Iraq Had WMDs After All

Until now, I have been willing to go along with the conventional wisdom that Iraq did not possess significant stockpiles of WMDs prior to the 2003 war. Leftover chemical munitions were discovered here and there during and after the invasion, but it was plausible to think that they were odds and ends, not part of a usable stockpile subject to the regime’s control.

Today, however, the New York Times dropped a bombshell: in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the CIA purchased from an unidentified intermediary no fewer than 400 Borak warheads filled with sarin, a deadly nerve gas:

The analysis of sarin samples from 2005 found that the purity level reached 13 percent — higher than expected given the relatively low quality and instability of Iraq’s sarin production in the 1980s, officials said. Samples from Boraks recovered in 2004 had contained concentrations no higher than 4 percent.

The new data became grounds for concern. “Borak rockets will be more hazardous than previously assessed,” one internal report noted. It added a warning: the use of a Borak in an improvised bomb “could effectively disperse the sarin nerve agent.”

An internal record from 2006 referred to “agent purity of up to 25 percent for recovered unitary sarin weapons.”

Borak rockets

Borak rocket warheads

Sarin is one of the deadliest of nerve agents; just 1 to 10 milliliters on the skin can be fatal. So a concentration in a rocket of up to 25% purity would seem to be lethal.

Information about the 400+ Borak warheads has been around for a while, although not in the public domain. This heavily redacted 2006 U.S. Army report, recently obtained via a FOIA request, notes as its first “key point”:

Since May 2004, Coalition forces (CF) have recovered at least 501 pre-1991 Gulf War Iraqi chemical weapons-including 448 122-mm al Borak rocket warheads, many of which contain the nerve agent sarin (GB).

The comprehensive post-war study of Iraq’s WMD programs and capabilities was the Duelfer report, which concluded that Saddam’s regime did not possess major stockpiles of WMD as of 2003, but intended to re-start its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs once sanctions were removed. Duelfer, writing in 2004, evidently was unaware of the Borak rocket warheads that have now become public knowledge. The Duelfer report does note the important discovery of one similar (although slightly larger and of a different type) warhead containing sarin:

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 raises the possibility that a larger number of binary, long-lasting chemical weapons still exist.

Some have tried to disparage the importance of munitions like the Borak warheads on the ground that they are “old” WMDs, manufactured before 1991. But this is wrong. One of the chief concerns about Iraq’s WMDs always was whether it had actually destroyed its vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons, as it claimed. One of the principal tasks of the UNMOVIC inspections that were carried out until 2002 was to try to verify that these “old,” but still lethal, weapons had actually been destroyed. Thus, UNMOVIC wrote in its January 27, 2003 briefing to the U.N. Security Council:

One of three important questions before us today is how much might remain undeclared and intact from before 1991; and, possibly, thereafter; the second question is what, if anything, was illegally produced or procured after 1998, when the inspectors left; and the third question is how it can be prevented that any weapons of mass destruction be produced or procured in the future.

In my opinion, the revelation that more than 400 Borak rocket warheads armed with sarin were still extant after the 2003 war is of a different quality than prior reports of old stocks that were encountered here and there by American troops. These rockets were not, it appears, dispersed randomly in dumps and forgotten storage depots. One individual was able to produce more than 400 of them, suggesting that they most likely were stored and inventoried by the Baathist regime. If that is the case, the conventional belief that the world’s intelligence agencies were wrong, and Iraq did not possess significant stockpiles of WMDs prior to the 2003 war, is incorrect. One shudders to think what a terrorist group could accomplish with 400 sarin-equipped rockets.

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