ISIS captures chemical-weapons plant in Iraq

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.