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Miosis and light reflex of an Iranian soldier exposed to nerve gas compared with a military nurse at the same place

In violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Iraqi Army initiated two failed (1970–1974, 1974–1978) and one successful (1978–1991) offensive chemical weapons (CW) programs.[1] President Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) pursued the most extensive chemical program during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), when he waged chemical warfare against his foe. He also used chemicals in 1988 in the Al-Anfal Campaign against his civilian Kurdish population and during a popular uprising in the south in 1991.

Although efforts to acquire chemical weapons dated back to the early 1960s (pre-dating Hussein's regime), the Iraqis did not have stockpiles at the outbreak of the war with Iran in 1980. But in time, they began to develop an intensive research program to produce and store chemical weapons and used the war fields to test and perfect their chemical warfare prowess. Thus, as the war continued, Iraq’s chemical warfare program expanded rapidly. According to Iraq, while the majority of its mustard gas was of 90-95% purity, it struggled to consistently produce nerve agents of high purity. The average purity of its tabun was 50-60%; production of it was abandoned in 1986 in favour of concentrating on sarin. Average quality of sarin and related products was in the range of 45-60% - sufficient for battle-field use in the Iran-Iraq war, but not for long-term storage. Efforts after the Iran-Iraq war to develop VX were relatively unsuccessful, with purity of 18-41% considered insufficient for weaponization.[2]

Iraq’s biological warfare development pursued a similar course, but by the time Iraqis were testing biological warheads (containing anthrax and botulinum toxin) in Iraq’s deserts, the war had come to an end.[3]

Production[edit | edit source]

Early history: The 1970s[edit | edit source]

The 1980s program[edit | edit source]


Chronology of Iraq's chemical warfare

On September 22, 1980, Iraq staged an all-out war on Iran from ground, air, and sea and came to occupy a vast part of Iranian territory. But in the following months it was evident that the Iranian nation was determined to reclaim its occupied territories. Contrary to the Iraqis' conception, the continued occupation of Iran required more effective weapons.

Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare development and use can be divided into three phases:

  • Phase 1: January 1981 to June 1983, Iraq started testing chemical weapons.
  • Phase 2: August 1983 to December 1983, chemical weapons were used to a limited extent.
  • Phase 3: February 1984 to the end of the war, chemical weapons were used extensively.

Project 922 was the codename for Iraq's third and most successful attempt to produce chemical and biological weapons. Within three years (1978–1981), Project 922 had gone from concept to production for first generation Iraqi chemical weapons (mustard agent). By 1984 Iraq started producing its first nerve agents, Tabun and Sarin. In 1986, a five-year plan was drawn up that ultimately led to biological weapons production. By 1988 Iraq had produced VX. The program reached its zenith in the late 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. From August 1983 to July 1988 Iran was subjected to extensive Iraqi chemical attacks. Between 1981 and 1991, Iraq produced over 3,857 tons of CW agents.[citation needed]

As part of Project 922, German firms such as Karl Kolb helped build Iraqi chemical weapons facilities such as laboratories, bunkers, an administrative building, and first production buildings in the early 1980s under the cover of a pesticide plant. Other German firms sent 1,027 tons of precursors of mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and tear gasses in all. This work allowed Iraq to produce 150 tons of mustard agent and 60 tons of Tabun in 1983 and 1984 respectively, continuing throughout the decade. All told, 52% of Iraq's international chemical weapon equipment was of German origin.[citation needed] One of the contributions was a £14m chlorine plant known as "Falluja 2", built by Uhde Ltd, a UK subsidiary of a German company; the plant was given financial guarantees by the UK's Export Credits Guarantee Department despite official UK recognition of a "strong possibility" the plant would be used to make mustard gas.[4] The guarantees led to UK government payment of £300,000 to Uhde in 1990 after completion of the plant was interrupted by the first Gulf War.[4] In 1994 and 1996 three people were convicted in Germany of export offenses.[5] France also provided glass-lined reactors, tanks, vessels, and columns used for the production of chemical weapons. Around 21% of Iraq’s international chemical weapon equipment was French. 75,000 shells and rockets designed for chemical weapon use also came from Italy. About 100 tons of mustard gas also came from Brazil. The United States exported $500 million of dual use exports to Iraq that were approved by the Commerce Department. Among them were advanced computers, some of which were used in Iraq’s nuclear program. Austria also provided heat exchangers, tanks, condensers, and columns for the Iraqi chemical weapons infrastructure, 16% of the international sales. Singapore gave 4,515 tons of precursors for VX, sarin, tabun, and mustard gasses to Iraq. The Dutch gave 4,261 tons of precursors for sarin, tabun, mustard, and tear gasses to Iraq. Egypt gave 2,400 tons of tabun and sarin precursors to Iraq and 28,500 tons of weapons designed for carrying chemical munitions. India gave 2,343 tons of precursors to VX, tabun, Sarin, and mustard gasses. Luxembourg gave Iraq 650 tons of mustard gas precursors. Spain gave Iraq 57,500 munitions designed for carrying chemical weapons. In addition, they provided reactors, condensers, columns and tanks for Iraq’s chemical warfare program, 4.4% of the international sales. China provided 45,000 munitions designed for chemical warfare.[citation needed]

Use[edit | edit source]

Iran-Iraq War[edit | edit source]

On September 22, 1980, Iraq launched an invasion against Iran. The Iraqi army, trained and influenced by Soviet advisors, had organic chemical warfare units and a wide variety of delivery systems. Neither side achieved dominance and the war quickly became a stalemate. To stop the human-wave–attack tactics of the Iranians, the Iraqis employed their home-produced chemical agents as a defensive measure against the much-less–prepared Iranian infantry. The first reported use of chemical weapons occurred in November 1980.[6] Throughout the next several years, additional reports of chemical attacks circulated, and by November 1983, Iran began complaining to the UN that Iraq was using chemical weapons against its troops. After Iran sent chemical casualties to several Western nations for treatment, the UN dispatched a team of specialists to the area in 1984, and again in 1986 and 1987, to verify the claims. The conclusion from all three trips was the same: Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. In addition, the second mission stressed that Iraq’s use of chemical weapons appeared to be increasing. The reports indicated that mustard and tabun were the primary agents used, and that they were generally delivered in bombs dropped by airplane. The third mission (the only one allowed to enter Iraq) also reported the use of artillery shells and chemical rockets and the use of chemical weapons against civilian personnel.[7][8][9]

In the letter of transmittal to the UN after the conclusion of the third mission, the investigators pointed out the dangers of this chemical warfare:

It is vital to realize that the continued use of chemical weapons in the present conflict increases the risk of their use in future conflicts. In view of this, and as individuals who witnessed first hand the terrible effects of chemical weapons, we again make a special plea to you to try to do everything in your power to stop the use of such weapons in the Iran-Iraq conflict and thus ensure that they are not used in future conflicts.... In our view, only concerted efforts at the political level can be effective in ensuring that all the signatories of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 abide by their obligations. Otherwise, if the Protocol is irreparably weakened after 60 years of general international respect, this may lead, in the future, to the world facing the specter of the threat of biological weapons.[10]

Another analyst insisted that “In a sense, a taboo has been broken, thus making it easier for future combatants to find justification for chemical warfare, this aspect of the Iran-Iraq war should cause Western military planners the gravest concern.”[11] The Iran-Iraq War failed to reach a military conclusion despite Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. Roughly 5% of the Iranian casualties were caused by chemical weapons. Although Iranian use of chemical weapons was rumored, less attention was devoted to verifying those reports. In August 1988, Iran finally accepted a UN ceasefire plan.[12]

Persian Gulf War[edit | edit source]

Shortly after the fighting between Iraq and Coalition Forces in the Persian Gulf War ended in February 1991, reports circulated that Hussein was using chemical agents against rebellious Kurds and Shiite Muslims. The United States intercepted a message ordering the use of chemical weapons against the cities of Najaf and Karbala. U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s response was that such use of chemical weapons would result in air strikes against the Iraqi military organization using the chemicals.[13][14]

List of Known Iraqi CW Uses[edit | edit source]

The Iran-Iraq War ended in August 1988. By that time, according to the Iraq Survey Group Final Report,[15] seven UN specialist missions had documented repeated use of chemicals in the war. According to Iraq itself, it consumed almost 19,500 chemical bombs, over 54,000 chemical artillery shells and 27,000 short-range chemical rockets between 1983 and 1988. Iraq declared it consumed about 1,800 tons of mustard gas, 140 tons of Tabun, and over 600 tons of Sarin. Almost two-thirds of the CW weapons were used in the last 18 months of the war. Examples of CW use by Iraq include the following from the Final Report. (These are selected uses only. Numerous other smaller scale CW attacks occurred.)

Use in the Iran-Iraq War, 1983-1988[edit | edit source]

  • August 1983: Haij Umran — Mustard, fewer than 100 Iranian/Kurdish casualties
  • October–November 1983: Panjwin — Mustard, 3,000 Iranian/Kurdish casualties
  • February–March 1984: Majnoon Island — Mustard, 2,500 Iranian casualties
  • March 1984: al-Basrah — Tabun, 50-100 Iranian casualties
  • March 1985: Hawizah Marsh — Mustard & Tabun, 3,000 Iranian casualties
  • February 1986: al-Faw — Mustard & Tabun, 8,000 to 10,000 Iranian casualties
  • December 1986: Um ar-Rasas — Mustard, 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • April 1987: al-Basrah — Mustard & Tabun, 5,000 Iranian casualties
  • October 1987: Sumar/Mehran — Mustard & nerve agent, 3,000 Iranian casualties
  • March 1988: Halabjah & Kurdish area — Mustard & nerve agent, 1,000s Kurdish/Iranian casualties
  • April 1988: al-Faw — Mustard & nerve agent, 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • May 1988: Fish Lake — Mustard & nerve agent, 100s or 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • June 1988: Majnoon Island — Mustard & nerve agent, 100s or 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • July 1988: South-central border — Mustard & nerve agent, 100s or 1,000s Iranian casualties

Use at Halabja, 1988[edit | edit source]


An Iranian child victim of Iraqi chemical weapons at Sardasht

On March 16, 1988, the Halabja massacre occurred. The Iraqi army hit residential areas with sarin gas and the roads leading out of the city with mustard gas the day after. Most of the victims died within minutes after bombing and those who survived and tried to leave the city the following day were injured when passed contaminated roads. Civilians in residential areas in western Iran such as Noodsheh, Ghaleji, and Marivan were bombarded with nerve gas as well. The efforts of local health care centers played a significant role in decreasing the number of mortalities.

Use in Southern Iraq against the Popular Uprising, 1991[edit | edit source]

  • March 1991: an-Najaf - Karbala area — Nerve agent & CS, Shi’a casualties not known.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. “Annex B: Iraq’s Chemical Warfare Program”; Iraq Survey Group Final Report (2004) at GlobalSecurity.org.
  2. United Nations UNMOVIC, S/2006/701 - Overview of the chemical munitions recently found in Iraq
  3. Foroutan Abbas, Medical experiences of Iraq's Chemical Warfare Baqiyatallah Univ. Med. Sci., Tehran 2003
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Guardian (March 6, 2003). "Britain's dirty secret". http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/0,,908301,00.html. Retrieved 2006-07-04. 
  5. http://dip21.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/17/126/1712692.pdf
  6. Hilmas, Corey J., Jeffery K. Smart, and Benjamin A. Hill, “History of Chemical Warfare”, Chapter 2 in Lenhart, Martha K., Editor-in Chief (2008), Medical Aspects of Chemical Warfare, Borden Institute: GPO, pg 62.
  7. Dunn P. (1987), Chemical Aspects of the Gulf War, 1984–1987: Investigations by the United Nations, Ascot Vale, Australia: Materials Research Laboratories.
  8. United Nations (1986), Report of the Mission Dispatched by the Secretary-General to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Conflict Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq, New York, NY: United Nations Security Council. March 12, 1986: 19.
  9. ”U.N. panel says Iraq used gas on civilians”. New York Times, August 24, 1988.
  10. Dunn, P., Op. cit.
  11. Dingeman J. and Jupa, R. (1987), "Chemical warfare in the Iran-Iraq conflict", Strategy & Tactics; 113:51–52.
  12. Hoffman MS, ed., The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1990. New York, NY: Pharos Books; 1990: 44, 46, 49, 721.
  13. Matthews M., "US warns Iraq against using chemical arms", Baltimore Sun. March 10, 1991:16A.
  14. Tyler PE., "U.S. planning air strikes if Iraq uses gas on rebels: Baghdad reportedly told commanders to use chemicals", Baltimore Sun, March 10, 1991:1A.
  15. “Evolution of the Chemical Warfare Program”; Iraq Survey Group Final Report at GlobalSecurity.org.

See also[edit | edit source]


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