Legacy of Chemical Weapons in Iraq Compounds Lies and Failures of US Invasion

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Legacy of Chemical Weapons in Iraq Compounds Lies and Failures of US Invasion

New reporting by the New York Times show how the only chemical weapons found in Iraq—long-abandoned stockpiles dating back to the 1980's— don't in any way conform to the pre-invasion narrative used by the Bush administration to justify the war.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

These aren't the chemical weapons you're looking for.

New reporting from the New York Times, published online late Tuesday, reveals that although the administration of George W. Bush employed false claims of an active chemical weapons program to justify its 2003 invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq (no such program existed) – the reality is that some degraded stockpiles of weapons did exist inside the country.*

However, according to the Times, because those "abandoned" weapons dated back to the 1980's—when the U.S. and other western nations were acting as an ally to Iraq and supplying weapons and chemical agents to Hussein during his war against Iran—U.S. troops who ultimately came across these weapons and were ordered to destroy them were told to remain quiet about what they'd encountered, even as it put their own health and those of others in grave danger.

As the newspaper reports, former U.S. soldiers who participated in the disposal of such weapons during the long occupation of Iraq said the Bush administration, including the Pentagon, suppressed the existence of them for several reasons, "including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong."

“They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Jarrod Lampier, a recently retired Army major who was present for the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war, told the Times. His unit, he says, found more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a former Republican Guard compound, but said, “all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”

According to the Times:

The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims.

Then, during the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.

All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all. Some were empty, though many of them still contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin. Most could not have been used as designed, and when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents over a limited area, according to those who collected the majority of them.

In case after case, participants said, analysis of these warheads and shells reaffirmed intelligence failures. First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find.

As a result, Murtaza Hussain, a journalist with The Intercept, responded to the story by tweeting, "What is new from this story is the U.S. government under Bush was as cavalier about American lives as it was Iraqis."

What's more, according to the investigation, "In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies."

For those who interpreted the New York Times' revelations as somehow a vindication of the rationale that led to the 2003 U.S. invasion, The New Republic's Jessica Shulberg was among those quick to counter that emerging narrative.

"The debate over the legitimacy of the Iraq War was never about whether or not Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction at some point in history," Shulberg writes. "It is well known that Saddam Hussein used a variety of chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980sand the U.S., eager to see the destruction of the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran, aided him in creating the program."

She continues:

While Bush’s plea to the international community did not win the blessing of the U.N. Security Council, he used this rhetoric as the justification for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. He was not declaring war on a decades-old chemical weapons program, but on an alleged new and ongoing program that could be used to destroy mass civilian populations.

If the post-2003 discovery of a decaying chemical weapons program could serve as proof that the invasion was justified, the Bush White House would have seized the opportunity to proclaim so. By 2005, CIA weapons inspectors concluded in a 92-page report that the WMD investigation had “gone as far as feasible” and found no evidence of an active weapons program. The CIA report included an addendum: “military forces in Iraq may continue to find small numbers of degraded chemical weapons most likely misplaced or improperly destroyed before the 1991 Gulf War.” 

Bush’s approval ratings, which peaked at 70% during the March 2003 invasion, had plummeted to 48% by the time the CIA weighed in. The Administration could have used an example of, "Look, we were right!" But rather than tout the discovery of remnants chemical weapons from the 1980s, the Pentagon went to extreme lengths to cover it up. The harm these weapons posed to U.S. troops was unanticipated and the injuries they were suffering were an embarrassment. [...]

The existence of aging chemical weapons in Iraq was never the justification for Bush’s invasion, nor was it a secret. The secret was the harm that they were causing to U.S. troops and the subsequent failure to care for these individuals.

*This news brief has been updated from an earlier version for both context and clarity.

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