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Iraqi Radiological Weapons Program Detailed

An Iraqi government report detailing Baghdad’s efforts to build a radiological weapon was made public at the end of April by the private Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. A radiological weapon does not involve a nuclear explosion but simply dispenses radioactive isotopes with conventional explosives.

Although the existence of Iraq’s radiological weapons program has been recognized for some time, the 1987 Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency report, which was turned over to the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) after the Persian Gulf War, provides details of Baghdad’s attempt to build and test a radiological weapon that were not previously available to the public. The Wisconsin Project obtained the report from an unnamed UN source and gave it to The New York Times, which reported on its contents April 29.

Iraq developed and reportedly tested a radiological bomb in late 1987 to achieve a means of “area denial” during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War. According to a December 1995 UNSCOM report—and confirmed by the leaked document—Iraqi scientists tested three prototype weapons. UNSCOM reported that the Iraqis characterized the test results as “disappointing” because most of the radioactive material did not disperse in a militarily useful way. Iraq told UNSCOM that the program had been “shelved” in mid-1988.

The Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Al-Douri, responded to the leaked document in a May 5 letter addressed to the UN secretary-general. Although admitting that “Iraqi specialists explored the technical and practical aspects” of a radiological device, “they ascertained that it was not feasible.” However, the letter directly refuted the charges in both the UNSCOM report and the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency document that the device was ever constructed or tested, noting that “the idea died, and no radiological bombs were manufactured and none were tested.”

Shortly before the Gulf War began in January 1991, the National Intelligence Council, in response to newspaper reports, concluded that while it would be feasible for the Iraqis “to build a functioning radiological weapon,” it would not be militarily significant: “It would create no special blast effect, and it could not cause widespread radiation sickness.”