Last week’s New York Times article detailing the fact that, between 2004 and 2011, American troops in Iraq “secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs,” revealed a number of important flaws with the US government’s credibility when it comes to chemical weapons.
To begin with, the story doesn’t demonstrate that Iraq had a chemicals weapons program that justified the 2002 invasion. While the caches of weapons found by American forces are certainly dangerously toxic, they do not suggest that Saddam Hussein’s regime had an active program to develop a chemical warfare capability. The chemical weapons discovered in Iraq pre-date 1991 and appear to have been supplied by the United States and allied countries to support Saddam’s war against Iran.
Then there’s the question of, should we be concerned about chemical weapons falling into the hands of ISIS? The militant group controls the area around the ruins of the Muthanna State Establishment, the locus of Iraqi chemical weapons production in the 1980s, where many weapons were found. The public assessment by US officials is that it’s unlikely that “Sunni militants will be able to create a functional chemical weapon from the material. The weapons stockpiled at al-Muthanna complex are old, contaminated and hard to move.” It’s true that handling these weapons without proper precautions would be extremely hazardous. That being said, it is conceivable that a group like ISIS would throw caution to the wind and find ways to use toxic payloads. That would be a truly horrific consequence of the US playing fast and loose with the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
How did the US play fast and loose with these requirements?