Sunni extremists in Iraq have occupied what was once Saddam Hussein’s premier chemical-weapons production facility, a complex that still contains a stockpile of old weapons, State Department and other U.S. government officials said.
U.S. officials don’t believe the Sunni militants will be able to create a functional chemical weapon from the material. The weapons stockpiled at the Al Muthanna complex are old, contaminated and hard to move, officials said.
Nonetheless, the capture of the chemical-weapon stockpile by the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, known as ISIS or ISIL, the militant group that is seizing territory in the country, has grabbed the attention of the U.S.
“We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by the ISIL,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a written statement. “We do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.”
The takeover underscores the chaos gripping Iraq and the possibility that the growing Sunni rebellion could further destabilize the Middle East. Not lost on U.S. government and military officials is the irony that the latest chapter in a war designed to strip Iraq of chemical weapons could see radical Sunni extremists take control of that same stockpile.
The rise of ISIS has reignited the debate about the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration and the 2011 decision by the Obama administration to withdraw remaining military forces from the country. The takeover of a chemical weapons stockpile—even if the weapons are useless—seems likely to further intensify those debates.
During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Hussein used the Muthanna complex to make chemical weapons, including sarin, mustard gas, and VX (a nerve agent), according the Iraq Study Group, which conducted the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of the war.
The Iraq Study group did find chemical munitions at Muthanna but determined that inspections by United Nations Special Commission, or Unscom, had ensured the facility was dismantled and remaining chemical stocks militarily useless and sealed in bunkers.
“Two wars, sanctions and Unscom oversight reduced Iraqi’s premier production facility to a stockpile of old damaged and contaminated chemical munitions (sealed in bunkers), a wasteland full of destroyed chemical munitions, razed structures, and unusable war-ravaged facilities,” the Iraq Study Group’s 2004 report concluded.
The Muthanna complex is near Lake Tharthar, roughly 45 miles northwest of Baghdad, an area now firmly in control of the Sunni rebels. ISIS has taken control of most of Anbar province as well as Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
Military officials said the U.S. was well aware of the Muthanna stockpile and wouldn’t have left it there if it posed a military threat. Still, when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, it didn’t anticipate a large swath of the country, including numerous military bases, would be overrun by radical Sunni militants. One defense official said that if the U.S. had known the Iraqi government would lose control so soon, it might not have left the old chemical weapons in place.
U.S. officials repeatedly emphasized the takeover of the chemical weapons stocks didn’t constitute a significant military gain by ISIS. The group, multiple officials said, would find the weapons militarily useless even if they were to get access to the sealed bunkers where they are stored. Officials said the group hasn’t yet gained access to those bunkers.
“The only people who would likely be harmed by these chemical materials would be the people who tried to use or move them,” said a military official.
ISIS military gains have been aided by other Sunni groups including Baathists and other former loyalists to Hussein. Officers in Hussein’s army have also taken leadership roles in the rebellion. Some of those men may have some working knowledge of the use of chemical weapons from the Iran-Iraq war.