Facility containing disused stores of sarin and mustard gas overrun by jihadist group
Isis invaded the al-Muthanna mega-facility 60 miles north of Baghdad in a rapid takeover that the US government said was a matter of concern.
The facility was notorious in the 1980s and 1990s as the locus of Saddam’s industrial scale efforts to develop a chemical weapons development programme.
Isis has shown ambitions to seize and use chemical weapons in Syria leading experts to warn last night that the group could turn to improvised weapons to carry out a deadly attack in Iraq.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of Britain’s chemical weapons regiment, said that al-Muthanna has large stores of weaponized and bulk mustard gas and sarin, most of which has been put beyond ready use in concrete stores.
US officials revealed that the group had occupied the sprawling site which has two bunkers encased in a concrete seal. Much of the sarin is believed to be redundant.
“We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by the [Isis],” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said. “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.”
During its peak in the late 1980s to early 1990s, Iraq produced bunkers full of chemical munitions.
A CIA report on the facility said that 150 tons of mustard were produced each year at the peak from 1983 and pilot-scale production of Sarin began in 1984.
Its most recent description of al-Muthanna in 2007 paints a disturbing picture of chemicals strewn throughout the area.
“Two wars, sanctions and UN 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,” it said.
“Some of the bunkers contained large quantities of unfilled chemical munitions, conventional munitions, one-ton shipping containers, old disabled production equipment and other hazardous industrial chemicals.”
Britain has previously acknowledgeded that the nature of the material contained in the two bunkers would make the destruction process difficult and technically challenging.
Under an agreement signed in Baghdad in July 2012, experts from the MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory were due to provide training to Iraqi personnel in order to help them to dispose of the chemical munitions and agents.
Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during the Iran – Iraq War (1980 to 1988) and against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
One US official told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that Isis fighters could be contaminated by the chemicals at the site.
“The only people who would likely be harmed by these chemical materials would be the people who tried to use or move them,” the military officer said.