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– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Iran-Iraq Chemical Warfare Aftershocks Persist

Alex Bollfrass

Almost two decades after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the conflict’s chemical weapons legacy lingers in the streets of Ramadi and in courtrooms throughout the world. Iranian, Kurdish, and U.S. victims of Iraq’s chemical weapons are seeking judicial redress. At the same time, the Iraqi special tribunal has sentenced three key perpetrators to death.

Revealing that the left-over dangers from eight years of that war have not ended, UN inspectors charged with verifying and monitoring Iraq’s disarmament warned in their latest report of the continuing threat that munitions and expertise left behind by the war still pose even as insurgents mount new types of chemical attacks.

Death Sentence for “Chemical Ali”

Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and top aide, was pronounced guilty on June 24 of ordering the use of chemical weapons during the dictator’s anti-Kurdish operation, a decision that earned him the nickname “Chemical Ali.” He was sentenced to death by hanging.

The so-called Anfal campaign lasted from late February to early September 1988. The prosecution alleged that the campaign destroyed approximately 2,000 villages and killed 180,000 people. The trial’s defendants claimed that it was a counter-insurgency operation and the Kurds were supporting the Iranian enemy. According to the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal’s verdict, the Anfal campaign constituted genocide, a war crime, and a crime against humanity.

During the Anfal campaign, Ali Hassan served as secretary-general of the Ba’ath Party’s northern bureau. He later oversaw the Kuwaiti occupation and was minister of the interior prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Two other high-ranking officials were also given the death penalty and another two received life sentences for their role in the attacks.

Complaints Collect in Dutch Courts

Iraq’s chemical warfare program relied on foreign suppliers, one of whom recently had his 15-year prison sentence extended another two years. The businessman Frans van Anraat had been convicted in December 2005 of complicity in war crimes for shipping more than 1,100 tons of thiodiglycol from a U.S. company to Iraq. The chemical was crucial in the production of the mustard gas used by the Ba’athists in their attacks on Kurds in 1987 and 1988, which included the Anfal campaign.

A Dutch appeals court increased Van Anraat’s sentence on May 9, arguing that he had been “driven by naked greed,” but it found the evidence insufficient to convict him of complicity in genocide. The appeals court also ruled that 15 Kurdish plaintiffs would not receive the €680 in damages that the lower court had awarded them.

These victims, however, are being represented in a separate upcoming civil case. The state prosecutor also is considering an appeal of the case to the Netherlands’ high court in hopes of establishing van Anraat’s complicity in genocide.

The Iranian government will be filing its own legal claims in the matter. Iranian news sources reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi announced May 12 in Tehran that his government would be launching suits against Iraq’s Western chemical suppliers and that it had created a dossier on the subject.

Iranian diplomats contacted by Arms Control Today did not respond to requests for details. It appears that the first suit will be brought in the Netherlands, in connection with the van Anraat case.

During the war, Iran developed its own chemical weapons program and supplier network in response to Iraqi attacks. One Israeli supplier, Nahum Manbar, is on the verge of release from prison in that country. He was sentenced to 16 years in 1998 but is likely to be released soon, pending the state attorney’s request for Israeli intelligence to vet if Manbar’s release would pose a threat. Two of Iran’s suppliers have also served jail sentences in the United States.

U.S. Veterans’ Suit Wilting

The Iranian lawsuits are starting just as U.S. Persian Gulf War veterans’ quest for compensation is trickling to a halt. The U.S. military blew up Iraqi ammunition depots containing chemical weapons agents and may have inadvertently exposed its own soldiers to toxic fallout. The class action lawsuit targeting alleged Western chemical suppliers to Hussein’s government, originally filed in 1994, has failed to gain traction in U.S. and European courts.

The class action complaint comprises some 3,000 plaintiffs, but its list of defendants has dwindled from 46 businesses to two companies. The lead attorney in the case, Gary Pitts, told Arms Control Today June 15 that he has been unable to establish proper jurisdiction over the mostly European companies in the United States, despite their U.S. subsidiaries.

As an American, Pitts has been unable to file in the national courts of the major suppliers: Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Some of the biggest suppliers to Iraq were German, but Germany’s judiciary rules do not permit consolidated lawsuits. This means that each plaintiff would need to file separate suits against each company.

Pitts said the “heavy players” had escaped punishment. One of the two remaining defendants, Alcolac Inc., was previously convicted of violating U.S. export laws in 1989 for supplying van Anraat with the thiodiglycol that he sold to the Iraqis. Kellogg, the other company, built an ammonia facility in Iraq but was not listed in the detailed records of its chemical weapons program that Iraq gave to the United Nations.

Another setback for the case has been the disappearance of a key witness, Alaa al-Saeed. He headed the Iraqi chemical weapons program at al-Muthanna, the largest chemical weapons facility under the Ba’athist government, and had agreed to testify in the case.

On his way to a new Iraqi government post in the Science Ministry, al-Saeed was kidnapped in March and is still believed to be in captivity. A representative of the U.S. embassy in Iraq confirmed to Arms Control Today June 17 that its Office of Hostage Affairs had an open file on al-Saeed but declined to provide details.

UNMOVIC Issues Warning of Lingering Expertise, Materials

In addition to occupying judges with questions of guilt and compensation, the war’s consequences still pose threats to the lives of people in Iraq. The UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) recently warned about the danger of an escalation in chemical attacks in Iraq. In their May 29 report to the Security Council, the commissioners noted that at least 10 insurgent attacks have killed dozens and injured hundreds of individuals. It observes that the situation is aggravated by the presence of a past program’s materials and expertise.

These attacks involved the dispersion of widely available chlorine gas with conventional explosives. The report, addressing the period between the beginning of March and the end of May, alerts the Security Council that hundreds of individuals in Iraq have experience in producing and delivering chemical weapons. The supply of these scientists’ expertise and insurgents’ demands for deadly weaponry presents a dangerous combination.

Another risk factor mentioned in the report is the existence of procurement networks that can acquire chemical precursors for weapons. UNMOVIC says that despite Security Council resolutions mandating that any dual-use chemicals imported into Iraq must be reported to it, UNMOVIC has received no such information since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Consequently, weapons-usable chemicals can be shipped into Iraq with impunity.

Dual-use-chemical production equipment exists in Iraq, providing the infrastructure for small-scale production of chemical weapons. UNMOVIC points out that those interested in using chemical weapons could improvise primitive delivery systems to reach their targets.

The report also noted the possible existence of pre-1991 chemical weapons. Mustard gas-filled artillery shells may be particularly dangerous because the agent is unlikely to have deteriorated in potency. The remaining nerve-agent warheads are less of a direct threat because of probable degradation, but they may still pose a health hazard, according to the Iraq inspection agency.

The agency was disbanded June 29 before it could take action on removing these threats. Legal consequences from the Iran-Iraq War, on the other hand, will be rippling through the courts for the indefinite future.