WMD in Iraq a rather nuanced issue

One of the greatest debates over the Iraq War of 2003 was the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons) supposedly hidden and manufactured by Saddam Hussein after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Hussein only cooperated fitfully with the disclosure and destruction efforts required under the 1991 cease-fire that ended offensive operations in Iraq, and Western nations became convinced by the late 1990s that he was rebuilding his stockpiles.  That was just one of the sixteen justifications presented by the Bush administration in late 2002 for ending the cease fire and eliminating Hussein, but the one that drew the most support.


After the Western coalition deposed Hussein in the first weeks of the war, they began looking for the WMDs. Most assume that none were found, but a 2010 article from Wired based on Wikileaks documents reminded us that the truth was more nuanced (via Instapundit):

By late 2003, even the Bush White House’s staunchest defenders were starting to give up on the idea that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But WikiLeaks’ newly-released Iraq war documents reveal that for years afterward, U.S. troops continued to find chemical weapons labs, encounter insurgent specialists in toxins and uncover weapons of mass destruction.

An initial glance at the WikiLeaks war logs doesn’t reveal evidence of some massiveWMD program by the Saddam Hussein regime — the Bush administration’s most (in)famous rationale for invading Iraq. But chemical weapons, especially, did not vanish from the Iraqi battlefield. Remnants of Saddam’s toxic arsenal, largely destroyed after the Gulf War, remained. Jihadists, insurgents and foreign (possibly Iranian) agitators turned to these stockpiles during the Iraq conflict — and may have brewed up their own deadly agents. …

But even late in the war, WMDs were still being unearthed. In the summer of 2008, according to one WikiLeaked report, American troops found at least 10 rounds that tested positive for chemical agents. “These rounds were most likely left over from the [Saddam]-era regime. Based on location, these rounds may be an AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] cache. However, the rounds were all total disrepair and did not appear to have been moved for a long time.”


Why mention this now? For the past couple of weeks, reports about ISIS capturing WMD in Iraq have been cited as vindication for the 2002 argument. That started in mid-June when ISIS captured Al Muthanna and a large cache of chemical weapons, and picked up steam last week on Twitter. The danger of these weapons falling into terrorist hands is real, but perhaps even more so to the terrorists themselves. The Washington Post offered a straightforward explanation, complete with CIA assessment of the risks:

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.

It’s bad stuff, all right, but none of it was the suspected WMD that prompted the fears later on. The complex at Al Muthanna was an UNSCOM containment facility where Hussein’s confiscated weapons came for destruction or permanent storage. Those that could not be safely destroyed, mainly because the weapons became too unstable to handle safely, got sealed in the bunkers. The CIA has a very handy and informative history of the Al Muthanna site:


Al Muthanna State Establishment Post-Gulf War
From 1992 to 1994, UNSCOM’s Chemical Destruction Group (CDG) oversaw destruction operations. A portion of the facility was transformed into a CW agent destruction facility. An incinerator was constructed in the summer of 1992 for the destruction of mustard agent at the munitions filling location. Chemical munitions stored throughout Iraq were to be gathered and destroyed at Al Muthanna. See Figure 6 for the location (note image was taken after incinerator was dismantled).

  • Between 1992 and 1994 the facility was the primary collection and destruction site for all declared CW agents, precursor chemicals, and chemical production equipment.
  • Between 1992 and 1994 and again in 1996, the CDG oversaw destruction of 30,000 pieces of ordnance, 480,000 liters of chemical agents, and more than 2 million liters of chemical precursors. Eventually, most of the facilities at the complex the Iraqi’s destroyed and sold for scrap.
  • Equipment that survived Desert Storm was tagged by UN or destroyed, but the UN was never able to verify that all equipment purchased for MSE was tagged or destroyed.
  • Two Cruciform Bunkers were sealed containing munitions too dangerous for destruction.
  • Bunkers, damaged by coalition bombing, collapsed, concealing unaccounted CW equipment and munitions in the debris. Over the next ten years some of the facilities were razed by the Iraqis. Precise accountability of equipment and munitions is unverifiable, because the National Monitoring Directorate and UNSCOM did not always oversee excavation.

UN Criteria for CW Destruction
During the UNSCOM-supervised destruction processes, a CW facility was technically considered destroyed under three different criteria:

  • Equipment was permanently disabled by the Iraqis, then examined and documented by UN.
  • Equipment would be tagged, dismantled, and reused by the Iraqis for other legitimate commercial use while being documented and monitored by UN.
  • Facilities destroyed from coalition strikes were deemed unusable for CW development.
  • Note: UN did not verify reusability of some of the equipment concealed within rubble of destroyed facilities. The CW process that once occurred within a bombed facility was regarded as inoperable, but utility of equipment reusability sometimes remained unverifiable.

The Iraqis razed and removed all existing structures for the biological/toxicological lab, mustard research lab, and Sarin production facility. In addition to complete removal of the facilities, complete foundations were excavated and removed. These actions were undertaken after the National Monitoring Directorate was displaced in Iraq and completed without international scrutiny.


There’s much more, but that gives a good look at the main point. The weapons at Al Muthanna were declared and surrendered years before the claims in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Saddam Hussein was either hiding more WMD or making new weapons. The UNSCOM facility destroyed or secured the weapons either found or surrendered in the years after the Gulf War. The intelligence from Western agencies about renewed WMD operations did not involve Al Muthanna at all. The UN had those weapons secured until the 2003 invasion, and then after that we did, and then the Iraqi army. Until now, of course.

That’s a bad development, especially for the people in the area if ISIS decides to crack those seals. It’s a reminder of how dangerous Saddam Hussein was, although the chemical-weapon massacre at Halabja made that plain enough anyway. But these were not the weapons that we suspected Saddam hid or built anew; we were already well aware of them, and Saddam had complied with the terms of the cease fire on these weapons, at least. That’s not to say that Saddam didn’t have newer or better hidden WMDs prior to 2003, but these don’t settle that argument one war or another.

Nor does the more recent story about uranium in Mosul:

Militants in Iraq have taken hold of nuclear materials at university science facilities near the northern city of Mosul, the Iraqi government has said in a letter to the United Nations.

But two U.S. officials told CNN on Wednesday that the small amounts of uranium aren’t enriched or weapons-grade, prompting only minimal concern.

The letter from Iraq’s U.N. ambassador about the uranium compounds asks for help “to stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad” as the country struggles with a deadly insurgency.

In the letter, obtained Wednesday by CNN, Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said that “terrorist groups have seized control” of nearly 40 kilograms (90 pounds) of uranium compounds at science departments at the University of Mosul after the sites “came out of control of the state.”


This, however, is unenriched and unrefined uranium, pretty much what can be pulled out of the ground, and not even pure. Ninety pounds of uranium sounds like a lot, but it takes tons of unenriched uranium to be refined into weapons-grade uranium — not to mention a sophisticated cascade of highly specialized centrifuges.  It took Iran decades to develop that capability, even while well out of the reach of a hostile military, and even then they needed help from AQ Khan. Unenriched uranium can be effectively used as a terror weapon, but most of the actual damage would come from the blast and the panic that would follow.

We’ll probably never settle the question of what happened to the purported WMD in the 2002 argument — whether it existed at all, and if so what happened to it, and why Saddam Hussein didn’t just cooperate fully with the UNSCOM team if he had nothing to hide. The developments of the past few weeks, though, have nothing to do with that debate for the history books.

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