Chemical Weapons: Iraq and a History of Abuse

Isacc Stern returns to the stage during the Scud attack

Isacc Stern returns to the stage during the Scud attack

He was 70 years old on February 23rd, 1991. Legendary violinist Isaac Stern was in Jerusalem as the virtuoso performer of Mozart’s Third Violin concerto. But, as the philharmonic orchestra and Stern performed, air raid sirens blasted. The orchestra stopped and left the stage to get their gas masks. The audience, with their gas mask containers at the ready, put them on. There was neither chaos nor panic.

Stern, alone, returned to the stage carrying, but not wearing his gas mask. He had come to Israel as a gesture of solidarity with the Israeli people, then under attack from Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Amazingly, under heavy political pressure from the United States, Israel did not retaliate. Back on the stage, Stern played for the audience in a surreal scene that captivated the world. He chose Bach’s Adagio for Violin. (You can see some clips of the stunning performance here or you can hear the Adagio played by Stern here) The Adagio is a prophetic piece of music, powerful, moving and modern, as if its message is the human condition of today, not of Bach’s time. The audience understood the meaning of the music and Stern’s extraordinary performance. When he finished they stood and cheered.  The all-clear siren’s rang out.

The Iraqi attacks on Israel during the first Gulf War are difficult to explain. Israel was not a combatant in the Gulf War, and Saddam’s weapons were far from sufficient to do much more than random destruction.

Saddam Hussein was well aware, even in 1991, that Israel was more than capable of reaching targets in Iraq. Ten years before the Gulf war, Israeli F-15’s and F-16’s successfully destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor a little less than 11 miles southeast of Baghdad. The raid, called “Operation Opera” by Israel’s IDF and “Operation Babylon” outside of Israel, perfectly pinpointed the reactor and took it out. While since that time Saddam improved his air defense capabilities and acquired modern interceptor aircraft including the MIG 25, his electronic warfare capabilities were poor and his air force was never able to put up a serious fight against modern Western aircraft equipped with radar jammers and supported by AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems).

Israel feared that Saddam would equip his Scud missiles with chemical weapons, or chemical and biological weapons. Iraqi fixed and rotary wing (helicopters) aircraft had attacked the village of Halabja on Bloody Friday, March 16, 1988. Halabja was a Kurdish village in north-eastern Iraq that had fallen to Iranian forces and Kurdish guerillas. The attack killed around 5,000 people, mainly women, children and the elderly, and sickened thousands of others, many of whom later died from exposure to the gas.

Iraq used mustard gas, Sarin and Tabun (both nerve gases) and possibly VX, another nerve gas. There is strong evidence that some of the gas canisters also contained hydrogen cyanide, and possibly biological agents including anthrax. While most of the survivors had blistering and lung damage consistent with mustard gas, evidence points to nerve gases as causing the most deaths.

Iraq also used chemical weapons against Iran. The most famous battle of al Faw saw the extensive use of Sarin nerve gas by Iraq against Iranian forces. At the time, Iran had mustard gas but no nerve gas. The battle on April 17, 1988, in a major operation named “Ramadan Mubarak” aimed to clear the Iranian forces from the al-Faw area. The Iraqis were successful, in large part because of U.S. clandestine help that included satellite imagery supplied to Saddam Hussein, American military advisors and the supply of atropine injectors for Iraq’s army. The problem with Sarin or any other nerve agent, is that when you fire artillery shells filled with nerve gas a relatively close range, a shift in the wind can affect your own forces. The supply of atropine injectors was a key strategic item for Saddam’s army, permitting them to confidently use Sarin.

Israel had long worried about the appearance of Weapons of Mass Desturction in its neighborhood. Egypt had a large chemical arsenal, and used mustard gas in Yemen. A well documented case was the attack on the villages of Beni Sahm and Shaukan in Yemen on 2 June, 1967. While the number of dead (again unsuspecting villagers and animals) was less than 100, the Red Cross determined that the villagers experienced symptoms consistent with mustard gas. Syria also had a chemical weapons program and a large stockpile of mustard and nerve gas. But Iraq was the leader in the WMD contest, and had invested heavily in developing chemical and biological weapons and delivery systems for them, including work on so-called binary chemical weapons.

A binary chemical weapon makes it possible to mount chemical weapons on missiles without the need to go through a lengthy and dangerous fueling process in the field. Essentially a binary weapon separates the active agents that make the weapon lethal, generally with a membrane that can be burst after a missile launch. Iraq was also at work on efficient chemical weapons dispersion systems –essentially means of atomizing the chemical weapon contents in a way to cause the maximum damage in the targeted area. Reviews of the recent use of nerve gas in Syria shows a weapon that lacked these features and only caused harm around an apartment building that the weapon crashed into. Despite a large amount of nerve gas, the bulk of it stayed in one place or was dissipated into the atmosphere such that it did not cause casualties in a larger area.

Scud Missile on TEL

Scud Missile on TEL

Iraq had three delivery systems for its chemical weapons. The most common was long range artillery where artillery shells are filled with mustard gas, nerve agent, or some mixture of agents, and fired against land targets. The second were aircraft and helicopters. Some of these just dropped canistered weapons. Others, especially the helicopters were equipped with sprayer units, the same as are used in agriculture to spread pesticides. The third was missiles including the Frog and Scud. The Frog is a short range missiles with a range of around 70 km. The Scud missile is a Russian-developed short range missile that can carry conventional, nuclear and chemical/biological warheads. It has a range typically of less than 200 miles; the Iranians modified the Scud by enlarging its fuel tanks and reducing the size of its warhead, achieving a range of up to 500 miles. Known as the al-Hussein, it was this modified Scud that was used to attack Israeli targets –and it was exactly these missile launching sites in Iraq that the Israeli Air Force was itching to destroy.

Iraq fired 42 Scud missiles at Israel and 46 Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia. One of the missiles scored a direct hit on a barrack in Dharhan, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Otherwise, one person in Israel died (from a heart attack) and one security guard in Saudi from missile fragments.

None of the missiles fired contained WMD materials. One of them reportedly contained a cement warhead and landed near the Israeli nuclear site of Dimona. If true (the story is not confirmed), this would have been extraordinarily reckless by Saddam, because the Israelis could have interpreted the incoming missile as a nuclear threat and reacted accordingly.

Saddam clearly took extraordinary risks in using his Scuds. To begin with, equipped with conventional weapons the Scuds were not effective. While they clearly impacted civilian life in Israel and, to a lesser degree, in Saudi Arabia, they achieved very little otherwise. Moreover, they ran the risk for Saddam that his enemies could misinterpret Iraq’s intent, confusing conventional with WMD attacks, as the Dimona story appears to illustrate.

The missiles also performed poorly. They were inaccurate and could only strike approximate geographical areas, not pinpoint targets as the Israelis demonstrated when they knocked out the Osirak reactor. The missile warheads tumbled as they approached target areas, sometimes exploding too soon before they struck the target. The Scuds lacked terminal guidance (later Russian-built Scuds have terminal guidance and stabilization for their warheads), and trajectories were generally predictable notwithstanding the tumbling of the missile warheads. Even so, the U.S. Patriot Air Defense system found it hard to destroy the Scuds, mostly because the Patriot warhead was undersized for the job and did not account for the wobbling incoming warheads. These weaknesses apparently have been corrected as a result of the Gulf War.

An Israeli researcher named Adam Golov at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies has analyzed tape recordings made by Saddam Hussein when he met with Iraqi officials and foreign visitors. Hussein had the same penchant for recording as have a number of American Presidents, a disease also shared by many other world leaders. One of the tapes, from April 1990, involved Hussein meeting with Yasser Arafat, then the PLO head. The tape, broadcast for the first time by Israel’s Channel 2 on January 24th 2014, has Saddam Hussein telling Arafat (four months before the Gulf War) that “Iraq has chemical weapons it has successfully used against the Iranians” and that Iraq “won’t hesitate to use them against Tel Aviv.” In another tape recorded in 1991 Hussein orders his vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri to launch missile strikes at Israel at night. Asked about targets, Hussein tells al-Douri that any Israeli city is a target. The tapes also show that Saddam regarded his chemical weapons as a trump card. If his regime was threatened, or if somehow Saddam was cut off from his general staff, missiles armed with chemical weapons should be launched at Israel at a variety of targets that included Israeli’s major scientific research institute, the Technion.

Saddam’s threats and the orders he gave were certainly understood by Israel and by the United States. His likely goal was to keep Israel out of the war, which was the same objective the U.S. had. One of his conduits, Yasser Arafat, was regarded as a good channel to alert the Israelis. His warnings, which are only part of the intelligence matrix, permitted Israel to prepare its population with kits that included gas masks and atropine injectors to protect against nerve gas. Israeli also created a program where safe rooms were put in place in every shelter in the country (called “sealed rooms”) and air raid alert sirens to warn of attacks. No other population in the world is so protected.

Saddam Hussein is no more. He was executed in Iraq on December 30th, 2006. Israel retains its civilian defense system, although with the apparent liquidation of the Syrian chemical arsenal, Israel has suspended the distribution of gas masks. The decision is not without controversy. Some doubt that Syria will get rid of all its chemical weapons. The Syrian government has already halted transit of chemical weapons out of the country on the claim that the roads are not safe from terrorists. There also is an unknown amount of chemical agents in the hands of Iraq’s insurgents, many of them radicals.

Iran continues to manufacture chemical weapons even though it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and ratified it in 1997. Libya got rid of most of its chemical weapons and all but one of its manufacturing plants, but stockpiles of weapons and shells were not liquidated. Some of them fell into the hands of Libyan insurgents, and others were transferred to al-Qaeda, as reported by the London Daily Telegraph and based on intelligence supplied by a Spanish intelligence official. Many other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have a chemical weapons capability. Even in the U.S. which has destroyed its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, research continues. The same is true of Russia and China.

We are a long way from ending the scourge of chemical weapons.

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