Everything You Wanted to Know About Iraq’s Residual CW, But Were Afraid to Ask

On June 11th, during its rapid conquest of large portions of the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, ISIS captured the Al Muthanna chemical-weapons production facility (Iraq’s primary production plant under Saddam). However, the plant has largely disappeared from news coverage, following State Department reassurances of its inability to be used for production purposes due to heavy bombardment during the First Gulf War. What, in fact, was inside the plant?  And what remains? This roundup is intended to give an overview of the Al Muthanna facility, and offer resources to help assess the risk it poses in ISIS hands.

Compliance Report – Department of State (AVC) | AVC report on Iraq’s declared chemical weapons in 2013.  The report states:

Due to the fact that the chemical weapon storage facilities (CWSF) bunkers containing declared CW are sealed and have only incomplete UN documentation in relation to their contents, Iraq has had difficulty in formulating its General Plan for Destruction of its declared CW.

It seems that the contents of the bunker, and of Iraq’s chemical arsenal, may not have been as definite as previously postulated.

Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex – CIA.gov | The online library on the CIA’s website provides an overview of the Al Muthanna facility from the 2004 Comprehensive Report of the Special Adviser to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD, a.k.a. the Duelfer Report. [The preceding sentence has been corrected. -Ed.]  The plant itself served as the center of the Iraqi chemical weapons production program.  Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, the plant produced almost 4,000 tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, Sarin, and Tabun.  Egyptian assistance allowed Iraqis to construct the Grad 122 mm rocket delivery system. The program remained relatively secret until 1986, when the BBC aired a segment entitled “The Secrets of Samarra.”  Following Operation Desert Storm, the research facilities and bomb-assembly area were destroyed.  The report then details cleanup efforts post-Gulf War, and into the late 1990s.

Muthanna State Establishment – Federation of Atomic Scientists | The FAS report offers another description of the Muthanna site, further describing the capabilities of the facility, as well as its layout.

Jonathan Tucker, “Iraq Faces Major Challenges in Destroying Its Legacy Chemical Weapons” – CNS | This CNS report from 2010 discusses chemical-weapons destruction efforts up until that time. At the time, Iraq requested United States assistance in the cleanup operation. Iraq has continued to be vocal about its need for assistance, and in 2012, the UK sent a group of experts to train their Iraqi counterparts in disposal techniques.  The risks of leaking chemical agents within the facility make any action extremely expensive, in the range of $500 million according to this report.

2011 Annual Report – OPCW | The OPCW’s overall statement in 2011, covering every state it is in contact with. Due to physical and organizational barriers surrounding Iraqi chemical weapons disposal (the Al Muthanna plant is suspected to have been contaminated by poorly stored chemical munitions), the first site inspections occurred in 2011 via helicopter.  No disposal efforts were made.  The Muthanna facility was one of six CWPF’s that had not been destroyed or converted to non-weapon production.

Iraqi Progress Report – OPCW | Iraq filed a report in 2012 with the OPCW detailing its cleanup efforts regarding the Al Muthanna plant.  The government stated that:

Irreversibly encapsulating in concrete the remnants of chemical weapons in bunker 13 by filling the bunker with self-consolidating (“liquid”) concrete (referred to as “encapsulation”) represents, in Iraq’s view, the safest approach for destruction which would pose the lowest risk to the safety of the personnel involved in the process and to the environment.

The report goes on to discuss Iraq’s proposed disposal plan as of 2012.

Amy Woolf, Paul Kerr, and Mary Beth Nikitin, “Arms Control and Nonproliferation: A Catalog of Treaties and Agreements” – CRS | The report catalogs the most recent available knowledge about CW disposal programs in Iraq.  As of December 2013, Iraq had both submitted a plan for CW cleanup operations at the Al Muthanna site, and was working in conjunction with UK, Swiss, and German scientists in preparation and execution. These efforts were clearly suspended after the ISIS capture of the plant.  It is unclear how much progress was made prior to June 11th.