"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
New Reports Cite Looting at Iraqi Sites; UNMOVIC Future Discussed

Paul Kerr

Equipment and materials related to Iraq’s former prohibited weapons programs are missing from the country, according to new reports. The revelations come as UN Security Council members have been conducting informal discussions regarding the future of the UN organization previously charged with overseeing such materials.

Earlier this month, Iraqi Deputy Minister of Industry Sami al-Araji provided new details about “sophisticated looting” of Iraqi weapons-related sites that had been subject to pre-war UN monitoring. Araji told the New York Times March 12 that unknown individuals had conducted an organized operation specifically targeting dual-use items, which included equipment capable of making components for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, as well as missiles.

Most of the looting took place between mid-April and mid-May 2003, Araji said.

A Feb. 28 report from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) supported Araji’s claims. Although UNMOVIC inspectors have not been able to carry out on-the-ground inspections since leaving Iraq just before the March 2003 invasion, satellite imagery has revealed that approximately 90 of 353 inspected weapons sites containing “equipment and materials of relevance have been stripped and/or razed.” UNMOVIC inspectors inspected 411 sites between November 2002 and March 2003.

UN Security Council Resolution 687, which was adopted after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, tasked the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and later UNMOVIC with inspecting and supervising the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles exceeding UN-permitted ranges. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had a comparable role for Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs. The United Nations withdrew all of its inspectors in December 1998, but Iraq allowed them to return in September 2002.

Both UNMOVIC and the IAEA have previously issued reports stating that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites had been destroyed and that weapons-related equipment had disappeared.

Araji said he had no evidence concerning the equipment’s whereabouts, but UNMOVIC has previously reported that weapons materials such as Iraqi missile engines have turned up in Jordan and the Netherlands.

Whither UNMOVIC?
UNMOVIC’s future has been uncertain since its inspectors left Iraq.

A spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations told Arms Control Today March 22 that Washington has been discussing UNMOVIC’s future with Baghdad for “quite some time” and recently “expanded” the discussion to the rest of the council. The spokesperson would not provide details regarding the discussions.

Acting UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Demetrius Perricos met with Security Council officials March 8 to discuss issues germane to UNMOVIC’s future.

A UNMOVIC official told Arms Control Today March 21 that one of the questions being discussed is the establishment of criteria to determine whether Iraq has met its disarmament obligations under the appropriate Security Council resolutions. The disarmament standards are unclear because several relevant resolutions remain in force and the Security Council has taken no action on the matter.

Perricos told the council that he is operating under the assumption that Resolution 687, as well as a May 2003 letter from the United States and United Kingdom, comprise the standards for Iraq’s obligations. Washington and London pledged in that letter “to act together to ensure the complete disarmament of Iraq,” per the relevant UN resolutions.

Describing one possible alternative, the UNMOVIC official said the commission could write a report synthesizing documentation from UNMOVIC and the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group, which took over the weapons hunt in May 2003 and essentially ended its search several months ago. (See ACT, March 2005.) The latter has so far shared only “bits and pieces” of information with the commission, the official said.

Additionally, according to the UNMOVIC official, some council members wish to devise a way of preserving the commission’s expertise, perhaps by maintaining it as a permanent organization. But no formal proposals have been offered, and the council remains divided on the question, the official said.

Iraq’s permanent representative to the UN Samir Sumaidaie told reporters Feb. 1 that Baghdad wants its inspections file closed. Baghdad, however, will accept “[w]hatever process is agreed upon to wind up this operation,” Samir said later that month.