ME should be turned into a big glass parking lot….

dentarthurdent on June 20, 2014 at 2:47 PM

Mmmmmmm, no. (I assume you’re excluding Israel, anyway.) But I think certain strategic locations (read, any city over 5,000 people) should be. If they’re wandering around in the desert on camels, living in tents, it’s much harder for them to make trouble. Then we can save a portion of our arsenal for when Peking needs some corrective action.

GWB on June 20, 2014 at 3:05 PM

We’ve all read those stories about the Islamic rocket scientists who blow themselves up during bomb training. So why do I have images of Abdul and Mohammed killing themselves trying to move this stuff?

307wolverine on June 20, 2014 at 3:07 PM

Mmmmmmm, no. (I assume you’re excluding Israel, anyway.) But I think certain strategic locations (read, any city over 5,000 people) should be. If they’re wandering around in the desert on camels, living in tents, it’s much harder for them to make trouble. Then we can save a portion of our arsenal for when Peking needs some corrective action.

GWB on June 20, 2014 at 3:05 PM

Pretty much everything east of Israel. Prevailing winds should protect them from most of the fallout….

I say it’s best to just get rid of all of them, then we don’t have to worry about the camel riders picking up new technology to exact revenge.
We can drill through the glass for oil if we ever need to….

Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

dentarthurdent on June 20, 2014 at 3:22 PM

If they’re wandering around in the desert on camels, living in tents, it’s much harder for them to make trouble. Then we can save a portion of our arsenal for when Peking needs some corrective action.

GWB on June 20, 2014 at 3:05 PM

Prevailing winds should carry the fallout to Peking.

We also would need to save a few to keep the Sovi..er…Russian bear east of Warsaw.

Steve Eggleston on June 20, 2014 at 3:27 PM

We also would need to save a few to keep the Sovi..er…Russian bear east of Warsaw.

Steve Eggleston on June 20, 2014 at 3:27 PM

That just tells me we need to beef up our inventory a bit…

dentarthurdent on June 20, 2014 at 3:31 PM

Starting in 2003 and up till the moment we pulled out, we put in a lot of effort to fine a way of moving or destroying this stuff on sight. At this site, both the sarin and vx were too unstable to move. Better to lock up it tight, and let the chemical weapons degrade naturally over time. If ISIS(ISIL) are stupid enough to open those bunkers, well they will get their just “reward”. I will never forget seeing the rows and rows of chemical rounds(going back over 500 meters) leaking and falling apart in the 102 degree heat. Even mopped up, I was scared. Saddam was a truly evil man.

flackcatcher on June 20, 2014 at 3:38 PM

dentarthurdent on June 20, 2014 at 3:22 PM

Well, you know me, pie-in-the-sky kind of guy that I am. ;)

Prevailing winds should carry the fallout to Peking.

Steve Eggleston on June 20, 2014 at 3:27 PM

If you “walk” the detonations eastward from … someplace that starts with an “M”, would it help those prevailing winds? You know, generating vacuums leading east?

That just tells me we need to beef up our inventory a bit…

dentarthurdent on June 20, 2014 at 3:31 PM

I was considering that an assumption, but yeah.

GWB on June 20, 2014 at 4:00 PM

There is a lot of misunderstanding about these chemical agents.

Mustard lasts forever and is fairly safe to handle but requires huge concentrations to be effective. Essentially, you need thousands of tons of it and a way to deliver it to accomplish much in a war.

Iraq pursued sarin and tabun and VX. These agents were developed as unitary weapons back in the Eighties. They worked adequately but had a shelf life in weeks or months due to impurities in the precursors. A key point that most people don’t grasp but that is emphasized in the specialist literature and CIA reports is just how hi-tech an undertaking it is to create durable gas weapons.

So in the late Eighties, the Iraqis destroyed much of what they had remaining in stock as it was of diminished capability, having degraded in storage due to impurities. Also, once created, unitary sarin is especially corrosive and difficult to contain. So the Iraqis began to pursue binary weapons so the precursors could be stored separately and mixed immediately before use or even used in shells that can mix the precursors by mixing through a membrane inside the shell while it spins fast in flight. These efforts weren’t greatly successful. About ten years ago, one of these old binary shells was fired at Americans and it did make two of them somewhat sick but did not kill them. The conclusion was that the Iraqi design was inadequate and the shell’s contents were degraded.

The contents of these bunkers are mostly dangerous to those who would try to enter them. If they store unitary shells, they are mostly neutralized now due to age. And there are simply no great number of the binary shells available to them. Russia did supply some to Saddam for a while but no great number. Many of these were captured and destroyed by coalition forces.

Only America and Russia have the means and expertise to create and store these agents safely for years, let alone decades. Then there are the problems associated with loading them or mixing them or handling them. Lots of chances for demoralizing losses among your chem troops. And ISIS probably can’t have even a dozen of them.

As for this “plant”, it was extensively looted in the wake of our invasion and the Iraqis used the big sloping trenches and cruciform trenches to dispose of many defunct chem weapons there, both before and after our invasion. The remaining elements on site were sealed as being too dangerous to handle but not a significant danger to population centers or for military uses.

The public often thinks that chem weapons are easy to use. They are not. They last only a few hours at best, dilute in air rather quickly, pose a hazard to your own troops, and require vast amounts (in the hundreds of tons) to be effective as an arsenal. Exceptions would be their use in confined areas, like the Japanese subway attacks or using them inside a skyscraper or a stadium, anywhere with large concentrations of people that must pass through chokepoints.

We should worry about ISIS but not because of this old looted chem plant that has so little remaining equipment.

Toocon on June 20, 2014 at 4:03 PM

I didn’t think Iraq EVER had any WMDs, or at least enough to be dangerous.

Wha??????? Bueller? Bueller?

RI_Red on June 20, 2014 at 4:28 PM

However, the CIA report said: “Stockpiles of chemical munitions are still stored there.

Oh, but there are no WMD in Iraq and never have been. The Bush-hating Lefties told us so.

Dr. ZhivBlago on June 20, 2014 at 5:39 PM

We’ve all read those stories about the Islamic rocket scientists who blow themselves up during bomb training. So why do I have images of Abdul and Mohammed killing themselves trying to move this stuff?

307wolverine on June 20, 2014 at 3:07 PM

My first thought, indeed. The irony would be thick enough to choke upon: does the mainstream media report that Obama’s efforts in defeating ISIS were successful and peace in our time has come? Of course, for the LightBringer must be held up for worship. However, do they actually mention the bad guys offing themselves moving leaking chemical drums which they swore for years did not exist, or merely leave the reader to assume a mindbending metaphysical miracle by The Won?

…and a tip o’ the hat to:

We should worry about ISIS but not because of this old looted chem plant that has so little remaining equipment.

Toocon on June 20, 2014 at 4:03 PM

DublOh7 on June 20, 2014 at 6:00 PM

These are not the WMD’s you are looking for…..

Brock Robamney on June 23, 2014 at 5:57 AM

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