Report Confirms Iraq Used Sarin in 1991

Michael Nguyen

U.S. investigators have confirmed that Iraq used chemical weapons to quash a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The information was uncovered by the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the task force established following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to determine the state of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, but was little noticed when the ISG issued its final three-volume report in September 2004.

The report marked the first outside confirmation that the regime had used chemical weapons to quell a growing 1991 insurgency. At the time, much of Iraq was in open revolt, the report notes, and the Iraqi regime was deeply shaken by the fall of Karbala to Shiite rebels. The report said the use of chemical weapons was an example of the “dire nature of the situation” and the regime’s “faith in ‘special weapons’” that it would consider using chemical weapons while coalition forces were still in Iraq.

Still, the scale of nerve weapon use by the Hussein regime against the Shiites in southern Iraq appears to be much smaller than a March 1988 chemical weapons attack against Kurds in northern Iraq or the regime’s use of chemical weapons during an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. Post-Gulf War restrictions imposed on Iraq after its defeat by a U.S.-led coalition may have limited the effectiveness of the attacks and prevented greater casualties, the report said.

The ISG uncovered the incident through interviews with several members of the Iraqi chemical weapons program. But public attention focused on the report’s broader conclusions that Iraq had destroyed its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, as well as eliminated its nuclear weapons program by the time of the invasion. (See ACT, November 2004.)

Hussein Kamel, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and then-head of the Military Industrial Commission, gave the order to ready chemical munitions for use. According to the report, Kamel’s first chemical agent choice was VX, a nerve agent. When informed that there was no VX available, the Iraqis selected sarin, another nerve agent, declining to use mustard gas because it was easily detectable.

Technicians from the Muthanna State Establishment (MSE), Iraq’s primary chemical weapons research, development, and production facility, mixed sarin components in R-400 aerial bombs at the Tamuz air base on March 7. MI-8 helicopters from nearby bases were armed with the R-400s and flew sorties against Shiite rebels near Karbala. One account from a senior official suggests that the helicopters dropped 10-20 sarin-filled bombs, although another account suggests that the total may have been as high as 32.

Although the report notes that Iraq had used the MI-8 helicopter in the 1980s to drop chemical munitions during the Iraq-Iran War, the R-400—an aerial bomb of Iraqi design—did not enter service until 1990. Originally designed for low-altitude, high-speed delivery of chemical and biological weapons by Iraq’s fighter aircraft, the R-400s “most likely did not activate properly when dropped from a slow moving helicopter,” according to the report. Cease-fire restrictions negotiated by the U.S.-led coalition at Safwan just days earlier prohibited Iraq from flying fixed-wing aircraft, although Iraq convinced the coalition to allow it to continue flying helicopters, supposedly to transport Iraqi officials.

Following an angry call to a senior chemical weapons official about the failure of the initial helicopter sorties, technicians at MSE filled several large aerial bombs with tear gas. According to the report, helicopters dropped up to 200 of these bombs on rebel targets near Karbala and Najaf. The report also notes that Iraq brought several trailers with mustard-filled aerial bombs to the base as well, although the bombs were never unloaded or used.

Each R-400 aerial bomb can hold approximately 90 liters of chemical agent, and its effective use would have probably caused substantial casualties, but it is not clear how many casualties can be attributed to the sarin use.

Ewen Buchanan, spokesperson for the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) said that the selection and bungled use of the sarin-filled R-400s made some sense from the regime’s perspective. “As the Iraqis explained to me, ‘beggars can’t be choosers,’ and the R-400s were likely what was available at the time,” he said, noting that UNMOVIC had not uncovered this incident during its investigation. “It was probably more important to use some kind of chemical weapon for its psychological effects on the enemy.”

By contrast, in the March 1988 attack, Iraq was free to use its full chemical weapons arsenal. Iraq used mustard gas, tabun, VX, and sarin against Kurds in Halabja in northern Iraq. About 5,000 deaths are directly attributable to the chemical weapons used, and another 10,000 people were blinded, maimed, or disfigured. The Iraqi Special Tribunal, established by the provisional Iraqi government in 2003 to try war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Ba`ath Party’s reign, has been investigating the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. The body will be responsible for the trials of Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” the general who allegedly ordered the use of chemical weapons.