Iraq and the Use of Chemical Weapons
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2003 Iraq's chemical weapons arsenal is not some hypothetical problem, but a danger and a weapon Saddam Hussein has used in the past.
Hussein had been in power only a year when he declared war on neighboring Iran in 1980. He flexed his muscles against the Persian Gulf region's largest military power, but one weakened by post-shah disarray. Iraq had a more modern military and banked on a fast, easy victory.
Iranian leaders, with a population of 55 million at their disposal, had no compunctions about launching low-tech "human wave" attacks against the Iraqis. Hussein's blitzkrieg devolved into a trench war of attrition, but one he couldn't afford with a population of only about 20 million.
The war was clearly going against Iraq by 1983, when Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons against Iran. The first of 10 documented chemical attacks in the war was in August 1983 and caused hundreds of casualties, according to CIA sources. The largest documented attack was a February 1986 strike against al-Faw, where mustard gas and tabun may have affected up to 10,000 Iranians.
To this day, no one really knows how many other Iraqi chemical attacks went undocumented or how many Iranians died in them. Iranians call the survivors of the attacks "living martyrs," and the government in Tehran estimates that more than 60,000 soldiers were exposed to mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin and tabun.
One survivor described a rolling cloud of gas enveloping his position in 1985. When the cloud of death rolled away, he was one of 3,000 casualties of the Iraqi attack.
Iran and Iraq ended the war in 1988 with their boundaries about where they'd been when the war started. But Hussein was not through: If the weapons worked against the Iranians, they would also work against internal enemies of his regime.
In August 1988, Hussein launched chemical attacks against defenseless men, women and children in Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. International groups ascertained he used mustard gas and sarin.
Again, no one knows how many Kurds died as a result of these attacks. Some estimates place the dead at 8,000 while others say up to 24,000. The key, CIA officials said, is to remember the attacks weren't against military foes, but used specifically to kill and to terrorize noncombatants. The Kurdish civilians had not had even the basic and inadequate protections carried by some Iranian soldiers.
During the Persian Gulf War, Hussein threatened to use his chemical arsenal against the coalition arrayed against him. The United States said if he did he should expect an instant, overwhelming allied response. Hussein apparently backed down -- while some people may suspect he loosed chemicals on coalition forces, no proof has been found.
Following the war, U.N. inspectors went into Iraq and found stockpiles of chemical weapons. The Iraqis had large caches of mustard gas, which causes casualties by blistering or burning exposed skin, eyes, lungs and mucus membranes within hours of exposure. It is a persistent agent that can remain a hazard for days.
Iraq also had large amounts of sarin and tabun. When absorbed through the skin or inhaled, these nerve agents cause convulsions and unconsciousness. Tabun is a persistent agent and can remain potent for days. While not persistent, sarin is more dangerous inhaled.
The inspectors also found large amounts of VX nerve agent, which is more toxic and persistent than sarin or tabun.
The Iraqis had the chemical agents in aerial bombs, 122 mm rockets, artillery shells and Scud ballistic missiles.
The Iraqi chemical attacks of the Iran-Iraq War were the largest since World War I. During the 1914-18 war, both sides packed artillery shells with gases or rolled generators up to the front lines.
Thousands on both sides died or were injured in the attacks. The world was so revolted by the carnage that countries outlawed chemical warfare in the Geneva Protocols of 1925. During World War II, even the Nazis -- not known for respecting treaties or humanity -- observed the chemical taboo.
Many countries in the world have chemical weapon stockpiles. While the situation is a concern, U.S. leaders don't consider these countries dangerous. They say Hussein's possession of these weapons is dangerous, though, because he has repeatedly and remorselessly demonstrated the willingness to use them for war, terror and genocide.