CIA Purchase of Iraqi CW: Background and Context

By Greg Mercer

Recently, a CIA program to buy and destroy chemical weapons in Iraq has come to light.   The New York Times reports that from 2005 to 2006, Operation Avarice saw the purchase and destruction of 400 chemical weapon rockets originally developed by the Hussein regime in the 1980s.  Reports vary on the contents of the rockets, which may have contained either degraded chemical components or still-active sarin.  The Times article states that, in cooperation with the Army 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion, the CIA station in Baghdad made the purchase from a single Iraqi seller and destroyed the weapons.

These events notably fall outside of the findings of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the 2003 Department of Defense-led fact finding mission.  The ISG released a final report in 2004 detailing Iraqi WMD-related activities from 1991 to 2003. However, ongoing conflict in Iraq has led to further encounters with remnants of Hussein’s WMD programs.

An October 2014 article detailed claims made by veterans that military personnel had been exposed to sulfur mustard during the destruction of seized Iraqi chemical weapons near Taji.  The Times’ CJ Chivers places the number of service members exposed to chemical weapons at no fewer than 17, and asserts that they received inadequate healthcare.  His investigation led to the Pentagon acknowledging that hundreds of service members had been exposed to chemical weapons and had received insufficient treatment.

A May 2004 Fox News article reported that a 155mm artillery shell used as part of a roadside bomb in Iraq was found to have contained sarin, and two service members were treated for mild symptoms of exposure.  While the shell contained three liters of sarin, it was a binary system, where separate chemical compounds are mixed to form the weapon agent.  Due to its use as an improvised explosive and failure to combine, the agent was not potent enough to be lethal.  The article notes that a different shell containing mustard gas was found in a similar setup.  However, this shell also did not detonate, and the chemical agent was found by the ISG to be inactive due to improper storage.

In July 2004 the Washington Post reported that warheads found in Iraq by Polish forces, originally believed to be chemical weapons dating back to the Iran-Iraq war (which saw the use of chemical weapons by both sides), did not, in fact, contain chemical agents.  The warheads were reportedly purchased, not confiscated, rockets, though this point was disputed by an unnamed senior intelligence official, who said that the U.S. had been told that the rockets were found alongside other conventional weapons.  Chemical weapons or not, the episode demonstrates the severity with which international forces in Iraq treated claims of insurgents and terrorists possessing or seeking unsecured Hussein-era weapons.

It’s important to note that these brushes with chemical weapons involved agents dating to before 1991.

Chemical weapons were not the only illicit goods seized in Iraq.  In 2005, the Associated Press reported that 550 metric tons of yellowcake uranium had been sold to Canadian uranium producer Cameco Corp. for use as nuclear fuel.  The U.S. conducted a top-secret airlift operation of 37 flights to move the uranium from Baghdad to Montreal.  The uranium was a remnant of Hussein’s nascent nuclear weapons program.  Yellowcake uranium is an intermediate product of uranium processing, not weapons-grade material.  It can either be smelted into fuel rods for use in nuclear reactors for power production, or enriched into U-235 via gas centrifuge.  Low-enriched uranium (up to 20% U-235) is also used in nuclear reactors, but highly-enriched uranium (90%) is used in nuclear weapons.


Image Credit: The New York Times

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